A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief
Authors: Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, Jan Devor
Pub Date: February 2009
Print Edition: $17.95
Print ISBN: 9780814410967
Page Count: 288
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814410974
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CHAPTER 1: The Inquiring Mind
How does white milk come from a red cow?
Why doesn’t the sun fall down?
How is it that all rivers flow into the ocean without ever filling it?
These questions, which could have come from any child today, are from the Rig
Veda, a 3000-year-old Hindu text—and wondering and questioning are surely
much older still. Early Homo sapiens, endowed with the same cranial capacity
as your Aunt Diane,1 had to be asking similar questions 125,000 years ago.And
once oral language developed sufficiently to share these thoughts, parents and
others around a child would have had to respond, one way or another, to the
endless stream of questions.
It’s the human impulse to wonder and ask questions that eventually gave
birth to both religion and science, two different ways of responding to the
same challenge: an overdeveloped neocortex hungry for answers.
In preparing to write this book, I plunged into the current parenting literature
from many perspectives, including religious parenting books. Some
are very sound, like the well-grounded work of Christian parenting author Dr.
William Sears. Some are mixed, including (to my admitted surprise) James
Dobson, who serves up some solid parenting advice along with his unfortunate
enthusiasm for corporal punishment, gender stereotypes, and homophobia.
But if book sales and general prominence are any measure, one parenting
author has had more to say about questioning and the life of the mind than any
other: author and televangelist Joyce Meyer. Meyer has sold over a million
copies of a book called Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind,
for which this passage can serve as an encapsulation:
I once asked the Lord why so many people are confused and He said to me,
“Tell them to stop trying to figure everything out, and they will stop being
confused.” I have found it to be absolutely true. Reasoning and confusion go together.
In 2006, Meyer issued a version of Battlefield of the Mind for teens, including passages
I was totally confused about everything, and I didn’t know why. One thing that
added to my confusion was too much reasoning.
This mantra comes back again and again in her advice, in millions of books and
throughout her broadcasting empire: Don’t even start thinking. Most troubling of all is
the attempt to make kids fear their own thoughts—right at the age they should be
challenging and questioning in order to become autonomous adults:
Ask yourself, continually, “WWJT?” [What Would Jesus Think?] Remember, if He
wouldn’t think about something, you shouldn’t either. . . . By keeping continual
watch over your thoughts, you can ensure that no damaging enemy thoughts creep
into your mind. (from Battlefield of the Mind for Teens)
Many progressive religious parents are outraged by Meyer’s “fearthought” approach.
But even those of us who don’t consciously sign on to this kind of thinking must look it
squarely in the eye—because it’s in our cultural blood.Most of us were raised in homes
that were religious to some degree, and many of us carry remnants of these fearful ideologies
into our own parenting.Whether we are religious or nonreligious, our attitudes toward
questioning and moral development too often include some undercurrent of anxiety
and mistrust, the unspoken feeling that our primary job as parents is to stave off a
bubbling depravity that lurks just below the surface of our children.
“When University of Texas
sociologists John P. Bartkowski
and Christopher G. Ellison compared
dozens of secular parenting
books with conservative
Protestant parenting manuals,
they found that a literal interpretation
of the Bible’s childrearing
advice contributed directly
to a worship of authority in all
spheres of life, including the political.
. . . They also found that
conservative evangelical parenting
gurus disagreed with
mainstream counterparts on virtually
every issue. According
to their study, secular, sciencebased
parenting advice emphasizes
empathy, cooperation, creativity,
curiosity, egalitarian relations
between parents, nonviolent
discipline, and self-direction.
Conservative Protestants, on the
other hand, stress a tightly hierarchical
family structure and a
gendered division of labor, with
a breadwinning father at the top
of the pyramid and children at
--Jeremy Adam Smith, senior
editor, Greater Good magazine
In this chapter, I hope to make the case that this trembling view of human
nature is simply not borne out by the best of our knowledge.We will focus on
the moment of the question, a moment that is the foundation of freethought
parenting, encouraging an approach that holds no question unaskable and no
I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might
produce to baffle my kids. I want them to find hilariously silly the idea that certain
lines of thought cannot even be pursued, lest they be caught. That requires
a certain amount of parental self-discipline. It requires the ability, for example, to
not paint the far wall with soup when the 5-year-old asks if monkeys have vaginas,
or why black people have big lips, or who will put her blankie on her grave
when she dies—all three of which have come up at our dinner table. It requires
a firm conviction that there is no rock that can’t be upended if you think there
might be something under it.And, of course, there always, always might.
Let’s begin with a conversation about wonder and curiosity, the incentives
that drive questioning, then dive into the art, science, and joy of questioning
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