How I’m Raising a Freethinker
Being raised in northern Minnesota by two devout fundamentalist Christian parents there were no two ways about it: I was going to grow up Fundamentalist Christian.
I was raised in it, got confirmed in it, made all my friends in it, got married twice to someone in the church (and divorced twice). After my second divorce six years ago, I had a choice: Raise my son the same way, or leave the church that brought me so much anxiety and try to help my son discover his own spirituality.
My son (now nearly eight) from a young age saw the difference between me and his father. He received very different messages from each of us. I panicked initially — I didn’t want my son to be brainwashed by the church like I was. But on the flip side, I didn’t want to heavily influence him in any way, even with my own agnosticism.
I realized I didn’t just want to raise an agnostic kid, I wanted to raise a freethinker.
I want my boy to be free to choose.
If you’re not from a hardcore religion like fundamentalism, you may not understand the depth of brainwashing and conditioning that’s involved. I was taught there was only one way to believe. I was taught and told repeatedly, through sermon and song, (i.e. brainwashing) that my life here on earth was only a means to an end: To get to Heaven. And if I strayed from this way of believing, I would most definitely go to hell. So leaving this small, insular religious community was like leaving a cult.
My life on earth is a misery
My flesh is bound, but my soul is free
For Jesus died on Calvary
Now Heaven is my home
Songs with verses like that, literally hundreds, still echo in my mind sometimes.
Basically, reminders that you and your life are worthless. Instructing you to feel guilty because Jesus died for you. Just get through life, and you’ll have eternity to celebrate.
I didn’t want my son to think his life should be a misery. What these religious sects are doing borders on abuse, and some would say it is abuse. I can’t disagree.
But I also can’t bash someone else’s belief system, because that’s exactly the kind of disrespect I wouldn’t want for choosing my own path — and the behavior I model is what my son will learn.
So here are some ways I frame my thoughts around parenting my son, who still attends my ex-church with my ex-husband.
I try to remember: There’s time.
It seemed, in my initial panic, I had to turn this fundamentalist ship around, stat. The first time my son told me his dad said people who don’t believe in God will go to hell, I wanted to kidnap my sweet boy and disappear with him. That was about four years ago, and since then I have realized time is on our side. Nobody forms a belief overnight. There is time to have conversations, gain life experiences, and ultimately time to relax.
I’ve allowed my son the freedom to think.
Sounds simple, right? But I never had that freedom around religion. Having one parent who isn’t forcing a belief on him has given my son the wiggle-room in his brain to question, to look around, to think for himself.
I talk about my beliefs — and I own them.
I openly share my beliefs — as my own. I don’t say ‘Think of it this way.’ I don’t hype anything. I don’t push. I just share as things come up. And honestly, oftentimes I don’t know what I believe — and I share that, too.
I admit I don’t know.
And I let my son hear me say it. I don’t believe it’s possible to know how and why we are here on this planet — and I’m ok with that. It’s discomfort with that concept that leads to wanting answers, which leads to stories… i.e. religion.
I answer his questions honestly — and ask what he thinks.
And boy, does he have questions. That’s ok, I just answer them, again and again, as best I can — and I always turn it around and ask what he thinks. I want him to learn to turn to himself for answers, to check in with his own intuitive intelligence, his own compass, and to trust himself. Not me, not a minister, not another fearful human.
I try to model gratitude.
Being alive is a gift. Cancer showed me that. Every day I spend with my boy I comment on something positive about the day… It’s a cozy day to stay inside… a beautiful day to be outside and smell the fresh air… so glad we’re strong and we can ride our bikes… look at this delicious food we get to eat. Being on earth is not a misery. Sure, hard times come. But I want to cultivate a positive spirit, not a death march mentality.
I seek adventure and exploration.
It’s not that we didn’t travel when I was growing up, but there wasn’t a sense of embracing the unknown. I want my son to grow up curious and seeking to explore his community, his country and the world. And to not be fearful of ‘losing his faith’ if he does so.
I model respect for other’s beliefs.
Varying religious beliefs abound, and I want my son to know that respecting other people and their choices is important. That starts with his dad. As much as I dislike the religion I was raised in, which his father still participates in — that’s not my choice. And I tell my son that. Kindness and respect are expectations I have for myself and for our family.
I admit I have changed my mind.
I want my son to know that he doesn’t have to “decide.” He can take in all of these different ideas and eventually decide—or never decide—what he believes. Taking that pressure off not only visibly helped him, but it helped (and continues to help) me.
I remind my son he’s worthy, just as he is.
He will still hear that he’s only safe if he believes Jesus died for his sins. He will hear that his life will only be full of strife. So I try to counter that by letting him know he doesn’t have to do anything. He is a worthy human being just as he is. Beliefs or no beliefs. And so am I.
So far, it’s working. And by that, I mean my son is wonderfully curious, open-minded, and respectful. He’s calm about his spirituality. He knows that he’s the owner of his mind and body. He’s positive. He craves travel and adventure — and we can’t wait to travel once things open up again. Because this life on earth isn’t a misery, it’s a gift.
A book that I only recently found is Raising Freethinkers by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor.
Are you also raising a freethinker? What tips do you have for me? I’d love to hear from you.