Home » Atheist and Catholic » How do beliefs inform your parenting? {An Atheist and a Catholic}

Well, here we are, back again after a brief hiatus (which was totally my fault). 

An Atheist and a Catholic

Brittany on how beliefs inform her parenting:

As someone who doesn’t believe in the universe balancing things out or in an afterlife, it’s up to people to make things fair. When you don’t believe that suffering is rewarded in the next life or that criminals will get punished, there’s a lot more impetus on doing good deeds. Of course, as a parent of a toddler, my beliefs are influencing my plans more than my practices, but I’ve done a pretty good job so far of following through on my intentions.

One way that my beliefs manifest in my parenting plans is emphasizing charity. My son isn’t old enough yet, but I’m hoping to bring him along to service events as a participant (instead of as a spectator), encourage him to give away possessions he doesn’t need or use, and incorporate charity into parties. I started with his first birthday party, which raised $150 for cancer research on behalf of his great grandmother, who passed away from leukemia while his dad was still a kid himself.

Another implication is fairness. Life isn’t fair, but people can be. I expect my kids to share, take turns, and be thankful. I hope that they’ll be prosocial: cooperative, selfless, and compassionate. The flipside of fairness that makes it fairness, not meekness, is that I will encourage them to stand up for themselves and others. Even if that means defying authorities or getting into an argument. Even if it means arguing with me.

I only have one child, but we already disagree occasionally, and that’s fine. I don’t expect blind obedience. Right now, Thomas doesn’t have a ton of ways to communicate. Sometimes he resorts to screeching or hitting. I don’t reward that, especially the hitting/pinching, but I do see it as communication, and not disobedience. When he’s a grade schooler, we’ll no doubt discuss activities and foods that are appropriate for him. When he’s a teenager, we’ll be negotiating curfews, responsibilities, and privileges. Being a nonbeliever, and a freethinker, means tolerating disagreements and responding rationally. I’ll teach him to be critical of arguments, but not of people.

Sarah, in reply:

I didn’t think about my beliefs informing my parenting until Brittany proposed this topic. And, honestly, I battled just throwing up my hands and giving up before I even started.

And that might tell you a lot about how my beliefs inform my parenting, huh? I’m a quitter by nature. I would rather just stop while I’m ahead, write off what I’ve lost and call it good, and go.

In other words, I’m the ultimate slacker.

And yet, there is hope. For me and for my children and even for my family.

How do I know this?

Because I haven’t quit yet.

And I haven’t quit yet because of my faith, because of the assurance that there is more to existence than just the black hole that is in my own head.

For me, there is no good answer to “Why?” without my faith. I can’t look at my children and say that sharing is good for the greater humanity and yet still be bad for them. I can’t explain a longer viewpoint beyond myself.

My faith has also informed my ability to reconcile the fact that people are not logical and rational, that they have the pesky passions and then the will. And those two—passion and will—are insurmountable to me without my faith.

Read all the posts in the An Atheist and a Catholic series here.

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  • literacy-chic

    I wonder if, when Brittany makes the distinction between “communication” and “disobedience,” that this seems like a particularly important distinction as an atheist? That is, are “obedience” and “disobedience” so religiously charged that to see something as disobedience rather than communication seems like a characteristic of a certain worldview and parenting that is and has been defined by that (religious) worldview.

    I do think that parents tend to think in terms of disobedience more often than they should, particularly with infants and toddlers. The idea that a baby who is crying, or who needs particular attention at bedtime is being “bad” or “wilful” is something that I put down to one of the “religions of parenting” if you will. But I can see how thinking in terms of child disobedience–that post-lapsarian children are inherently disobedient–has come down to us in a sanitized form even in contemporary childrearing. Being rational and deliberate in childrearing is certainly important.

    But… (and Sarah knew that the BUT was coming…) I can’t help thinking of the very fact that Catholicism acknowledges an age of reason, before which a child does not participate fully in the Sacraments because she or he does not have the capacity to understand, acknowledge, and accept them. And then there’s the question of Reconciliaton (Confession). A child who is not aware that he or she is committing an act of disobedience can’t very well be required to Confess one. And that age in our Diocese is 8 years–which is well above the age at which many parents and doctors and parenting experts expect children to be accountable for their actions.

    I will say that the concept of religious disobedience is one that requires a lot more sophistication of thought and self-awareness than simply knowing that you objectively broke a rule with consequences, so I’m not advocating witholding punishment until the age of 8! 😉 But I do think that there is implicit acknowledgment inherent in the Catholic approach to teaching children that a child develops into the capacity for deliberate wrongdoing, whether our natures incline us to do so or not. How that translates into parenting philosophies is a different question, but I am reminded of how *very* Catholic was Maria Montessori!

    Thanks for the ideas this morning!

    • Thank YOU for the ideas, LC!

    • Debbie D

      I agree, LC…babes can’t disobey. I tell new ‘parents’ that in the beginning, their job isn’t to ‘parent’ but to Love and Care!

    • Brittany Shoots-Reinhard

      That’s a very good point, thanks for sharing. I don’t want to point fingers at certain religious groups, but I’m a HUGE fan of Libby Anne over on Patheos, who was raised in the Quiverfull movement and the parenting ideas of Mike and Debbi Pearl (and can I just say, YIKES). I think because they use scripture to justify what many people would consider child abuse, (atheist) people sometimes forget that not all Christians have similar ideas.

      In this case, I’ve got the atheism and the psychology that back up the distinction between disobedience and communication. So I’m not sure if it’s the psychologist in me or the atheist in me who wants to make that strong distinction. I can say that we certainly are teaching our son about consequences. I think that you bring up a great point: just because you view bad behavior as communication or exploration doesn’t mean you don’t teach your child a more effective way of communicating. Or about what happens when you dump Mom-Mom’s entire mug of lukewarm coffee on yourself and her computer after she’s told you over and over not to touch the coffee, It’s funny, and I don’t know if it’s true of every child, but our son responds much better to expressions of disappointment and sadness than anger. Anger is actually reinforcing because he thinks it’s funny when we’re loud or look mad. It’s really good training for me, too, because I have a temper, and expressing disappointment is a much more effective way of responding to someone being bad, because I can calmly explain rather than being loud and grouchy.

      Sarah and I have talked at length about the things that the Catholic church does that are backed up by psychology, and I’ll have to add the age of first confession/reason to that list. In case you’re curious, others that come to mind are Lenten sacrifices as a way of breaking bad habits or starting good ones, the priest-parishioner relationship as similar to that between a therapist and client (some mental illnesses seem to be treatable by “talk therapy,” irrespective of its flavor), and the relatively late age of confirmation (although the grumpy old aunt in me thinks my little nieces are far too young for all of these milestones like driving and boyfriends and high school and confirmation and being taller than me).

      • You know, Brittany, in reading your responses, I can’t help but think that you get the “facts” of Catholicism so well. 🙂

        The other side of the story for me is the deep peace that comes from all of this. It’s not rational. It’s not explainable (at least not by me). But it’s there, thanks to the sacraments. (I’m sure psychology has an explanation. However, in years of talk therapy, I *never* had the peace I have from sacramental confession.)

        And I am VERY afraid to read about that Quiverfull thing. (It’s bad, right? No, I’m NOT going to google it. You can tell me about it next time I see you. I’m scaaaaared!)

        • Brittany Shoots-Reinhard

          Not unless you want to be either very mad or very sad. Very bad people have used the Pearls’ teachings to justify abuse that resulted in deaths, so you will not find very nice stories.

          Absolution is a powerful thing 🙂

  • Debra D

    Brittany, I have a question/concern. I know it’s so difficult to determine what the intent is with the written word, so I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here, and I hope you will afford me the same courtesy.

    You used the phrase, “Being a nonbeliever, and a freethinker”…I hope that you are not implying that people of Faith are not Freethinkers.

    • Brittany Shoots-Reinhard

      Well, that’s why I used “and.” 🙂

      However, most Freethought organizations and groups are going to have a strong if not total overlap with Atheism. I can’t speak to the proportion of people in either believing or nonbelieving groups that are Freethinkers in truth, though. Being rational and fair and thoughtful aren’t exactly things that humans are capable of being without effort. A lot of nonbelievers like to think that they’re automatically smarter and more rational because they don’t believe in God, so I understand why you’d be concerned that I’m implying that.

      The best any of us can do is try to be aware of the limitations to our thinking, knowledge, and experience, and try to compensate as best we can.

      Thanks for keeping me honest!

      • Amanda Collins

        Freethinkers is a common term used to describe atheists and agnostics. I’ve never heard it used to explain those who have a belief system.

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