Friday, July 13, 2007

Childrearing -- One Unbeliever's Ramble

About the time Big Mischief was born, I formulated three principles of childrearing:

1. I should teach my child how to take care of herself. This means I am more of a guide and coach. At best, I am merely a steward of her independence and her sexuality. She is dependent on me, but there is no reason to rub her face in that fact or to use it in attempts to control her.

2. I want her to want to spend time with her parents when she doesn't have to.

3. I want her to be someone that her mother and I will want to spend time with, when we don't have to.

Arguably these are more criteria than principles. Criteria are useful for decision. But they do provide a perspective and a reminder of how to deal with those two little half-civilized monkeys.

But, alas, as all things planned and foreseen, my three principles provide little guidance in specific situations. Bottle or breast? When should they begin the transition to real food? When should they find out where babies come from?

In in the end, it always comes back to the same things: Mom, childrearing books [note plural], and commonsense. My wife & I both like the "What to expect..." series. What sold us was a comment on Amazon: the authors explained everything in detail, both the good and the bad. The commentor complained that she worried because now she knew all of the bad things that could happen. My wife and I both prefer to know about the unlikely things that could happen. If one of the Mischiefs is running a high fever, I get out the books and read about fevers -- just in case there was something that I overlooked or forgot about. If in doubt we're off to the dr or the emergency room.

Dealing with a seriously ill child is probably the most nerve-wracking part of being a parent. There are no certainties at 2am. It's a more extreme case of everyday life. A person can only make decisions based on the information available to them. The hard thing to remember is that any decision can be second-guessed after the fact.

Paralysis by doubt is always possible, "faith" or no "faith." One needs to engage one's doubts in conversation as it were. Doubt must produce its reasons, and if reasons are not forthcoming, then it is to be resisted until it produces its reasons. Or until it becomes apparent what is motivating the doubt: fear, anger, but usually it's fear of something.

* * *

Big Mischief and I made a deal once upon a time: "Try one bite, and I'll leave you alone about it." The result is that today she'll try just about anything. She's not afraid of new foods. Of course, there is a responsibility on my part to offer her things to try that I'm pretty sure that she'll like. No jalapeƱos, no hot sauce, and the like. Little Mischief is more resistant to trying new things. I'll have to check whether she tries something new only after her sister tries it. Does Little Mischief use her older sister as a food taster and poison detector?

As far as her reading goes. I think we've bought less than 10 books new for the Mischiefs. However, at yard sales and thrift stores, I always peruse the children's books looking for something new or unusual. The result is that now they have dozens and dozens of books of different stories, different illustration styles, and even some science for kids books.

The reason I have prattled on about this is to illustrate a strategy for nonbelievers of how to deal with religion in the Bible Belt. It is my hope that if the Mischiefs have the recurring experience of a discovering and encountering a variety of perspectives and new experiences, it will inoculate them against the original sin of religiosity: placing a high value on the opinions of people who agree with them.

My hope is that even if they go through a religious phase, it will get too boring PDQ. From what I've seen of Evangelicals, they are not the most health conscious in their diet and life-style choices. Did I mention that I can bribe her with brussel sprouts and broccoli? If her food preferences are any indication of what's to come, she'll avoid gatherings of Evangelicals just because of the food.

Being a nonbeliever, the question of childrearing is how can parents significantly increase the likelihood of healthy skepticism in their children? Part of the answer has to be variety: variety in diet, variety in reading, and exposure to variety. With exposure to variety, the child has to be encouraged to make its own mind about its preferences. I am no partisan of relativism, meaning that stupidity of refusing to acknowledge one's own preferences.

The last more or less random thought about childrearing is that children present a caricature of their parents. Children are not as sophisticated or experienced as their parents. Consequently, they are not very good at imitation, and they don't know which behaviors and traits they should copy from their parents. To the extent that parents value reason, rationality, kindness, and things of the spirits (as my German friends might say), the greater the likelihood that their children will also.

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