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Being a Humanist Parent
Submitted by admin on 15 January, 1999 - 06:26
Jane Wynne Willson
Vice President, IHEU
Being a Humanist Parent
(talk at the IHEUs World Humanist Congress, Mumbai, Jan. 1999)
My views on humanist parenting derive almost entirely from my own experience as a humanist daughter, wife, mother and grandmother- and as a teacher. The book I wrote last year was a personal approach to the subject. It is about the practice, not the theory, of being a humanist parent, and certainly does not set out to tell humanists how they should be bringing up their children.
Parenting and the status of children is a large and very important subject. All I hope to do in this short talk is to air a few thoughts which will, I hope, provoke some discussion.
Is there anything special about being a humanist parent?
I've tried to clarify this in my own mind by dividing the whole subjects into 3 areas:
- issues where the humanist approach is totally different;;
- issues where in practical terms there is no difference; and
- the area in between these two extremes which is not so clear
as the first category, but where the approach may be rather different.
An obvious example of the first category is how parents seek to explain death to young children. In the second group I would put many of the day to day dealings between parent and child. In such dealings the basic beliefs of the parent are irrelevant and it is more a matter of good child-rearing practice. It is the third more nebulous area - where humanist beliefs are likely to affect the parent's approach to child rearing - that I'd like to look at briefly today. I should be most interested to have some reaction to what are my own personal views and thoughts.
The story of Eddie
I'll tell you a short story. One of my nine grandchildren, Eddie, is four years old. A few weeks ago - shortly before Christmas - he was ill with an unpleasant skin infection. The doctor had prescribed an antibiotic to be taken every four hours. It was pink medicine with a horrible taste. When it was time for one of the doses, for some reason Eddie decided to be awkward. He made a frightful scene.
My son, Peter, tried every method - he explained, persuaded, had the chocolate ready to give him afterwards - to no avail. "My body wants to but my mind won't let me" - or words to that effect - was Eddie's rather pitiful explanation.
Peter was in a fix. In the end he decided to exploit Eddie's rather blurred distinction between fact and fiction, for he is a child who lives in a world of monsters and supermen. "What a pity" he said. "You know some people think that Father Christmas only comes to children who behave sensibly." The sobs subsided, Eddie opened his mouth, and the medicine was taken without further ado.
Do you think that Peter, as a parent, was right to do as he did? My own view is that he was fully justified. You may have noticed that he didn't actually compromise his own integrity. By saying "some people think..." he didn't put his own view as to whether or not Father Christmas was a reality and if Eddie was putting his own Christmas at risk by not behaving sensibly.
(The phrase 'Some people think' is one that children in humanist families often hear. They learn early that different people believe different things.)
As a parent, surely his first responsibility was to the well being of his child. His approach
worked. He had avoided using force or threatening dire punishment.
This story about Eddie is not a particularly earth-shaking story, but I think t it is a good example of an episode belonging in what I have called the 'nebulous' area.
Would a religious parent have acted differently?
It would be absurd to label all religious parents as disciplinarians, but I do think that, in Peter's position, a religious parent might well have said "Swallow this medicine because I say so ..." or "If you don't behave sensibly I'll have to make you take it". I am simply suggesting that a more authoritarian approach to parenting is more likely to be found in religious families.
Obviously there are many exceptions, but by and large parents who have themselves been brought up in a strict religious home are used to the presence of a father figure (or a god) whom they fear and obey. This can easily and probably quite unconsciously be transferred to their attitude to their own children.
I repeat that it would be ridiculous to say that all religious parents are disciplinarians. But they may have a tendency towards that. I would suggest that a humanist family is more likely to be one where issues are discussed freely; where children are given reasons and choices, whenever possible; and where their rights as individuals are fully respected within sensibly agreed guidelines.
In my view, a humanist approach to child rearing can and should provide a healthy environment in which children can develop into morally aware and responsible adults.