How to Discipline Your Children Without God

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When Deborah Mitchell posted an article on iCNN about why she doesn’t raise her children with religion, it became a viral sensation.

Now, she’s written a complete guide to atheist parenting. It’s called Growing Up Godless and it’s full of nearly 100 short essays on tackling the various obstacles atheist parents face in a predominantly religious world.

In the excerpt below, Mitchell talks about how to discipline your children when they’re not raised to believe God is watching over them:

How do you discipline children after you take God out of the equation? One parent told me that, when he took his two kids to church, he expected the church to teach his son and daughter morals and discipline, especially when it came to sex. It’s just easier to push these parental responsibilities off onto an institution that already has a structure in place to teach morality and discipline. The parent then becomes an agent of the church, reinforcing its teachings at home. But that is merely shrugging off our duties as parents by allowing religion to step in and indoctrinate our children.

There is no doubt that it is easier to team up with God, the guy many children have been taught to fear. God can see and do anything, including give eternal life and take it away. Yet these are just threats: An invisible deity is watching you, and if you’re not “good,” you will go to hell as a result. You will live in pain. Forever.

When we teach morals and discipline to our own children without religion, it takes a lot more effort, but we help our kids strengthen their own moral structure. Rather than telling children, “This is not how God expects you to behave,” we tell them, “This is not how I expect you to behave — and you should expect more from yourself, too.” As parents, we have to talk — a lot. We have to listen — a lot. We have to problem-solve and decide when to look the other way and let things slide, when to let things go with just a talk and when to impose some sort of punishment. It’s not easy. I have made a lot of mistakes. None of us are perfect parents. What redeems us is that we love our children and are trying our best; when we let them down or fall short, we get back up and try to do better.

What is discipline? It’s simply guiding children toward more appropriate behaviors. It has nothing to do with teaching or judging feelings — only actions. Unlike religion, we want to avoid personal attacks or judgments of character: Children are not dirty; they are not sinful; they were not born bad or evil.

Yet kids are born with certain tendencies, and their disposition has nothing to do with us as moms and dads. Some kids are easier to parent, and some are more difficult. Some understand the need for rules, while others see rules as a challenge, as a curb on their freedom. Keep on trying, knowing that your job as a parent means that you hang in there and encourage your kids to become the best they can be. Before you know it, they’ll be eighteen and headed off on their own.

Hold tightly, but not too tightly. Have a lot of patience. Ask yourself: Would I want to be disciplined for that? Spilling a drink is no big deal. Spilling a drink after you asked your child not to bring it to his room is, obviously, a different issue. When we ask our kids to do something, give them a little time before they must “hop to it,” but not so much time that they seem to have ignored us. We have to teach kids to be internally motivated not just to do the right thing, but to do things at the right times.

Here are a few other suggestions:

  • For young children (up to two years old), diversion and distraction are the best ways to redirect them. Lecturing or discipline at that age isn’t very helpful.
  • Point out the consequences of their actions. Hitting hurts me — see the red mark? Throwing balls inside the house breaks my favorite figurine from Aunt Helen.
  • I don’t believe in spanking, but I know some feel strongly that it is a good tool for children younger than ten, as long as it is not done out of anger and is only administered to the bottom.
  • Avoid character attacks. (For example, “You’re lazy.”) Instead, offer reasons why cleaning up is important. “We have to keep our rooms neat so that we can find items when we need them.” Or “We have to rinse and place our dishes in the dishwasher so that we don’t invite bugs to live in our house.”

Written By: Hemant Mehta
continue to source article at patheos.com

35 COMMENTS

  1. Have you ever noticed how Christians contradict themselves? On the one hand, they claim that God is omnipresent, and then, on the other hand, they complain that children have no discipline because God has been taken out of the schools.

  2. This looks like it might be a decent book but I have two issues with what I’ve read so far. First of all I don’t think we should just accept at face value the statement that “it takes a lot more effort… When we teach morals and discipline to our own children without religion” Of course in some ways it’s going to “take more effort” because most of our societies have church and child rearing so closely tied together. So if you do without religion as a parent you are cutting yourself off from a lot of the basic support systems that are around for helping you raise your child. But, at least in one person’s very limited experience, I don’t think it’s necessarily harder to instruct kids about morality without religion. If anything I think doing without religion helps eliminate a lot of nonsense that children get “taught” but that the smarter ones can tell doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with. In my limited experience children grasp concepts of fairness and goodness quite naturally with no appeals to supernatural beings required at all.

    My second gripe is with this: “I don’t believe in spanking, but I know some feel strongly that it is a good tool for children younger than ten, as long as it is not done out of anger and is only administered to the bottom.” OK, she said she doesn’t believe in it but I’m sorry the “well I don’t believe in child abuse but I’m not going to tell other parents how to not abuse their children” excuse always rubs me the wrong way. To me there is a simple irrefutable argument about why you NEVER hit a child and it goes like this:

    Read any modern book about how to discipline a dog. Unless you get the Christian book of dog discipline or something like that they will ALL say that you don’t hit your dog. Never. It’s counter productive. So my argument which I’ve never heard a convincing reply to is: if you shouldn’t hit your dog to discipline them why would it ever be acceptable to hit your child? Surely even the worst child has as much rationality as the dumbest dog.

  3. There are many ways to raise and, if necessary, discipline ( also reward! ) children, and many good textbooks on this . Why mention God at all in this context? This does not prevent telling fairy tales, part of one’s folklore, such as Noah’s ark, Shiva with 6 arms, Buda’s tooth being paraded in Sri Lanka, Mohamed riding a winged horse, whatever …

  4. This book sounds like most modern secular books on the topic of raising children. I didn’t see any particular advise on how deal with living in an overtly religious society in the excerpt.

  5. The Christian idea that biblical heroes are role models for children is preposterous. When the army of Moses defeated the Midianites, he ordered his men to keep all the Midianite women who were virgins alive for sexual pleasure. The ‘greatest’ Old Testament Prophet of God had organised a gang rape (Numbers 31:18).

  6. I can’t say that I’ve actually encountered parents who use/ misuse god’s wrath as a teaching tool, though I have no doubt that such methods exist somewhere. I’ve seen parenting styles that range from the lax/negligent end of the spectrum to strict and punitive at the other end….but I thought the “god’s watching you and you’re going to burn in hell” types were confined to the sort of parents reading the likes of “How to Train-up Your Child”.

    parents, we have to talk — a lot. We have to listen — a lot. We have to problem-solve and decide when to look the other way and let things slide, when to let things go with just a talk and when to impose some sort of punishment.

    In my opinion the author has provided a good, common sense framework that should appeal to everyone, not just atheists.

    P.S. I can imagine my Huguenot forebears called upon these types of god fearing behavioural controls (My grandmother was an extremely harsh disciplinarian by all accounts.) Fortunately for me, her methods of instruction died with her, never to see the light of day again in our family.

    • In reply to #6 by Nitya:

      I can’t say that I’ve actually encountered parents who use/ misuse god’s wrath as a teaching tool, though I have no doubt that such methods exist somewhere. …

      Being watched by God and the ever-present menace of hell were pretty regular themes in my Catholic upbringing, especially during primary school back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My mother not infrequently warned my brothers and me of the danger of hell, lest we misbehave. Disobeying one’s parents was a sin, prohibited by the Ten Commandments, no less.

      One salient incident from my schooldays that comes to mind – it must have been Standard 1 or 2 (age 7-9) – happened while our teacher nun was berating a girl in front of the class over something when an earthquake struck – not a very severe one but strong enough to set everything a-swaying and make a few books fall off a shelf. We were all sitting spellbound by the nun’s display of wrath being directed at the poor girl and did not move when the earthquake struck (we should have got under the desks). The nun was so consumed by her holy righteousness that, when she noticed the room was swaying, she shouted out at the girl, “There! God is angry with you!”

      Perhaps it is just therapeutic for me to mention this here and a little unfair on Catholic schools, whose teachers, even the nuns, most likely come nowhere near behaving like that now. But, if the basic notions of being under the watch of the all-seeing God and the ever-present danger of hell are not as much emphasized as they once were in Catholic homes and schools, those notions are nonetheless still there to be drawn on, should the need for them arise.

      • In reply to #7 by Cairsley:

        In reply to #6 by Nitya:

        I think my husband would agree with you. He’s a catholic and attended a catholic school… the nuns followed by Christian Bros. He loves to tell the story of one brother who used to work up to a frenzy of religious fervor in the style of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce. At the time he didn’t think it at all strange, but came to the conclusion that Br So-and-So must be very pious. On reflection he views the brother as seriously disturbed.

        I believe that catholic schools are all sweetness and light these days. I had cause to read the mission statements of all the local faith based schools as part of a project a few years ago and theoretically they all pass muster. They all profess to have the well being of their charges at heart and not one word about Devine intervention for bad behaviour.

        • In reply to #9 by Nitya:

          … He loves to tell the story of one brother who used to work up to a frenzy of religious fervor in the style of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce. At the time he didn’t think it at all strange, but came to the conclusion that Br So-and-So must be very pious. On reflection he views the brother as seriously disturbed.

          I can well imagine what that Brother’s frenzies were like. What people may not notice, however, is that there was little anger towards those vowed religious and priests who taught us in school back then. Although they were harsh, it was understood that they were working for our good and doing God’s work, since we were such a sinful lot (I laugh as I type this, but so it was). Of course that whole view was based on false premises, but that is beside the point. We accepted the harsh treatment, because we believed it was for our own good. I think this comes out in parts of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which you mention, though Joyce’s mostly implicit critique of the Catholic Church in that book is very astute. When later in life we ceased to believe such things, we did not feel any anger towards those crabby and bullying teachers, because it was all too obvious that they too had been as benighted as we had been. Strange as it may seem, there was a deep (admittedly paternalistic) benevolence behind the way we were treated in those Catholic schools. I for one have never felt any ill will or resentment against any of my teachers of those years, and, although I no longer hold the beliefs that motivated how they lived and worked, I still remember several of them with admiration for their dedication to their religious duties and to the children they were charged to teach. But I hasten to add that I would not wish that kind of education on any children ever!

        • In reply to #9 by Nitya:

          I believe that catholic schools are all sweetness and light these days.

          Is this sarcasm ? Here is a school in Queensland where a teacher abused 13 female students between 2007-2008. In one case the principal thought it a good idea to ask the parent and the daughter to re-enact the abuse in his office.

          To be fair you could argue that 2007 in Queensland is 1957 anywhere else !

          Michael

          • In reply to #25 by mmurray:

            In reply to #9 by Nitya:

            I believe that catholic schools are all sweetness and light these days.

            Is this sarcasm ? Here is a school in Queensland where a teacher abused 13 female students between 2007-2008. In one case the principal thought it a good idea to ask the parent and the daughter to r…

            Actually, I was going on anecdotal evidence. I assumed that this was correct because they seem to have got the clergy out of the classrooms and now now leave the teaching aspect to trained teachers. In the past (60′s-70′s) you wouldn’t believe how easy it was to get a teaching position in a catholic school!

            The only negative comments I’ve heard recently were those concerning bullying ( a big problem in single sex schools I’m told. Once again this is anecdotal evidence only.)

          • In reply to #26 by Nitya:

            Actually, I was going on anecdotal evidence. I assumed that this was correct because they seem to have got the clergy out of the classrooms and now now leave the teaching aspect to trained teachers. In the past (60′s-70′s) you wouldn’t believe how easy it was to get a teaching position in a catholic school!

            Oh I know. My parents were both school teachers — father Catholic and mother Anglican. We spent a lot of time in rural Victoria as my father moved around for promotion. I lasted about my first 2 weeks of primary school in the local Catholic school until my parents discovered the “teacher” had no qualifications. They then moved me and my sister to the state system. I stayed there until year 11 and 12 when I got sent to the Marist Brothers in Melbourne.

            The only negative comments I’ve heard recently were those concerning bullying ( a big problem in single sex schools I’m told. Once again this is anecdotal evidence only.)

            Interesting. My purely anecdotal experience of two years with the Marist Brothers in Years 11, 12 was bullying was pretty minimal. Much better than the state school at years 7 and 8. That was mid 70s. Probably bullying was worse in the younger years or the Brother’s keen wielding of the cane kept it under control. Personally I would ban single sex schools. But I’m still waiting appointment as supreme world dictator so I can implement my plans.

            Michael

          • In reply to #27 by mmurray:

            In reply to #26 by Nitya:

            My husband and I both attended single sex schools and neither of us would recommend the experience. There was no chance of our son attending the local catholic school after my husband made the remark that you needed to be tough to survive a catholic boys’ school. Both kids attended the gentler option of our local co-ed school.

      • In reply to #7 by Cairsley:

        Being watched by God and the ever-present menace of hell were pretty regular themes in my Catholic upbringing, especially during primary school back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My mother not infrequently warned my brothers and me of the danger of hell, lest we misbehave. Disobeying one’s parents was a sin, prohibited by the Ten Commandments, no less.

        I would see discipline based on the invocation of the wrath of a god, Hell, or the deprivation in the absence of presents from Santa Claus, as the sign of a weak parent, seeking an authority figure to provide discipline to their child for them. Such people are very vulnerable to being spoon-fed dogmas by evangelical recruitment enterprises – and of course to salesmen of quackery-books on child rearing!

        Children need adult role-models with integrity – and examples of honest adult respectful interactions with each other – Not media celebrity attention seekers, glorified idiots, or ranting psychotic preachers!

        • In reply to #15 by Alan4discussion:

          I would see discipline based on the invocation of the wrath of a god, Hell, or the deprivation in the absence of presents from Santa Claus, as the sign of a weak parent, seeking an authority figure to provide discipline to their child for them. … Children need adult role-models with integrity – and examples of honest adult respectful interactions with each other. …

          I quite agree with you on those points, yet I would maintain that my mother was an intelligent woman of great integrity. God and hell were part of the cosmology by which she lived, and it was only right, in her mind, that she should warn my brothers and me against anything that might lead us to hell. In later years she actually distanced herself from the church, though she never stopped believing in God and the Four Last Things. I can understand your disdain for “media celebrity attention seekers, glorified idiots, or ranting psychotic preachers”, and I would include that furious nun I mentioned in post #7 in that list, but I look back on that behavior, which was actually not uncommon in Catholic schools back then, with much amusement. Indeed, that sort of experience was very much part of the kind of humor that Catholics seemed to share – very ironical and yet very compassionate (this is why Dave Allen was very popular with Catholics). Even as children, we understood that those crabby nuns, for example, who used to whack our knuckles with the edge of a ruler or strike the backs of our legs with a bamboo switch, were, whether holy or not, just seriously frustrated spinsters.

          • In reply to #21 by Cairsley:

            In reply to #15 by Alan4discussion:

            I quite agree with you on those points, yet I would maintain that my mother was an intelligent woman of great integrity. God and hell were part of the cosmology by which she lived, and it was only right, in her mind, that she should warn my brothers and me against anything that might lead us to hell. In later years she actually distanced herself from the church, though she never stopped believing in God and the Four Last Things.

            That is the damaging aspect of indoctrination – no matter how intelligent or how much integrity an individual has, they have deep-down programming to operate the priority “irrational delusion-over-ride-switch”, when indoctrinated key target issues are triggered.

            I watched my mother dump all this woo, as she failed to get rational responses from various deeply indoctrinated relatives when organising her life. She spent her last decades as a humanist and had a humanist celebrant conduct her funeral. Her spinster sister remained deeply religiously engaged, and was a church organist well into old age, for as long as she was able to play music.

          • In reply to #23 by Alan4discussion:

            That is the damaging aspect of indoctrination – no matter how intelligent or how much integrity an individual has, they have deep-down programming to operate the priority “irrational delusion-over-ride-switch”, when indoctrinated key target issues are triggered.

            The basic damage caused by indoctrination in my view is the basing of one’s worldview on false premises – the seriousness of this becomes readily apparent when one remembers that the objects of this indoctrination are young children. But personal integrity is not so much about being correct in one’s basic premises as about living genuinely in accordance with them. However, a person of integrity will always be open to correction about reality and basic truths. Bigotry is a sure sign of delusion. This seems to be where I agree with your “irrational delusion-override-switch” idea. It is normal for people to have the wrong ideas about some basic things in life and it is normal for them, through the exercise of intelligence and integrity, to learn better in the course of life and thus to further the integration of their personality. But there are always those who refuse to let some things go even in the face of sufficient evidence or argument to the contrary, thanks to the deep fixating effects of early indoctrination.

    • In reply to #6 by Nitya:

      I can’t say that I’ve actually encountered parents who use/ misuse god’s wrath as a teaching tool, though I have no doubt that such methods exist somewhere.

      Hi Nitya. I think that most faithist parents off-load that indoctrination to the religion mafias their children are exposed to from early childhood, so enforcing those ‘Truths’ becomes less obvious later as those fear-filled thinking processes become fixated…. Mac.

      • In reply to #8 by CdnMacAtheist:

        In reply to #6 by Nitya:

        I can’t say that I’ve actually encountered parents who use/ misuse god’s wrath as a teaching tool, though I have no doubt that such methods exist somewhere.

        Hi Nitya. I think that most faithist parents off-load that indoctrination to the religion mafias their children are…

        Hi Mac….oh no! I hope it’s not still going on!
        I’ve made an interesting observation about the kids of friends, acquaintances and relatives ( the catholic side) who have attended catholic schools. They have all become atheists! Perhaps these are just the opinions of the bulk of young adults, or maybe the doctrine is so hard to swallow that they’ve rejected it outright.

  7. Not sure why the article focuses on the section on discipline. As others have said, there are plenty of child-rearing books that cover how to do that and I’m really not sure that hellfire and damnation is that common a discipline tool among religious parents. The more useful part of the book would be what it has to say on preparing a child to cope with living in a religio-centric society, in which he/she will be judged immoral by default in the eyes of many.

    Hey, it’s just occurred to me that that is a parallel for original sin. Since we are all born atheists, we are all born immoral and thus sinners.

  8. I have not read this book, but if I was a parent I would not bought it. No offense, but this book is unnecessary to any person of a common sense. The existence of this kind of literature is basically no different of the ones that propagate opposite side (religion). How to discipline Your children? Discipline? They are not dogs to be trained. If you lead your life honest and with good moral standards child absorb it up like a sponge, and they will be as moral as you are. We (homo sapiens) learn by associations – show them goodness and they will be good, show them bad behavior, and they will behave bad. Show them. Words are generally useless, children absorb world around themselves by looking and copying.

  9. Every child need a mentor, someone they can look up too. If you tell them fairy stories and they don’t believe you then how can you earn respect. I remember as a child of the 1960s, my parents brought me up without the God factor and now I am a normal person with lots of common sense. You don’t need religion poured down your throats like water. A religious friend of mine threaten me with “hell fire and damnation” if I did not do what he wanted…I just laughed.

  10. To Modesti, No. 13:

    *…if I was a parent I would not bought it…this book is unnecessary to any person of a common sense. *

    I am a parent, and I agree wholeheartedly. Common sense is what my wife and I applied, and our son and daughter came out happy and non-theistic.

  11. What on Earth does God have to do with bringing up children ? Absolutely nothing ! Presumably this book has been written with American parents in mind ? Elsewhere in the advanced countries, God is conspicuous by his absence !

    Myself and my brother and our kids were all raised without God. We seem to have turned out fairly OK. No murderers or rapists to report at this stage !

    • In reply to #17 by Mr DArcy:

      Presumably this book has been written with American parents in mind ?

      I would presume that also – she blogs from Texas.

      elsewhere

      Here in the ‘heartland’, Christianity has always the default position. Even now, I don’t say I’m an Atheist, for fear folks would do that “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” look. I just can’t imagine living where goD is not omnipresent, so to speak. Oh, and I definitely don’t wear a Scarlett A.

      • In reply to #18 by bluebird:

        In reply to #17 by Mr DArcy:

        Presumably this book has been written with American parents in mind ?

        I would presume that also – she blogs from Texas.

        elsewhere

        Here in the ‘heartland’, Christianity has always the default position. Even now, I don’t say I’m an Atheist,

        Thanks for this. I was exasperated by the book until I realised how relaxed I was able to be with my own children. My kids were brought up not to take the word of grown ups as gospel….mine included. My youngest wanted to look in more detail at religions before deciding what to think and it was easy for me to not discourage her from an investigation of Buddhism.

        The critical thinking thing kicked in naturally in discussion of morals and the morality (immorality) of karma, encouraging people to think misfortune was deserved when it was clearly random, did for that exploration. After Buddhism my daughter wanted to investigate Christianity. Surely there was some good to be found? I warmly endorsed the morality of Quakerism, its Enlightenment values and the encouragement of individual due moral diligence.

        If I had done this in an American context I feel sure that things could have gone badly wrong. The freedom from cultural coercion in the UK meant my daughter could examine ideas in her own time and most certainly without the pressure of needing to adopt that oh-so-necessary “badge of goodness” that religion represents in that country.

        She is currently atheist.

  12. Reading this makes me realize just how fortunate I was and grateful I am to have never had any religious indoctrination imposed on me.

    The very thought of hiving off our children to the dubious authority of the church horrifies me; it’s irresponsible and cruel.

    More than that; it is unnatural!

  13. Superior parents rely on reason and decent example to support the moral development of their children, instead of biblical violence, coercion and punishment/discipline.

    In dozens of countries where respect for kids is encouraged through protective legislation delinquent parents are disciplined (by punishment) to learn how to respect their children. Recently a Malaysian couple was imprisoned in Sweden when teachers became aware and reported the violent, Abrahamic discipline they had imposed on their four children.
    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26883902

    Discipline parents to behave more rationally (less violently) to obtain superior results.

  14. I think the more free your child can be from restrictions the better unless the parent really needs to step in and help the child reason they should be allowed to experience things for themselves and not have to conform to too many expectations imposed on them by parents and teachers too early….Learning from everyone and everything is something most children respond to naturally….we shouldn’t create robots out of potentially wonderful human beings…

  15. My own experience as a rather heavily indoctrinated child is that my religion not only injected itself into every aspect of my world but it affected my ability to think clearly about anything at all. There are many, many places in the mind of an indoctrinated person that are simply off-limits. For most of my life, I didn’t even realize that I avoided asking certain questions out of the fear of hell (or displeasing my coreligionists). In middle age, I am now asking and answering the questions I should have considered as an adolescent. Better late than never, I suppose. The process of freeing my mind was a long one and last well after I had given up the basic tenets of my family’s religion. Dr. Andy Thomson’s book Why We Believe in Gods, which I think I purchased through this site, was particularly helpful in finally unplugging the religious wiring that was put in place by my well-meaning parents decades ago.

    • In reply to #33 by zonotrichia:

      My own experience as a rather heavily indoctrinated child is that my religion not only injected itself into every aspect of my world but it affected my ability to think clearly about anything at all. There are many, many places in the mind of an indoctrinated person that are simply off-limits.

      Hi Zonotrichia. Good job overcoming that indoctrination, something I’ve never experienced but have learned much about (after suffering from the faith of others in 1960′s Glasgow) including the ‘Why We Believe in Gods’ book & video, plus Dr Darrel W Ray’s very illuminating ‘The God Virus’ & ‘Sex & God’ books – all purchased here while I was donating…. Mac.

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