Sunday, February 26, 2012

Balancing Kids' Self-Esteem with High Expectations

My daughter (second-grader) has a 10 word spelling test every Friday at school.  We found that we were battling her each week because she didn't want to study, so we came up with a plan.  If she gets 8 out of the 10 words right then she can watch some TV over the weekend, if not, then she can't watch any TV until she can spell all 10 words.  This has been really effective.  Since we started this plan she's gotten at least 8 right every week and the fights over studying have stopped.  Until yesterday, when she only got 7 right.

She was pretty upset about it.  And I was heartbroken to hear her reaction.  She's always been a kid who likes to be right and she takes it particularly hard when she makes mistakes.  In this case, she spent a while crying and when I tried to reassure her she went full-on self doubt.  When I told her all she needed to do was look over the words for a while and we'd give it a shot she said, "But I can't do it!  I do everything wrong."  Of course, those words break any parent's heart and they fill me with dread.  I don't want my daughter to feel that way about herself or her abilities and I don't want her to be frozen by self doubt when difficulties arise.  In the end, we had a good talk about all the things that she does right and we talked about how helpful it is to check the stories we tell ourselves.  When we tell ourselves that we can't do it, we won't; but, if we tell ourselves that we can if we try, we will often succeed.

Some kids learn this lesson easily and others need more support and reminders.  My wife and I have been working with our daughter on this and she's a little less hard on herself than she used to be, but it's a long process and a difficult balance: teaching a child to push themselves to do their best, but not judge themselves too harshly when things are challenging.

In the meantime, we're making an effort to be proactive when it comes to letting her know when she's done well.  This is as simple as remembering to verbalize it when we notice that she's done something right or given a task her best effort.  But we're tempering that by maintaining our expectations of her - 7/10 on the spelling test is still not enough.  The way I see it, maintaining high expectations is a way of showing respect.  Kids aren't dumb.  They know when they're doing their best and when they're not.  If my daughter's teacher asks her to learn 10 spelling words and she only learns a few, it's kind of insulting if I tell her she did well.  It's like saying, "We didn't think you could do any better than that anyway."  However, if I only pay attention when she falls short, she'll develop the idea that she's no good and that my expectations are impossibly high for someone so flawed.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Children's Book Review: "Teeth" by Sneed B. Collard III

Sneed B. Collard III's Teeth, beautifully illustrated by Phyllis V. Saroff, is a wonderful addition to your child's library.  This book is one of three by Collard (the others are Beaks! and Wings) that look at common adaptations as they occur in nature.  Teeth shows kids the incredible variety of teeth, of course.  Collard breaks teeth down by size, shape, number, and use.

Collard doesn't shy away from words that many children will need help with, although he does explain and define the terms he uses and there's a glossary at the end.  I think this built in vocabulary expansion is one of the primary strengths of the book.  I've always preferred books that elevate my kids rather than talk down to them.

I also appreciate the way in which the book is organized around the many niches an adaptation can fill.  By approaching nature in this way, rather than just on taxonomy, Collard naturally supports kids' ability conceptualize how evolution functions.  After reading the book, kids will understand how a herbivore with flatter teeth might be able to grind up plants more easily, how a carnivore might benefit from having pointy teeth, or how an omnivore's mouth is perfect for eating whatever comes along.  Moreover, by focusing on the adaptation in question, kids will more easily understand how evolution might work by small, fortuitous alterations to useful tools.  Sometimes it can be hard for kids to grasp evolution because it is so often presented just as a jump from one species into another with nothing but lip service paid to the gradual change that forms the heart of evolution.  Collard's book avoids that pitfall and clearly illustrates what those "gradual changes" might entail.

If your child enjoys watching David Attenborough's specials or Nature then they'll likely enjoy this book. Two warnings: First, some teeth are made for stabbing and slicing prey or crushing bones.  This isn't presented in a particularly violent manner, but if your child is sensitive to that kind of information you should be aware that the topic isn't avoided.  Second, there's a page that describes the fun traditions people have invented about teeth that includes a mention of the tooth fairy.  It doesn't explicitly state that she's not real, but it might prompt a question or two.

All in all, I'd highly recommend the book for kids ages 5-10.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pat Buchanan, Censorship, & the Culture Wars

A fair bit has been made about MSNBC firing Pat Buchanan after his most recent book was published.  The book included chapters titled: "The End of White America" and "The Death of Christian America".  Apparently, both chapters lamented the increasing percentage of non-white, non-Christian citizens and attempted to link these demographic shifts to an overall national decline.  The book's title questions whether America will even last another 15 years under burdens such as these.

Some conservative commentators have jumped on Buchanan's firing as an example of "political correctness" gone haywire - to the detriment of the free expression of ideas.  But this isn't just a conservative knee jerk reaction to the sacking of a member of their own ranks.  Even some Democrats and liberal commentators have decried Buchanan's fate.  Former New Mexico governor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson says Buchanan deserved better.  Peter Fenn, a Democratic media consultant states, "The point is not that Pat hasn't made statements that are insensitive or controversial, we all have.  But should his voice be silenced?  Should it be banned?"

Frankly, I'm baffled.  The conflation of the lack of a regular gig on television news with the silencing and banning of a voice is absurd!  I don't have a recurring role on TV, but I have a blog, and my wife will attest to the fact that I'll hold forth on most any topic out there - free of charge!  Pat Buchanan himself wrote on The Conservative American blog that "after 10 enjoyable years, I am departing, after an incessant clamor from the left that to permit me continued access to the microphones of MSNBC would be an outrage against decency, and dangerous."  The fact that his response to his dismissal from the network was put on a highly trafficked blog and then picked up by national media exposes statements about silenced voices as demagoguery.  

In all likelihood, MSNBC has a good enough read on its audience to be aware that it leans left and that it might either tune out if Buchanan's platform was preserved or tune in more consistently if it imagined that the network was taking a principled stand against a loathsome ideology.

I don't watch MSNBC, so on some level I don't have a horse in this race, but my first reaction was to view it as encouraging that, regardless of the reason, a tiny battle has been won to shift the conversation in our country to more rational ideas.  Until I thought about it a bit more.  Why the hell am I writing this?  Because he got fired.  In all honesty, I didn't even know he had a book out before this happened and I bet a lot of conservatives didn't either - but they do now.  Similarly, MSNBC is an even more appealing information source for liberal audiences now that they've taken a principled stand against a racist screed-slinger.  In the end, this just amounts to another draw in the culture wars - both sides feel righteous indignation and everyone goes home happy and proud of themselves for being right. As a reward for giving us this feeling, Buchanan sells more books and MSNBC can charge more for ads.

This works out great if your goal is to feel good about your side, but what about if your goal is to report the news or improve the lives of your fellow Americans?  Maybe not so much.  

So what does this have to do with Humanism, families, and child rearing?  I've recently joined a discussion group called Parenting Little Heathens on the Atheist Nexus site.  One of the questions posted was titled, "When to start teaching Atheism to your kids?"  (In fact, given the questioner's situation, this was a totally reasonable question.  This response only describes my initial response to the title.)  When I saw the title, my initial reaction was that the question seemed to invest atheism with some of the worst qualities of religion: the goal of being us vs. being them and the focus on conclusions rather than process.  I think the better question is "When to start teaching critical thinking to your kids?"  And the answer is always, "Immediately." 

To focus on teaching atheism, or any other end result of a line of inquiry, is really to allow oneself and one's children to be sucked in to the same attitudes and patterns that have created the ceaseless cycle of culture wars and automatic outrage that demagogues like Buchanan and media conglomerates like MSNBC foster.  This, in turn gives over control of our thoughts and emotions to the best manipulator when we'd rather use reason and logic to keep control of our own thoughts and emotions.

I'm not suggesting that we ought never to join a group.  We're social creatures and joining is what we do best.  Without the drive to pick sides and form a group, we wouldn't last a minute.  But for my kids and myself, I hope that we do so thoughtfully, critically, & carefully.  So my ultimate goal as a parent isn't to teach my kids atheism as a philosophy.  Rather, I want to teach them 1) how to use their reason to identify values that will serve them and their fellow humans well, and 2) how to think critically about the groups that support those values.  Of course, I think that means they'll most likely decide that people who style themselves as having a special communication line with the all-powerful creator of the universe are full of shit, because that's what I've concluded.  But by teaching the process, rather than the ends, I hope to give them the tools to find the answers to questions that range from politics to religion to what to eat to who to associate with all on their own.  If I do a good job of that then they'll learn to dismiss whatever hateful rhetoric their generation's version of Pat Buchanan spews, regardless of whether some news outlet thinks he might make some money for their shareholders.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Making Choices with Incomplete Information

Jen Hancock, the Happy Humanist, has a great post on her blog about critical thinking called "How Being Less Wrong is Actually Right".  She describes how human knowledge is more a process of becoming less wrong than acquiring a sort of Holy Grail of Truth. To illustrate her point, Jen cites Asimov's description of the evolving view of the globe - from flat to round, small to big, and perfectly spherical to bulging in the middle.

This got me thinking about what I said in my post about Darwin Day and the errors of Social Darwinism, "It's not what you know that matters, it's how you approach that knowledge."  In a perfect world, we could approach all knowledge as if it existed in isolation from the rest of existence.  We could leave it undisturbed behind a velvet rope and occasionally come view it as it expands and shifts with each new experiment.  Each bit of new information could be a new facet on the surface of a perfect jewel, exposing the clarity and color previously hidden in the dull, hard stone of our initial observations.

In reality, we can't wall our knowledge off in a safe, sterile area.  Rather, each piece of knowledge is a tool that we must use each day or month or decade regardless of whether we're ready or not - whether we're confident in its accuracy or not.  Each decision we make is based upon the knowledge we have up to that point.  So here's my question: How do we factor the shifting uncertainty of each bit of knowledge into our decision making process?  Do we have conscious or unconscious processes for this?  If so, are these processes similar for everyone?  Beyond the question of how we weigh our own confidence in the information we have, what increases or decreases that confidence for different people?

My wife gave me a book by Jonah Lehrer called How We Decide that addresses some of these questions.  I've not finished the book yet, but so far my understanding of Lehrer's argument is that the decision making process is heavily influenced by a "good" or "bad" feeling we get that stems from dopamine production or transfer in the brain - often without our being aware of it.  The idea here being that, after each action, we experience a positive or negative emotion and that our brain basically begins to bypass conscious thought in familiar situations in favor of  generalizing the experiences we've had before.  This generally works out well for us.  Big scary lion teeth give us a fright because we've seen or heard of how dangerous they are.  By reacting emotionally, rather than critically, we're more likely to react quickly and evade the lion.  On the other hand, this type of decision making can be counter productive in new situations.  For example, we may not recognize a new danger if is doesn't resemble something associated with a negative emotion or we may not recognize a new opportunity if it does elicit a negative emotion.

Given all that, it seems that the trick is to be prepared in advance to respond to different types of situations differently.  In other words, we have to determine whether the situation requires a novel, considered, critical approach or an instant fight-or-flight type approach.  Either way, I'm excited about picking Lehrer's book up again to see what else he has to say.  When I'm done, I'll review it here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day!

I hope everyone has had a great Darwin Day!

In honor of Darwin, I'd like to defend him from the bastardization of his name: Social Darwinism.  Social Darwinism arose in the early 1900's, shortly after evolution began to gain acceptance in academia.  It's most closely associated with eugenics and a heartless response to the poor and downtrodden.  The feeling was that darwinian evolution dictated "the survival of the fittest" and that society should be organized accordingly, because to do otherwise was against nature.

Is that really the "lesson" of evolution?  Of course not.  There is no lesson in evolution.  It describes the system in which we live, but it does not dictate our response to it.  Social Darwinism is the equivalent of responding to the Theory of Gravity by insisting that tall people or people who can jump high should be eliminated and that the rest of us should drag ourselves along on our bellies.  

The horrors of Social Darwinism are less a consequence of darwinism itself than a consequence of people applying the hierarchical, dogmatic thinking of their religious pasts to evolution.  Through thousands of years of history, the gatekeepers of truth and salvation developed stories that accomplished two things at once: they attempted to 1) describe the nature of the universe, and 2) elicit moral, social edicts that meshed with that nature.  So you have creation stories that, for example, not only describe how God made the world as a paradise in 6 days, followed by banishment from paradise because Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but also set up a system of moral principles directly derived from that story - women should be silent and subservient, only the devil would want us to have knowledge of good and evil without direction from God or his church, etc.  After such a long history of finding meaning and mandates in origin stories, Social Darwinists sought to do the same with evolution.  This reflexive seeking of morals from our origins, and the conditioned acquiescence to them was what led to Social Darwinism.  It's not just what you know that matters, it's how you approach that knowledge.  

Humanism, for me, means looking to the common experiences of humanity for direction.  What do we all experience?  Fear, love, happiness, boredom, sadness, etc.  And we all know, without being told by any divine intermediary, which of these are good and which are bad.  That's why, for me, Darwin is important.   Evolution doesn't tell me how to live, but it does allow me to decide for myself how to live.  In extremely simple language, I choose to live my life to minimize the amount of bad in the world and maximize the amount of good.  Darwin's discovery of evolution is what frees me to take responsibility for that, rather than allowing myself to be a means for the ends of the person with the coolest origin myth.

So here's to Darwin, and to democratizing the responsibility to create a world fit for us all!

Notable Humanists: Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov, in addition to sporting the some of the friendliest mutton chops imaginable, was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, a popular public speaker, and an author with an insatiable appetite for writing.  He was born in 1920 in the town of Petrovichi, Russia, but his family moved to the U.S. when he was 3 years old.  He is most well known as a science fiction author, but he is the only writer to have been published in each of the major categories of the Dewey Decimal System.

Asimov was also a noted humanist.  He was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1984 and served as the organization's president from 1985 until his death in 1992.

Here are a few choice quotes:

  • "Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right."
  • "Science can be introduced to children well or poorly. If poorly, children can be turned away from science; they can develop a lifelong antipathy; they will be in a far worse condition than if they had never been introduced to science at all."
  • "Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition."
  • "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent"
  • "When I read about the way library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Speaking of families...

So, what better post for a blog on humanist families than some info on the human family?  The Morganucodon oehleri is one of the precursors (or at least the closest we've identified so far) of modern mammals.

So many people look for meaning and worth in their status as being chosen by one god or another.  Whether they describe themselves as chosen people, saved people, or civilized people, it often seems to come down to "real" people vs. pretenders.

Morganucodon oehleri is a reminder that we're all real people, coming from the same humble roots, along the same winding path. And the only ones pretending anything are the ones who imagine that they're more real than others.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Book in the Mail

I'm expecting a book called, "Humanism for Parents: Parenting without religion" to arrive in the mail on or about February 14.  I'm looking forward to reading it and reviewing it here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lonely Little Atheists

The event that prompted me to start this blog occurred about a week ago.  My daughter attends a private, but not religious, elementary school.  One day last week, when I picked her up from school, her teacher quietly took me aside and said, "Just giving you a heads up: we had a great conversation about evolution and creationism, or religion, so we're just letting parents know in case they want to talk more about it with the kids."

So in the car I asked about it - and was taken aback by my daughter's reaction.  She went from happily telling me about a game at recess to shouting, "I don't know!  I don't want to talk about it!"  I backed off, but later, after she had calmed down a bit, I asked if we could talk about what upset her so much.  She explained that she felt like she was the only one in the class that didn't believe in god and that she was afraid that some of her friends thought she was a bad person because of it.  A bit of background: my daughter is 7 years old, she's very gentle, and she's wanted to be a paleontologist since she was 3.  Knowing about the world is very important to her and it seems to have genuinely thrown her for a loop that someone could think that was a bad thing.

I'll leave for another day a discussion of how my wife and I resolved the issue with our daughter.  Suffice to say that the event got my wife and I thinking about how, as children grow and become more engaged with the world outside of their own family, the ideals and values they learn from their parents will inevitably come into conflict with those of their peers.  For humanists, this problem is magnified by virtue of the malice with which nontheistic people are held in American society.  See articles like this for examples.

I've never fully bought into the New Atheism's disdain for religion.  I tend to see religion more as a tool which, like a hammer, was created by and for humans and can be used to build a house or bash in someone's brains depending upon who wields it.  For example, here in New Hampshire, where I live, the former Episcopalian bishop, Gene Robinson, has been an outspoken advocate for progressive, humanitarian causes.  On the other hand, there's the Spanish Inquisition.  Which, um...Yeah.  Similarly, absence of religious belief doesn't indicate selflessness or selfishness either - there's plenty of stuff written about being good without god.  Being a social worker, I've also found that some people really benefit from religious involvement - even if it's not my cup of tea.

So those are the things that have led me to tread lightly around the subject of religion in spite of the clear evidence that it's factually baseless.  And by "tread lightly" I mean to say that I have tried not to rock the boat.  The experience with my daughter challenged my hesitance to rock the boat because it awakened me to the fact that kids from nontheistic families are really going to need their parents to have respect for their own convictions.  Without that, they may not learn to stand up for their own beliefs - or, worse, they may learn to become ashamed of their beliefs.

I'm still concerned about how to strike the balance between maintaining respect for other people's beliefs and maintaining respect for my own.  The glib answer is that if they don't like it they can fuck off, but we humans are social creatures and the society we live in won't necessarily just change to suit us.  On the other hand, if nontheists and humanists refuse to challenge society, how will it ever change?  Atheists are perceived to be one of the least trustworthy groups in America, yet I hardly imagine that my wife and I are alone as "reputable, professional, family" types who also espouse secular humanist values while remaining quiet about those values in many circles.  And for those of us with children, the last thing we want is to raise lonely little atheists who are too ashamed of being different to carve out a positive set of organizing principles for their own lives.

When it comes down to it, that's what this blog is about.  I'd like to learn from others who have navigated this course and provide a forum for people who'd like to join me.  So, is this an issue you have struggled with?  And how have you resolved it - or have you?

Are you "in" or "out"?

Recently, ran an article by Julian Baggini called "Atheism in America: Why won't the U.S. accept its atheists?" (It looks like the article has since disappeared from Slate, but is now available at  It described the prevailing attitudes of society as they relate to atheists.  The author interviewed several atheists in the Bible Belt who described being ostracized and isolated by family and friends when they "came out" as atheists.  The similarity to the struggles of gays and lesbians was pretty striking.

So what do you think?  Is it better to be "out" or "in"?  I'm out to some and in to others, but at this point I tend to avoid the topic unless I know it's safe - where safe means I can be sure to remain in to family who would be heartbroken or angry and to those who I fear would be able to discriminate against me.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Welcome to The Humanist Household's first post!  I'm the Skeptical Blogger and I'm going to use this post to give a really quick bit of background on what I believe.

Humanists are a widely varied lot.  People describe themselves with terms like atheist, agnostic, non-theist, secular, bright, “not religious”, “spiritual, but not religious”, and skeptic, among many others.

I describe myself as being a secular humanist. For me, that means that I'm a non-theist, but that I'd prefer to define myself by the values I do believe in rather than the things I don't.  Stated another way, I'd like to make sure that I'm moving toward something of importance to me - not running away from something that is unimportant.  So, in this case, secular (meaning without religious or spiritual aspects) is a descriptor, or modifier, for my humanistic values.  

Those humanistic values are shared with many other skeptics and, quite frankly, with many religious people as well.  In fact, one of the primary values that I hold - to love your neighbor as yourself - is memorized by kids in Sunday schools all over the world. We all experience the same basic gamut of emotions - similar things bring us all joy (our families and friends, humor, security, etc.); all of our fears share the same root (losing power seems to be the uniting theme to our fears).  Our shared experience of the world, and the struggle to exist within it, unite us whether we want it to or not.

For me, humanism also means that I look for answers to human questions in the human world (as opposed to the "spiritual" world). In other words, I try to base my beliefs on evidence. I work to admit to myself when I don't know something.  Further, I try to keep in mind that knowing comes from careful observation held in check by the scientific method.  My understanding of the evidence that I’ve seen leads me to believe that there is no reason to think that there is a god or any other sentient higher power that is responsible for creating and assigning meaning to existence.  I’m comfortable enough with that to say that, while I’ll allow for the possibility that there is a god, the possibility is so unlikely that it would be unnecessary to even address except in the context of a world that is populated primarily by people who disagree with me. 

So, if you consider yourself a humanist or some other flavor of skeptic, jump in!  In a society that is frequently intolerant of skeptics of any stripe, I hope that this blog will become a sort of informal gathering place where visitors can support one another, debate one another, entertain one another, and learn from one another.