Ask Richard: How do I Teach my Kids to be Freethinkers?


For Humanist Network News
Sept. 15, 2010

You may send your questions for Richard to (Questions may be edited.) All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There are a large number of requests; please be patient.

Names are randomly changed for added anonymity.


Dear Richard,

I have two children, 3 and 7 years old. I recently had an acquaintance tell me “if you don’t give them something, they will look for anything,” as it related to my lack of religion. I am confused and concerned by this statement and need help processing the truth.

I was raised very loosely Methodist by a father who was raised a staunch Methodist (that was atheist by the time I was 10). I have questioned religious beliefs for as long as I can remember. So much so that I don’t think I ever truly believed. With that came a lack of religious education. I have no deep understanding of the Bible. I know a little about Wicca, Buddhism and a few others, but not enough to really explain them.

My children haven’t specifically asked about God or what we believe. I am not teaching them Christian beliefs, but both went/are attending a Presbyterian preschool. I love the people and the director and have no ties to the church there. While there, both children have been taught about God and Jesus. My 7-year-old has already forgotten much of that, though.

Must I teach them what other people believe? And at what age is it appropriate to bring this up? They both seem so young now, and, truthfully, they don’t care. If either one says something about God or religious holidays that isn’t phrased as a question, we just let it go unless it requires attention. What I do not want is for someone else to come along and dictate to them what they must or must not believe. At what point is this necessary?


Dear Lindsay,

Your acquaintance’s statement regarding religion, “If you don’t give them something, they will look for anything,” is intended to sound scary because of its vagueness. The “anything” is left undescribed, and you’re supposed to fill in that blank with some vision that is “worse” than whatever religion she’s hoping you’ll adopt. I would counter with, “If I give them good thinking skills and permission to question everything, I’m confident they will come to the conclusions that are best for them. If I teach them about respect, compassion, equality, tolerance and honesty, I’m confident that those conclusions will benefit others as well. ”

I don’t think you need to become an expert on everybody else’s religion in order to help your kids find their way through the forest of beliefs. They need clear thinking skills rather than specific refutations of theology. There is no standard age when you should begin to educate them on this. Generally, they’ll give you the cues. They will be exposed socially to other kids’ religious opinions, and they will come and ask you about it. Say that some people believe this and that, etc. Don’t say most people believe such and such. Young children are very susceptible to argumentum ad populum. Next they’ll likely ask what you believe. Give them your honest opinion and your reasons why you think so. Just like questions about where babies come from, have your answer well thought out before they ask.

But you don’t have to wait to only react to whatever they bring home. You can also take an active role in teaching them basic “street smarts” as they walk through the marketplace of ideas. For instance, careful inquiry and general skepticism. Play a couple of thought games with your older child: One is about a race between two kids, which I’ve described in a recent post. The second is about claims and evidence. Ask the following series of questions. They are deliberately rhetorical, leading questions with cues for the desired answer because this is a game to teach a principle. Present it in a light, casual, fun way:

“If I told you that I have a dollar in my pocket, you’d probably just believe me, right?” (Nod.)

Your 7-year-old will probably say “yes.”

“What if I said I have $100 in my pocket? Would you have a little more trouble just believing me?” (Rock your hand back and forth in the “maybe” gesture)

S/he might say “yes” or “no.” If there is no trouble believing, keep raising the amount until you reach his/her threshold of skepticism. Smile approvingly when you reach it.

“Okay, so you wouldn’t just believe me if I said I have a million dollars in my pocket. You’d want to actually see the money before you believe it, right? (Nod)

If your kid is catching on, the answer will be “yes.”

“Well, alright then. Now, what if I pulled one dollar out of my pocket to show you and I said that the rest of the million is still in my pocket? Would that be enough for you to believe that I had all of it?”

Probably the answer will be no. Keep increasing the amount that you’d show as evidence in small increments.

Ideally, your little skeptical thinker will require one million dollars worth of evidence to substantiate a one million dollar claim. Even if it doesn’t work as smoothly as this, you will have planted the seed that it’s really okay to require evidence for a claim, and as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Skepticism is not the stubborn refusal to believe. The Greek word skeptesthai means to look, to see for yourself. It’s simply the willingness to hold back credence until credible substantiation is shown. It is a great and rare virtue.

I recommend two books by Dale McGowan et al: “Parenting Beyond Belief” and its companion guide, “Raising Freethinkers.” I think these will have helpful ideas and answer many more questions as your kids grow. I’m sure that the readers here will also have excellent suggestions for you.

Taking the stance that you want your children to be freethinkers does not mean that you should be passive or negligent about what others may be trying to implant in their minds. There are plenty of people who will slip whatever they can into your kid’s heads, convinced that they’re doing the right thing. Be a good steward of your children’s education: watchful, demanding and involved.

Also, don’t assume that your 3-year-old will forget his/her religious indoctrination at the Presbyterian preschool as readily as your 7-year-old seems to have. Each child can have a different reaction and may be more or less impressionable than another. Even though you like the staff there, remember that their model is that truth comes from authority, and that accepting the word of authority without question is a virtue to be reinforced. To some extent — maybe a little, maybe a lot — you’ll have to keep dismantling that programming.

Lindsay, just the fact that you are concerned about these issues and that you’re asking these questions puts you miles ahead of far too many parents who don’t spend a single thought about how their children learn to use their minds. Too many are only concerned about their kids learning whatever they need just to pass tests.

Live the way you want your children to grow up. They will learn at least as much from simply watching you solve daily problems as they do from your deliberate lessons. When they hear you think out loud, “Hmm. I wonder if that’s really true. Let’s see for ourselves,” you will be demonstrating healthy skepticism and freethinking. I think that you will learn from them and they from you. You will help each other grow.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade’s column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.