Being a Humanist Grandparent

By Bob Bhaerman

I recall a brief conversation I had with my then 8-year old grandson. It went like this:

Grandson: Grandpa Bob, I have a real good friend.

Me: That’s wonderful! Who is it?

Grandson: Jesus is my best friend.  

After a moment of dumbstruck silence, I asked, “How can anyone who may or may not have lived over 2,000 years ago be your best friend?” Of course, there was no answer. But my daughter-in-law said, “That’s all right. He learned that when he was in kindergarten at St. Pius.” I was told by several adults at the table to drop the subject and not give another of my lecturers on humanism.

What can grandparents do when their grandchildren are being raised in a traditional religion? Not a whole lot, I think, but it’s not a hopeless cause. Here’s some of what I’ve done:.

Read Arthur Dobrin’s Teaching Right from Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child, which is helpful for grandparents too. Here are just four of the 40 things: Give your children books that show different kinds of people playing, working, and living together; live your life as you want them to lead theirs; comment on compassionate behavior and let them know that caring is an important value; let them know what you value and why.

Dan Barker’s Maybe Yes, Maybe No; Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong; and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children are excellent starters, as are Hy Ruchlis’ How Do You Know It’s True: Discovering the Difference Between Science and Superstition and Helen Bennett’s Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids which is great for explaining your values.

The resources of The Teachers’ Press and particularly “Thinking Logically: A Study of Common Fallacies” are indispensable.  The latter includes a student text and two teachers’ manuals. Each of the 13 fallacies conclude with questions to ask to avoid falling into the fallacy described, e.g., thinking that something is true because it is stated by someone who claims to be an “authority” and thinking that the truth about something can be determined by the number of people who believe it.     

Before joining the AHA, I served as coordinator of school-based service-learning in Learn and Serve America, which was then a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. So I realize it is not just books that should be provided but also your hands and feet. There are many community services in which you and your grandchildren can be engaged. They will see that a person can be good without god as the motivator. Some examples: working together in soup kitchens, tutoring ESL children, and assisting at homeless shelters and animal shelters.

Since both of my grandsons are whizzes at tennis, I’ve suggested that they teach others, including Special Olympics kids, how to play the game. Both are becoming fluent in Spanish and could translate their favorite books into that language. And since I am something of a “recycling nut,” you can be sure they are now becoming little acorns.

Finally, here’s an additional piece of advice from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Although he was speaking of children, I believe it applies to grandchildren as well.  In part, this is what he wrote:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
….
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.

You can teach grandchildren to be compassionate and caring and to reason and seek evidence for their thoughts. Do it by example.

Bob Bhaerman is director of the American Humanist Association’s Kochhar Humanist Education Center