Where Did My Son Get His Smarts?

Where Did My Son Get His Smarts? Do you want to know more about my kids and how we are raising them? If so, this post from March 21, 2005 may be interesting to you.

I have two kids: an 11-year old son (Coturnix Jr.) and an 8-year old daughter (Coturnietta). They are really smart and cool kids and I love talking with them about all sorts of things: school, science, music, computers, video games, Boy Scouts, …whatever they want to talk about (or the good old days when I was a kid and had to walk to school ten miles uphill both ways – to which they yawn and run away). But we never talk about politics or religion. Sure, when they ask questions, we answer, but never extend the conversation beyond that.
You may have read before how I got to be an atheist – the natural way: growing up as one, thus not experiencing any great catharctic moments of overcoming internal cognitive dissonance. My kids are growing up the same way. They were very VERY young when we told them that Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy do not exist, but that they should not tell the other kids as it is the duty of their parents to break the news one day.
They were also told (once they asked) that there is no God, but that many people, even including adults, believe it and it is OK, as long as they do not try to make other people believe it. My son once made my sister-in-law (the Republican one) really mad at us, because he laughed and mocked his cousins (her daughters) when they said their prayers before dinner for Thanksgiving. That episode taught him that some people take their religion seriously and that one should respect it.
My wife insisted that we should bring up our kids in some kind of Jewish cultural tradition, to give them “roots”. I disagreed about the need for roots, but did not think that this would harm them (while digging my heels could have harmed my marriage), as long as we answered their questions honestly. So, we took them to services a few times at the Reform Synagogue (mostly for various holidays), they went to Jewish summer-camps for a couple of summers, and each spent a couple of years in a Jewish pre-school.
The pre-school was physically attached to the Orthodox Synagogue, but the rabbi there (a very smart and wise man whom I like the most of all the rabbis in the area) was very careful not to preach too much. He was aware that the kids in the pre-school ranged from ultra-Orthodox to atheist families and everything in-between, so he limited his activities to teaching a little bit of Hebrew, and the stories associated with the holidays. Of course, his congregation was a different story – we went to services once and it was fascinating, from an anthropological angle, but being separated from my wife and daughter by a partition was not a pleasant idea.
My wife also insists that the kids should go through the whole Bar/Bat Mitzvah process. Since my opinion does not really count, I am guessing she will make that happen, no matter what I say, so I’ll just go along, as usual….
A few years ago, we asked the kids which holiday they would prefer to celebrate: Christmas or Hanukkah (we did a little mix of both previously). They thought for a minute and decided that Hannukah was a better deal, present-wise, as well as less of a hassle, so that is what we do now.
We also host Passover almost every year, for which we invite a bunch of our atheist, agnostic (and occasionally Catholic) friends and use a humanist/feminist/environmentalist Haggadah which does not mention God anywhere. Oh, I love the food and we can now find some kosher wine better than Manishevitz! I don’t even serve elephant meat, …er, pork (though the idea always comes up)! And the matzo-ball soup (with fresh horseradish I put in after it is served)…yummy!
Anyway, kids are doing great, growing up sweet little atheists, developing their own sense of morality uncostrained by the black-and-white paradoxes of religious dogma, and being, for that age, extremely sensitive to the feelings of other human (and non-human) beings.
As far as politics goes, there was no way we could hide it from the kids. They saw all of our bumper-stickers on our cars (they are still there) and the big sign in the window (it is still there). They saw us glued to the TV for 15 months before the election, watching every debate, every event on C-span, the Conventions, news, everything related to the election. They did not watch with us, but they could not escape learning some basic facts. Who are we? – Democrats. – Correct. Who’s the bad guy? – Bush. – Correct. Who’s the good guy? – John Edwards (later John Kerry). – Correct.
When I once bought a t-shirt with a drawing of a creature with the body of a turkey and the head of Dubya, both kids recognized who it was and laughed. Junior pleasantly surprised me one day when we went to the bookstore and told them to pick whatever they wanted. One of his choices was an illustrated kid’s introduction to John Kerry. I was even more pleasantly surprised when of the whole loot, it was this book he chose to read first, that same evening.
Junior informed me, without me asking, of the results of kids’ voting at his school (Kerry got 350 votes, Bush 240, and Nader 50 – this is a liberal town after all) and told me that it appears ALL of his teachers are Democrats. But we never really went into details about politics, and advised them not to talk about it around other adults, including some in our family.
All the radios we have in our home and our cars (over the years) are automatically set on NPR. Thus, from the day they were born, my kids were exposed to NPR about 90% of the time they rode with me in the car. Occasionally we would switch to another station, or put in a tape or CD. I never knew how much they heard, listened or understood what was going on, but was hoping that something would enter their heads, and at least that the habit of NPR-listening may get started. But they never ever commented on anything they heard on the radio. That is, until this morning.
This morning I took the kids to school. First we dropped off Coturnietta at her school, then proceeded to Junior’s school. It was early morning, they were sleepy, so, as usual, they were just sitting quietly in the back. When we just started we got into the middle of a story on Morning Edition about the rights of prisoners to attend religious services.
Frankly, I was not really paying 100% attention, but apparently this is another contentious issue between the Federal government and several State governments. From what I gathered, the Feds are against it for two reasons. First is practical: services appear to be a great way for inmates to exchange information. Second is more principled: apparently the only services these few states (Alabama and what others?) offer is some kind of un-named blend of Protestantism, and the Feds do not think that one religion should be supported over all other religions. The States disagree – they want to offer just one religion and argue that this is within the states’ rights.
A few minutes into the story, my son jumped in, agitated: “What is all this about! Religion is what you believe – it has nothing to do with prisons, or taxes, or government! This is an insane government! We need to move away!” I was stunned. This is the first time I have ever heard him make a political statement. And he was right on. My wise-Dad response? “Oh, no, we need to stay here and fight. Even if we go to such a far-away and nice place as New Zealand, in a few years the effects of the American government will affect us there, too. Instead, we need to do whatever we can, no matter how long it takes, to get rid of the “insane” government. That is our duty to the country and the world.” He agreed. Now, when did he get to be so smart?

5 responses to “Where Did My Son Get His Smarts?

  1. I was so into Greek myths when I was a little younger than Coturnietta. (My highest recommendations to D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.) I read Egyptian and Norse mythology too. In addition to being great stories, they gave me a good perspective on the Jewish mythology we got at the yearly (very secular) Seder.
    I also went to a Workman’s Circle Hebrew school, and I used to discuss our mutual atheism with my great-aunt at Rosh Hashanah family get-togethers. Definitely possible to raise kids with Yiddishkeit but no religion.
    Anyway, your kids sound smart and lucky. Are they having any social trouble in school, or are they in schools where being smart isn’t considered weird?

  2. (Er, the Greek myths comment might be confusing to other people… I followed a link at the bottom of the original post.)

  3. Sounds like you have done a great job with your kids. My wife and I have considered a lot of issues regarding raising our as-of-yet not conceived children. It has only recently come to my attention that it is actually possible to raise children outside of religion (I was raised in Colorado Springs, where religion controls all). I do look forward to trying.
    We would be lucky if our children turn out as smart as yours.

  4. I think it’s so important to recognize that people can get together, celebrate, and have deeply-felt events (like your Passover dinners) without necessarily being religious. I think that these kinds of communal events are probably the most important and positive thing that religion provides for people, and that they are necessary for everyone — religious or not. Further, I think it’s easy for religious people to perceive atheists as being weird, unemotional, and anti-social, which your stories prove absolutely need not be the case.

  5. That is so sweet! My parents did the really cool thing, too: they raised me atheist, taught me what I specifically asked to know, and told me I could make up my own mind about religion when I was an adult. I will always, always love my parents for that.
    Being smart in school wasn’t the coolest thing; one thing I regret is that I didn’t learn self-confidence until way later. But I think your kids are fine, since you are respecting their opinions and their learning and are listening and paying attention to them– and that teaches self-confidence.