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How Raising Freethinkers Is Helping Me Raise Humanist Kids

At the end of our annual summer trip to visit family in northwest Indiana, my mother drove me and my sons to the Chicago O’Hare airport, and, as she had every trip before this one, acted as our tour guide during the entire ride. She detailed the histories and functions of the steel mills as we passed Lake Michigan’s southern shore. Then, as we made our way north through downtown, she shared what she knew about Chicago’s many skyscrapers and neighborhoods. She spoke almost without pause for an hour, and I grew agitated in the passenger seat. I wanted silence – an opportunity for the kids to look out at the Windy City and experience the kind of awe I’d experienced the first time I walked through New York City, struck with wonder as I gazed up at its buildings and made my way through the throngs of tourists and inhabitants.

“Please, stop tour guiding,” I begged as we cruised up Lakeshore Drive. “Let them just look and wonder. Let a question arise in their minds.”

After a few refreshing minutes of silence, my oldest son said, “I wonder why the first skyscraper was built,” and I breathed a sigh of relief.

It’s precisely this kind of wondrous moment upon which the book “Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief” (co-authored by Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura, Amanda Metskas, and Jan Devor) teaches secular parents to capitalize. Focusing on “the moment of the question” as the foundation for all free-thought parenting, the approach holds fast to the idea that, in contrast to most Western religious belief systems, there are no un-askable questions and no unthinkable thoughts. “I want the idea that questions can be feared because of the answers they might produce to baffle my kids,” writes co-author Dale McGowen.

When my kids asked me how deep the lake that borders our city is, I followed “Raising Freethinkers’” instructions to reflect the wonder back to the child as a starting point for instilling critical thinking skills, so I didn’t immediately provide them with a measurement. I let them consider the answer for a while as they peered over the edge of a kayak into the water’s depths.

“How deep do you think it might be?” I began, and they replied that they couldn’t see the bottom so it must be really deep.

“What makes you think that?” I asked, and they said that in the shallow water they could see the bottom of the lake.

“If there are only little fish in the shallow water, what do you think might live in the deep water?” I asked, and, thus, the conversation continued with opportunities to add information about freshwater ecosystems and threats to its environmental health.

When it comes to informing my kids about religion, I’m more inclined to swiftly provide the “right” answers than I am to invite wonder and curiosity. Though my goal is to give them accurate details about the major religions practiced in the world coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism without imposing my own cynicism, it hasn’t always been an easy balance to strike. Especially when my mother, in my absence, explains rainbows as “God’s promise to never flood the earth again” and thunder as “angels bowling in heaven.”

My kids chuckled at these magical explanations, describing to me, unprompted, the science of rainbows and thunderstorms which made their grandmother’s explanation seem silly to them, but my internal alarms were raised. As an atheist humanist who gave Christianity a thorough and sincere chance at securing me among its ranks, I’ve long since positioned myself firmly in the nonbeliever camp. I aim to raise my children to critically consider the world around them by inviting them to ask the kinds of questions that religion had expressly banned in my own childhood.

Instead of allowing the rising internal panic to grip me or giving in to the urge to trivialize or mock my mother’s explanation, I applied “Raising Freethinkers’” wonder-and-curiosity method to my kids’ comments about the rainbow and thunder. We talked not only about how these atmospheric features occur scientifically, but also about the reasons people believe stories that science deems untrue.

A few weeks later my oldest son came to me and said, “Mom, I think I figured out why people believe in heaven.”

“Why do you think?” I asked.

“Because it feels good for people who are alive to think that death isn’t the end. That way, it’s less sad to lose people you love,” he said.

Here he’d moved beyond a polarizing clash of beliefs to get at the real issue, the existential, human heart of it. This was exactly the kind of thoughtful critical thinking I had hoped our conversation would invite.

With endless information available at our fingertips, I’ve worried about the welfare of childhood wonder and, by extension, curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. My kids, now seven and eight years old, know that I can instantly look up the answer to many of their questions by typing them into my Google search bar. Sometimes I oblige them and provide prompt answers, but lately I’ve been more reticent.

Harnessing the real potential of their wonder requires their own internal contemplation and quiet moments spent simply witnessing the world and thinking about how it works. I’m trying to make more room for that process. My role as a parent, I’ve determined in part by reading “Raising Freethinkers,” is not to just recite correct answers or impose preferred beliefs, but rather to invite questions and provide the opportunity to think autonomously.

Not every moment of wonder is as easy to navigate as explaining a rainbow, but the approach for fostering wonder into curiosity and, later, layering that curiosity with “art, science, and the joy of questioning itself,” as the authors put it, is consistent in the free-thought approach. “Raising Freethinkers” insists on a commitment to the word “free,” which means that no question is off limits for fear of its answer, even – or especially – ones with potentially difficult or uncomfortable answers, like questions about bodies, sexuality, and religion.

To help parents formulate responses and follow-up questions to moments of wonder, dialogue scenarios, family activities, and age- and topic-specific Q & A scenarios are provided throughout the book. Topics covered include helping kids understand the risks of sexual activity and develop mutual respect in intimate relationships without letting notions of sin and shame attach feelings of guilt to pleasure; managing the social consequences of being a secular family in religion-dominant settings; creating and contemplating a meaningful and ethical life outside of religion; attaining religious literacy without indoctrination; and creating traditions by celebrating life’s milestones and nature’s rhythms.

“Raising Freethinkers” has helped prepare me for the many scenarios my kids will face as they begin to define their own beliefs, including respectfully navigating social and institutional spaces where their beliefs may clash with the beliefs of the majority, creating meaningful community as a secular family, and handling questions about life and death. In this philosophical approach to parenting and living, there’s “no rock that can’t be upended if you think there might be something under it. And, of course, there always, always might.”

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Going back to work after having a baby is hard. Regaining your footing in a world where working mothers are so often penalized is tough, and (just like most things during the postpartum period) it takes time.

The challenges we face as working women returning from a maternity leave can be so different from those we faced before, it can feel like we're starting over from scratch. But mothers will not be deterred, even if our return to the working world doesn't go exactly as planned.

We are resilient, as Serena Williams proved at Wimbledon this weekend.

She lost to Angelique Kerber in the final, just 10 months after welcoming daughter Alexis Olympia and recovering from a physically and emotionally traumatic birth experience.

Williams didn't get her eighth Wimbledon title this weekend, but when we consider all the challenges she (and all new moms) faced in resuming her career, her presence was still a huge achievement.

"It was such an amazing tournament for me, I was really happy to get this far!" Williams explained in an emotional post-match interview.

"For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today. And I tried. I look forward to continuing to be back out here and doing what I do best."

The loss at Wimbledon isn't what she wanted, of course, but Williams says it does not mean there won't be wins in her near future.

"These two weeks have showed me I can really compete and be a contender to win grand slams. This is literally just the beginning. I took a giant step at Wimbledon but my journey has just began."

When asked what she hopes other new moms take away from her journey, Williams noted her postpartum recovery was really difficult, and hopes that other moms who face challenges early in motherhood know that they don't have to give up on whatever dreams they have for themselves, whether it involves working or not.

"Honestly, I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. I'm just that person, that vessel that's saying, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' If you want to go back to workand to me, after becoming a mom, I feel like there's no pressure to do that because having a child is a completely full-time job," she said.

"But to those that do want to go back, you can do it, you can really do it."

Thank you, Serena. You may not have won, but this was still a victory.

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Since baby Crew became the newest member of Chip and Joanna Gaines' family three weeks ago, his proud parents have been keeping the world updated, sharing sweet snaps of their youngest and even giving us a glimpse into his nursery.

Now, Chip Gaines is showing off a pic that proves there is nothing cuter than a floppy, sleepy baby.

"My heart is full..." the proud father of five captioned the photo he posted on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Earlier this week Crew's mama shared how she gets him so sleepy in the first place, posting an Instagram Story showing how she walks around the family's gardens on their Waco, Texas farm to lull her newborn boy to sleep.

The couple are clearly enjoying every single moment of Crew's babyhood. As recently as 7 days ago Chip was still sporting his hospital bracelet. Joanna says with each child he's worn his maternity ward ID until it finally wears off. We can't blame Chip for wanting to make the newborn phase last as long as possible.

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It was a changing table must-have a generation ago, but these days, many parents are forgoing baby powder, and now, the leading manufacturer of the sweet smelling powder was dealt a big financial blow.

Johnson & Johnson was just ordered to pay almost $4.7 billion to 22 women who sued, alleging baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.

A St. Louis jury says the women are right, but what does The American Academy of Pediatrics say about baby powder?

It was classified "a hazard" before many of today's parents were even born

The organization has actually been recommending against baby powder for years, but not due to cancer risks, but inhalation risks.

Way back in 1981 the AAP declared baby powder "a hazard," issuing a report pointing out the frequency of babies aspirating the powder, which can be dangerous and even fatal in the most severe cases.

That warning didn't stop all parents from using the powder though, as its continued presence on store shelves to this day indicates.

In 1998 Dr. Hugh MacDonald, then the director of neonatology at Santa Monica Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Fetus and Newborn, told the Los Angeles Times "Most pediatricians recommend that it not be used," adding that the consensus at the time was that "anybody using talcum powder be aware that it could cause inhalation of the talc, resulting in a pneumonic reaction."

Recent updates

A 2015 update to the AAP's Healthy Children website suggests the organization was even very recently still more concerned about the risk of aspiration than cancer risks like those alleged in the lawsuit. It suggests that parents who choose to use baby powder "pour it out carefully and keep the powder away from baby's face [as] published reports indicate that talc or cornstarch in baby powder can injure a baby's lungs."

In a 2017 interview with USA Today, Dr. David Soma, a pediatrician with the Mayo Clinic Children's Hospital, explained that baby powder use had decreased a lot over the previous five to eight years, but he didn't believe it was going to disappear from baby shower gift baskets any time soon.

"There are a lot of things that are used out of a matter of tradition, or the fact it seems to work for specific children," he said. "I'm not sure if it will get phased out or not, until we know more about the details of other powders and creams and what works best for skin conditions—I think it will stick around for a while."

Talc-based baby powder is the kind alleged to have caused ovarian cancer in the lawsuit (which Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal), but corn starch varieties of baby powder are also available and not linked to increased cancer risks as alleged in the case.

Bottom line: If you are going to use baby powder on your baby's bottom, make sure they're not getting a cloud of baby powder in their face, and if you're concerned, talk to your health care provider about alternative methods and products to use on your baby's delicate skin.

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In the days since a The New York Times report revealed a resolution meant to encourage breastfeeding was blocked by U.S. delegates at the World Health Assembly, breastfeeding advocates, political pundits, parents, doctors—and just about everyone else—have been talking about breastfeeding, and whether or not America and other countries are doing enough to support it.

The presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians say the controversy at the World Health Assembly reveals that mothers need more support when it comes to breastfeeding, while others, including The Council on Foreign Relations, suggest the national conversation needs more nuance, and less focus on the "breast is best" rhetoric.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that parents need more support when it comes to infant feeding, and in that respect, the controversy over the World Health Assembly resolution may be a good thing.

In their joint letter to the editor published in the New York Times this week, the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians, Dr. Colleen Kraft and Dr. Lisa Hollier urge "the United States and every country to protect, promote and support breast-feeding for the health of all women, children and families."

The doctors go on to describe how breastfeeding "provides protection against newborn, infant and child infections, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and sudden infant death syndrome," and note the health benefits to mothers, including reduced risks for "breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

"Helping mothers to breastfeed takes a multifaceted approach, including advancing public policies like paid family leave, access to quality child care, break time and a location other than a bathroom for expressing milk," say Kraft and Hollier.

Certainly such policies would support breastfeeding mothers (and all mothers) in America, but some critics say framing the discussion around domestic policy is a mistake, because the World Health Assembly resolution is a global matter and women and babies in other parts of the world face very different feeding challenges than we do here at home.

In an op-ed published by CNN, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations suggests the laudable goal of breastfeeding promotion can backfire when mothers in conflict-riddled areas can't access formula due to well-meaning policy. Lemmon points to a 2017 statement by Doctors Without Borders calling for fewer barriers to formula distribution in war-torn areas.

"International organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) promote breastfeeding ... and provide infant formula, but only by prescription. We believe that distributing infant formula in a conflict situation like Iraq is the only way to avoid children having to be hospitalized for malnutrition," Manuel Lannaud, the head of Doctors Without Borders Iraq mission wrote.

The various viewpoints presented this week prove that infant feeding is not a black and white issue, and policy debates should not be framed as formula versus breast milk—there is more nuance than that.

A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics found opting to supplement with formula after first breastfeeding improves outcomes for infants and results in higher rates of breastfeeding afterward, and while the benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, they are sometimes overstated. Another recent study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found breastfeeding has no impact on a child's overall neurocognitive function by the time they are 16. Basically, parents should not be shamed for supplementing or choosing to use formula.

This, according to Department of Health and Human Services says national spokesperson Caitlin Oakley is why the HHS opposed the original draft of the breastfeeding resolution at the World Health Assembly (although critics and the initial NYT report suggest the United States delegation were acting in the interests of infant formula manufacturers).

"Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies," Oakley said in a statement.

That's true, but so is everything the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians presented in their op-ed, and that's why the U.S. should support breastfeeding policy.

Here's another truth: This is an issue with many perspectives and many voices. And we need to hear them all, because all parents need support in feeding their babies, whether it's with a breast, a bottle or both—and we're not getting it yet.

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