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How Raising Freethinkers Is Helping Me Raise Humanist Kids

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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.

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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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As mamas, we naturally become the magic-makers for our families. We sing the songs that make the waits seem shorter, dispense the kisses that help boo-boos hurt less, carry the seemingly bottomless bags of treasures, and find ways to turn even the most hum-drum days into something memorable.

Sometimes it's on a family vacation or when exploring a new locale, but often it's in our own backyards or living rooms. Here are 12 ways to create magical moments with kids no matter where your adventures take you.


1. Keep it simple

Mary Poppins may be practically perfect in every way, but―trust us―your most magical memories don't require perfection. Spend the morning building blanket forts or break out the cookie cutters to serve their sandwich in a fun shape and you'll quickly learn that, for kids, the most magical moments are often the simplest.

2. Get on their level

Sometimes creating a memorable moment can be as easy as getting down on the floor and playing with your children. So don't be afraid to get on your hands and knees, to swing from the monkey bars, or turn watching your favorite movie into an ultimate snuggle sesh.

3. Reimagine the ordinary

As Mary says, "the cover is not the book." Teach your child to see the world beyond initial impressions by encouraging them to imagine a whole new world as you play―a world where the laundry basket can be a pirate ship or a pile of blankets can be a castle.

4. Get a little messy

Stomp in muddy puddles. Break out the finger paint. Bake a cake and don't worry about frosting drips on the counter. The messes will wait, mama. For now, let your children―and yourself―live in these moments that will all too soon become favorite memories.

5. Throw out the plan

The best-laid plans...are rarely the most exciting. And often the most magical moments happen by accident. So let go of the plan, embrace the unexpected, and remember that your child doesn't care if the day goes according to the schedule.

6. Take it outside

There's never a wrong time of year to make magic outside. Take a stroll through a spring rainstorm, catch the first winter snowflakes on your tongue, or camp out under a meteor shower this summer. Mother Nature is a natural at creating experiences you'll both remember forever.

7. Share your childhood memories

Chances are if you found it magical as a child, then your kids will too. Introduce your favorite books and movies (pro tip: Plan a double feature with an original like Mary Poppins followed with the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns!) or book a trip to your favorite family vacation spot from the past. You could even try to recreate photos from your old childhood with your kids so you can hang on to the memory forever.

8. Just add music

Even when you're doing something as humdrum as prepping dinner or tidying up the living room, a little music has a way of upping the fun factor. Tell Alexa to cue up your favorite station for a spontaneous family dance party or use your child's favorite movie soundtrack for a quick game of "Clean and Freeze" to pick up toys at the end of the day.

9. Say "yes"

Sometimes it can feel like you're constantly telling your child "no." While it's not possible to grant every request (sorry, kiddo, still can't let you drive the car!), plan a "yes" day for a little extra magic. That means every (reasonable) request gets an affirmative response for 24 hours. Trust us―they'll never forget it.

10. Let them take the lead

A day planned by your kid―can you imagine that? Instead of trying to plan what you think will lead to the best memories, put your kid in the driver's seat by letting them make the itinerary. If you have more than one child, break up the planning so one gets to pick the activity while the other chooses your lunch menu. You just might end up with a day you never expected.

11. Ask more questions

Odds are, your child might not remember every activity you plan―but they will remember the moments you made them feel special. By focusing the conversation on your little one―their likes, dislikes, goals, or even just craziest dreams―you teach them that their perspective matters and that you are their biggest fan.

12. Turn a bad day around

Not every magical moment will start from something good. But the days where things don't go to plan can often turn out to be the greatest memories, especially when you find a way to turn even a negative experience into a positive memory. So don't get discouraged if you wake up to rain clouds on your beach day or drop the eggs on the floor before breakfast―take a cue from Mary Poppins and find a way to turn the whole day a little "turtle."

Mary Poppins Returns available now on Digital & out on Blue-ray March 19! Let the magic begin in your house with a night where everything is possible—even the impossible ✨

After a pregnancy that is best described as uncomfortable, Jessica Simpson is finally done "Jess-tating" and is now a mama of three.

Baby Birdie Mae Johnson joined siblings Ace and Maxwell on Tuesday, March 19, Simpson announced via Instagram.

Simpson's third child weighed in at 10 pounds, 13 ounces.

Birdie's name is no surprise to Jessica's Instagram followers, who saw numerous references to the name in her baby shower photos and IG stories in the last few weeks.

The name Birdie isn't in the top 1000 baby names according to the Social Security Administration, but It has been seeing a resurgence in recent years, according to experts.

"Birdie feels like a sassy but sweet, down-to-earth yet unusual name," Pamela Redmond Satran of Nameberry told Town and Country back in 2017. "It's also just old enough to be right on time."

At this moment in time, Simpson and her husband, former NFL player Eric Johnson, are probably busy counting little fingers and toes , which is great news because it means Simpson's toes can finally deflate. She's had a terrible time with swollen feet during this pregnancy, and was also hospitalized multiple times due to bronchitis in her final trimester.

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We're so glad to see Simpson's little Birdie has finally arrived!

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Spring is officially here and if you're looking for a way to celebrate the change in the season, why not treat the kids to some ice cream, mama?

DQ locations across the country (but not the ones in malls) are giving away free small vanilla cones today, March 20! So pack up the kids and get to a DQ near you.

And if you can't make it today, from March 21 through March 31, DQ's got a deal where small cones will be just 50 cents (but you have to download the DQ mobile app to claim that one).

Another chain, Pennsylvania-based Rita's Italian Ice is also dishing up freebies today, so if DQ's not your thing you can grab a free cup of Italian ice instead.

We're so excited that ice cream season is here and snowsuit season is behind us. Just a few short weeks and the kids will be jumping through the sprinklers.

Welcome back, spring. We've missed you!

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The woman who basically single-handedly taught the world to embrace vulnerability and imperfection is coming to Netflix and we cannot wait to binge whatever Brené Brown's special will serve up because we'll probably be better people after watching it.

It drops on April 19 and is called Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. If it has even a fraction of the impact of her books or the viral Ted talk that made her a household name, it's going to be life and culture changing.

Announcing the special on Instagram Brown says she "cannot believe" she's about to be "breaking some boundaries over at Netflix" with the 77-minute special.

Netflix describes the special as a discussion of "what it takes to choose courage over comfort in a culture defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty" and it sounds exactly like what we need right now.

April 19 is still pretty far away though, so if you need some of Brown's wisdom now, check out her books on Amazon or watch (or rewatch) the 2010 Ted Talk that put her—and our culture's relationship with vulnerability and shame—in the national spotlight.

The power of vulnerability | Brené Brown

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If Marie Kondo's Netflix show got people tidying up, Brown's Netflix special is sure to be the catalyst for some courageous choices this spring.

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My husband and I recently had a date night that included being away from our son overnight for the first time since he was born three years ago (but don't let your heads run away with a fantasy—we literally slept because we were exhausted #thisiswhatwecallfunnow). It was a combination of a late night work event, a feeling that we had to do something just for the two of us, and simple convenience. It would have taken hours to get home from the end of a very long day when we could just check into a hotel overnight and get home early the next day.

But before that night, I fretted about what to do. How would childcare work? No one besides me or my husband has put our son to bed, and we have never not been there when he wakes up in the morning.

Enter: Grandma.

I knew if there was any chance of this being successful, the only person that could pull it off is one of my son's favorite people—his grandmother. Grammy cakes. Gramma. We rely so much on these extended support systems to give us comfort and confidence as parents and put our kids at ease. Technically, we could parent without their support, but I'm so glad we don't have to.

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So as we walked out the door, leaving Grandma with my son for one night, I realized how lucky we are that she gets it...

She gets it because she always comes bearing delicious snacks. And usually a small toy or crayons in her bag for just the right moment when it's needed.

She gets it because she comes with all of the warmth and love of his parents but none of the baggage. None of the first time parent jitters and all of the understanding that most kids just have simple needs: to eat, play and sleep.

She gets it because she understands what I need too. The reassurance that my baby will be safe. And cared for.

She gets it because she's been in my shoes before. Decades ago, she was a nervous new mama too and felt the same worries. She's been exactly where we are.

She gets it because she shoos us away as we nervously say goodbye, calling out cheerfully, "Have fun, I've got this." And I know that she does.

She gets it because she will get down on the floor with him to play Legos—even though sometimes it's a little difficult to get back up.

She gets it because she will fumble around with our AppleTV—so different from her remote at home—to find him just the right video on Youtube that he's looking for.

She gets it because she diligently takes notes when we go through the multi-step bedtime routine that we've elaborately concocted, passing no judgment, and promising that she'll follow along as best as she can.

She gets it because she'll break the routine and lay next to him in bed when my son gets upset, singing softly in his ear until she sees his eyelids droop heavy and finally fall asleep.

She gets it because she'll text us to let us know when he's fallen asleep because she knows we'll be wondering.

She gets it because just like our son trusts us as his mom and dad, Grandma is his safe space. My son feels at ease with her—and that relaxes me, too.

She gets it because when we come home from our "big night out" the house will be clean. Our toddler's play table that always has some sort of sticky jelly residue on it will be spotless. The dishwasher empty. (Side note: She is my hero.)

She gets it because she shows up whenever we ask. Even when it means having to rearrange her schedule. Even when it means she has to sleep in our home instead of her own.

She gets it because even though she has her own life, she makes sure to be as involved in ours as she can. But that doesn't mean she gives unsolicited advice. It means that she's there. She comes to us or lets us come to her. Whenever we need her.

She gets it because she takes care of us, too. She's there to chat with at the end of a long day. To commiserate on how hard motherhood and working and life can be, but to also gently remind me, "These are the best days."

After every time Grandma comes over, she always leaves a family that feels so content. Fulfilled by her presence. The caretaking and nourishment (mental and food-wise) and warmth that accompanies her.

We know this is a privilege. We know we're beyond lucky that she is present and wants to be involved and gets it. We know that sometimes life doesn't work out like this and sometimes Grandma lives far away or is no longer here, or just doesn't get it. So we hold on. And appreciate every moment.

As Grandma leaves, I hug her tight and tell her, "I can't thank you enough. We couldn't have done this without you." Because we can't. And we wouldn't want to.

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