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Am I Raising 'Atheist Children'?

Good parenting has no religious affiliation. How can a parent foster an open and questioning mind in a child who is also told to follow a god -- without question?
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I am an atheist. I have never joined, or been part of, any religious group or organization. I was raised without religion, and without much understanding of what religion is. I have never had much of an identity religiously, and I stayed away from much thought or discussion on the matter. It is only recently that I have really explored the many options for religious beliefs and have decided that rather than saying, "No comment," I now call myself an atheist.

I am also a parent. I have two children: a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. They don't belong to any religious group, either. I never had them baptized, christened, or blessed. Neither of them had a bris, bat mitzvah or first communion. But am I raising "atheist children"? Just because I do not identify our family as religious, are they atheists? I don't think so. Rather, I am raising questioning children, and those are the best kind of children to send out into the world.

'We are nothing'

I never describe our family as "an atheist family" (I prefer to say, "We are nothing," as in not part of any religion), and I reject the notion that my kids are automatically what I am. I think that keeping them open to all the possibilities is more important than telling them what to believe in.

I know a lot of religious families who say they are a Christian, Jewish or Muslim family. And they are. They have traditions, rituals and celebrations that define what they are. They pass those things to the children, along with belief.

Most young children accept what their parents tell them as true, whether it is the existence of Santa Claus or Jesus Christ. It is important that children understand what their parents believe, but it is also important for children to know about all the options out there. This is tricky if a parent is a true believer of a religion and feels that her way is the only path. But how can children question openly when they are taught that there are absolute truths in belief?

Tough questions

In the past few years, my kids have really started to ask tough questions about the world and how our ideas fit into it. I have to admit that I don't have all the answers.

We struggle together to understand what it all means. I teach them about all the major religions, and when I am not sure, I call friends who are part of the religions in question for better answers. We look at the art made to honor deities, we read stories written to explain belief systems, and we talk about similarities and differences among religions, both extinct and still in existence today. I try to keep all the possibilities open to them, and I answer all their questions honestly. I admit that I do not believe in the many gods that are out there, but I respect people who choose to follow them.

I may be raising my kids outside organized religion, but I am not raising them to be ignorant of religion any more than I am raising them to be atheists. I am not telling them that they have to follow my way of thinking, because as a parent, it's my job to encourage them to think for themselves. I know that many religious parents do the same for their kids, and I know that good parenting has no religious affiliation. But how can a parent foster an open and questioning mind in a child who is also told to follow a god -- without question?

I am not advocating that religious parents not include their children in the faith they have chosen. But I am urging parents to expose their children to the many other ways, including the way I have chosen: no religion at all. I do not demonize believers to my kids, and I hope that those who follow religion will not present my choice as evil and wrong.

When it comes to religion, it is hard to allow freedom of choice in our offspring because we want them to emulate us. It is unsettling to think that our own kids might believe in things we do not. It is awful to imagine that they would reject that part of who their parents are. But the fear subsides when I hear the wisdom of my daughter, who recently told me, "I don't have to choose what religion I am right now, but I have the choice to choose."

Free will

Part of being a good parent is allowing our children to become whatever and whoever they become. Watching my children explore the ideas that are out there and grapple with the many, often conflicting, religious views in the world is exciting. They bring new understanding to things -- not only for themselves, but for me as well. If my daughter came to me and told me she was joining a church, I would ask her how she reached her decision. But that would be my approach with any of the big decisions in my children's lives. Questioning puts us all on a path to greater understanding.

As my children navigate their teenage years, I know that the understanding will be harder to come by. The questions will get tougher. The answers won't always be what I want to hear.

But I'll keep asking, and I'll encourage my kids to be open and questioning. They might not end up like me, but I'm at peace with the idea that they will end up as themselves.

Nica Lalli is a writer and educator in Brooklyn. Her memoir, Nothing: Something to Believe In, was published last March. She is working on her second book, which is about parenting and religion.

This post first appeared on USA Today.