It was about this time last year that I decided that, yeah. We’re raising our daughters as non-believers, or, more accurately, free thinkers. We’re not going to teach them that there is a God (how my husband was raised), nor are we going avoid teaching them so that they’ll tacitly come to understand that there is a God (that’s kind of how it worked for me). It was a Facebook argument about Elf on the Shelf that finally did it.
I know that this year, a lot of people/moms are being more open about finding Elf on the Shelf weird (for those of you not in the know, Elf on the Shelf is a “new” Christmas “tradition” where one of Santa’s elves visits your home and every night, does something hilarious, and then flies back to the North Pole to report on your children’s behavior). But last year, when I posted to facebook that I found the concept of the Elf creepy, it set off a bit of a firestorm. It came to be about whether or not we do Santa (we don’t — but we do Christmas) and whether or not we are ruining our children’s innocence or other people’s children’s innocence. Eventually the escalation made it clear to me and other observers that it was more than a convo about Christmas traditions, it was about ideology. I could — should — have been more diplomatic in that conversation, and I regret that I lost some friends and family over it. At the same time, that conversation forced me to articulate our hows and whys of faith and h0lidays.
So you could say that Elf on the Shelf made me an atheist; or at least, forced me to acknowledge that I’m an agnostic humanist raising kids to ask questions about what is real and not real (not sure about God, but I know for sure that Santa is not real) and encourage open-minded questioning and wonder at the world.
So, for Christmas, we dress in black and drape the house in sheets and talk about how stupid religious people are. KIDDING, kidding! We know and love people of many faiths. I want the girls to respect other belief systems. And hey, we all love Santa, even if some of us know he’s for pretend.
Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of good materials for very young kids about belief systems and atheism. Some atheist materials for kids are downright judgey and rude. I don’t want my daughters to think their grandparents are dumb for believing in the story of Jesus in the same way I wouldn’t want them to shame a Muslim peer for wearing a veil, and in the same way I would hope that their beliefs will be respected. I did find one book for young kids that briefly introduces different belief systems and defines what it means to be a non-believer. It ends with the line, “Everyone should try to keep an open mind and learn as much as possible and decide for themselves what they think is true.”
The illustrations suck rather hard, but Robin is obsessed with this book. She reads it before bedtime and sleeps with it under her pillow. A few weeks ago, we were driving to school and she held up the book for me to see in the rear view mirror.
Robin: “Mom! I know what THIS is!” (Holds up page of the book.)
Robin: “It’s a AFTERLIFE.”
Me: “… Oh?”
Robin: “It’s where you go after you go to the cemetary.”
Me: “… Well, some people think that’s what happens.”
Robin” “Yeah, but not us. We’re non-believers.” (Said in this drawn out voice, like she’s trying this word on for the first time)
Me: “Um… you get to decide what you think is right.”
Our small town is old skool enough to have a creche in the town square, so the girls have been learning about “baby Jeejus” as well as solstice, Hanukkah, and other holiday traditions at preschool. They are agog at the light displays, thrilled and delighted with our tree, and thoughtfully picked out presents for each other and their Dad. I hope to add more traditions to our family over the years, but for now we’re focusing on respect, gratitude, and giving.