The Course of Reason

Will Somebody Please Think of the Children!?

August 17, 2011

Recently, an article by Hemant Mehta garnered my attention by pointing out that skepticism is something we should use to analyze more of the world. We are used to thinking of skepticism as a way to approach topics like alternative medicine, the paranormal, and fringe sciences, but how else could we be using it? On top of Mehta’s ideas, I’d like to share a few thoughts about one thing in particular.


Note: I usually write about issues relating specifically to students, but this blog attempts to address both student groups and non-student groups. I think it is something that all group leaders and skeptical communities should think about. 

Why do the atheist, freethought, and skeptical movements seem to completely ignore the fact that adults frequently procreate? I have heard that college-educated and non-religious persons tend to have fewer children and to have children later in life, but why is parenting a topic that is almost entirely left out of discussion and consideration in most freethinking communities? Why don’t any of the most well-known skeptics and skeptical sources of information seem to be tackling any of the following topics (and what is stopping them?):

The list goes on and on, and the bullshit surrounding parenting is so prevalent, yet I rarely see these topics covered at meetings or in our publications at all. Why? Do people think these are issues that only women are concerned about? I hope that’s not the case because that would imply that women’s issues are not important to our community, to which I would have to disagree. Do the leaders and distributors of science and reason in our movement not care because there are other sources of skeptical and science-based parenting info out there? Because 46% of Americans have at least one child in their home, so I am going to go ahead and assert that this is not a niche market.

All of the topics listed above are things I have learned about via discussions with my mostly skeptical brothers and sisters who have recently had children. They have shared with me some of the garbage that people are saying and thinking regarding many parenting fads and common issues that arise for new parents. A lot of people in the world look at these topics with very little skepticism: if it is “natural” and “toxin-free,” they will pay gobs of money for these products because they’re terrified of hurting their children and want only to do what’s best for them. If someone they trust tells them that they should be doing, or not doing, something for their children, they fear making the wrong choice. Plus, they follow advice from people who are not always qualified because these people seem to have helped other parents, so they must be right…right?

I’m not calling anyone stupid (wanting to do what is best for your children certainly makes sense), but I am saying that we could really have an impact if we occasionally cover these topics in group discussions, lectures, and publications. And even if these topics are more specific to parenting groups and parenting magazines, couldn’t we at least try reaching out to parents to see if they’d be interested in such material? I can think of a bunch of secular and skeptical parents who would gladly talk about raising their children with or without Christmas, the tooth fairy, pseudoscientific “natural” products, and so on. I’m not a parent, but I probably will be in the next five years, so I would love to attend something like this, not to dictate what I should do, but to hear what other people have learned, and what they see as a problem or best practice. Sure, it would alienate the childless crowd if we devoted all of our talks to parenting issues, but could we just try to do one thing to involve parents? Just one? Once? Do you think someday we could get really ambitious and encourage parenting columns in our favorite free-thinking publications and ask for daycare at at least some of our events? I’d volunteer to hang out with some kids during an event, and I know that several of the people who volunteered for Camp Inquiry were thrilled to play games and help teach the kids that participated. I doubt that there would be a shortage of people to help with this (I know that I usually have more volunteers than tasks).

One hot topic relating to skepticism and parenting is circumcision. I appreciate this debate and have been able to talk to several people about it—something that my own mom told me she never could have done when she and my dad were getting ready to have children. I joined some discussions on this topic and have seen posts and information that opened my eyes to the idea of choosing based on evidence. There does not seem to be a clear answer for everyone, but at least by using our skeptical brains and looking into reasons for and against circumcision we have been able to actually achieve the somewhat immeasurable goal of “raising awareness” and encouraging new and future parents to do what is right for their families by reading and asking instead of following an old tradition with no thought of deviating from the (possibly harmful or unnecessary) norm. Sure, many people who don’t have kids may not want to engage in these discussions, but I definitely wanted to do so and I don’t have kids, so it is not that these talks are exclusive to current parents. I know that someday I will likely be a parent (because I want to be), and I would like to know some of these things before my 9-month cram session. Plus, I think that many people who don’t plan to have children still care about the tiny citizens of our world and want to make sure that they are receiving the best healthcare and education, among other things.
This kid needs daycare. 

We should be accommodating parents, too.

When I was involved with Center for Inquiry–Michigan, they often attempted to accommodate families by providing childcare and having family/child-friendly events. Sometimes it was utilized by members, and other times the demand decreased significantly, but at least it was an option. At least they tried. Plus, the Secular Summer Retreat is tailored to adults and children alike, which means that whole families can come enjoy their time together with other freethinkers, atheists, and skeptics. No one has to stay home! Even students at CFI–Grand Rapids Community College held events where children were welcome, and these were huge successes! I know many non-traditional students and young parents loved this because it allowed them to share their passion for skepticism and freethinking with their beautiful and brilliant children. It made all of CFI–Michigan a stronger community, and I hope that bringing this to the attention of our movement will encourage other groups (both community and campus groups) to do the same.

There have been several discussions about the reasons that some people (especially atheists) are choosing not to have children, and I think it is great that people are starting to be able to talk about this without being shunned (though it seems the overwhelming majority of people in general are still intolerant of the idea of not having children), but let’s not pretend that none of us are going to have kids. That is a huge step and turning point in the lives of people that do expand their families either through biological means or otherwise, and letting parents know that they are welcome in the skeptical community could do wonders for our causes. Consider how we could have affected the anti-vax movement had we actively invited new parents, especially mothers, to our events and welcomed them into our circles (you know, having meaningful and compassionate discussion instead of pounding them over the heads with science). If we offer daycare or programs for kids as well as open discussion on issues surrounding children, I think that we could not only do the double-duty of making our parent-members feel more welcome, but we also could draw in many more people, and allow children to grow up knowing that they are valued as part of our community.

I know that most freethinking students are probably several years away from having kids, if they choose to at all, but I hope to point out that parenting should not be off-limits or ignored. I think a lot of people would appreciate it and I believe we would all learn something.

And if my plea to get more parenting and family issues discussed in our movement along with accommodation for people with children has not yet convinced you that your group should try this, consider one thing: churches and religious groups have been doing this for probably thousands of years and I am pretty sure that my parents drug me to church for eighteen years just for the free daycare and cookies, so please, find a way to try this. Make sure students with kids can be accommodated at some or all of your events and see if you can help your local non-student secular and skeptical groups with childcare. There may already be students in your group that love working with kids, or adults in your groups that are qualified to do so. This would give them a chance to help out and do something they love and it would provide them with a volunteer position to list on their resumes.

The future freethinkers of America will thank you.



About the Author: Dren Asselmeier

Dren Asselmeier's photo

Dren Asselmeier does student outreach as a campus organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She got her start as an organizer while interning at Center for Inquiry–Michigan in 2008. She stayed until 2010 as a volunteer campus coordinator, and was CFI–Michigan Freethinker of the Year in 2009, as well as president of Center for Inquiry–Grand Valley State University. Dren has a B.A. in English from Grand Valley State University. She is the president of Buffalo Area Non-Profit Professionals, an event volunteer at Buffalo Subversive Theatre, and a contributor to the Buffalo Storyteller Hour. 


#1 ticktock on Monday August 22, 2011 at 11:41am

I know that RDF will be providing free daycare at next year's TAM, and I really hope that people take advantage of it. Also, this year's TAM had a parenting workshop, of which I was a presenter, that was well attended, and it looks like they may have a similar workshop next year.

I would also like to see more skeptical information for parents, but I'd also like to see more support for what already exists, such as Dale McGowan's books and workshops. Speaking as a parent who produces a blog and produced a podcast on freethought parenting, it's hard to keep up the pace when you're busy parenting.


#2 Dren Asselmeier on Monday August 22, 2011 at 1:14pm

Thanks for the feedback, Colin. Yeah, I think that it is great that we are starting to hear about more resources for skeptical parents, so I definitely want to spread the word about what's available. Hopefully then those things will really be utilized and those accommodations will become standard. I think a big part of it for me is just that I'm so tired to hear about many of the same things being discussed and re-discussed, written about and re-written about. We could bring a fresh perspective to skepticism if people with new ideas (like talking about skeptical issues surrounding children and families) can be given a platform.

#3 Allison (Guest) on Monday August 22, 2011 at 1:57pm

<blockquote>I know that RDF will be providing free daycare at next year's TAM, and I really hope that people take advantage of it. Also, this year's TAM had a parenting workshop, of which I was a presenter, that was well attended, and it looks like they may have a similar workshop next year.</blockquote>

This just made my day. Truly, I said more than once that this year, TAM would have been my dream 40th birthday present, but between a travelling husband and two young kids (3-1/2 and 7), it was simply out of reach. Maybe I can start saving for next summer!

#4 Emburii (Guest) on Tuesday August 23, 2011 at 7:41am

Well, one reason that the skeptic/atheist movement doesn't do 'alt med' for kids is because so called 'alt med' is usually credulous woo that does very little good and relies on thinking just as magical and unsubstantiated as UFOs or religion. Your link to amber teething necklaces, for instance, promotes 'better immune system function', when I'm pretty sure there's absolutely no research to support such a claim. If it worked that well, after all, it'd be just medicine and not 'alternative'. Amber's probably just fine as something to teethe on, and if that works, great. But the unsupported claims and demand for support of such are pretty much antithetical to the skeptic spirit.

#5 Dren Asselmeier on Tuesday August 23, 2011 at 7:54am

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Why isn't the skeptical movement tackling these alt med products for kids? I mean, the claims are fantastical, the "science" behind them is magic, the results aren't proven, and yet tons of people buy them. I know people that buy this garbage. I definitely want to see more people advocating for research and reason with these things instead of just ignoring them. "Antithetical to the skeptic spirit?" Do you think I'm saying that we should be supporting alt med? ... ?

#6 Emburii (Guest) on Tuesday August 23, 2011 at 2:07pm

The skeptical movement is actually tackling sCAM/'alt med' in general; homeopathy has been discussed and rightly dismissed at some TAM conferences, for instance. Search the phrase 'what's the harm', read Orac's blog and Quackwatch, check and they have plenty of background on just what kind of impact, especially harmful impact, sCAM/'alt med' can cause, including how it affects children. Orac especially has covered chelation as harmful, as well as how anti-vaccination sentiments are irrational and even deadly. He's also discussed the most likely cause of autism-spectrum disorders, as has PZ Myers (the most likely cause so far is a constellation of possible genetic defects).
Urging more attention for alt med and then mentioning a favorite product did make it look as if you were advocating for it. My apologies for misunderstanding you.

#7 Celeste (Guest) on Tuesday August 23, 2011 at 2:09pm

As a parent of four, one of the things I've had to give a lot of thought to is talking to my children about sex and masturbation. We also discuss things like why some words are considered "bad" and what their appropriate usage is. Unlike most religious households, we're not simply going to ban these things. I have a circle of atheist friends, all parents, and we occasionally get together to talk about our children, but I consider myself very lucky in that respect. I'm sure a lot of other secular parents that don't have a similar support group would benefit greatly from conferences and articles about these subjects.

#8 Dren Asselmeier on Tuesday August 23, 2011 at 2:12pm

Oh! Yeah, I meant "favorite" in a sarcastic way. :D haha.

And Celeste, those are things that I think are really interesting to talk about with other current and future parents of baby skeptics.

#9 Christi (Guest) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 at 5:33am

I'm a birth doula, mom of three kids and an atheist. I talk about parenting options daily. Most people assume that since I'm a birth doula I MUST be religious because only religious nuts can truly appreciate the wonder that is birth. Its a rarity to find an atheist in the birth world. On the flip side, I shouldn't just go with what all of the scientific minds say is perfectly fine for myself and my family either. Just because they claim to be free thinkers doesn't mean they have actually questioned it themselves. You will not find a bottle of Tylenol in my house. You speak about amber necklaces. Yeah, at first I thought those were a joke until I got one for my husband. He gets serious migraines and I got tired of hearing him whine so I got him one. He wore it for 6 months and didn't have a single headache. Is that proof? No, but I don't care if it is was a placebo effect or not, it worked for him. You shouldn't write the natural stuff off just because there aren't any studies. Maybe someone SHOULD start studying this stuff. Maybe we aren't all just crazy hippies wearing tin foil hats.

#10 Dren Asselmeier on Wednesday August 24, 2011 at 6:28am

Wow! Christi: I really appreciate your perspective. It's awesome to hear from people who have such an intimate view of how parents choose to raise their children. I would really like to hear more if you'd ever like to talk.

I think that some of our most amazing medicines and remedies sound kind of magical, but have actually just been proven to be somewhat simple science, so I support the idea of science and scientists trying to find out how things work. I definitely think that it is wrong to just assume that something won't work (or is not going to be validated) because the people who use it or suggest it don't know why something seems to work for them. It's glib and that's what makes skeptics look like asses. I like the quote from Sagan that says you should have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. We should be open to new ideas, but can be open and be a supporter of science at the same time.

Thanks for your feedback!

#11 Christi (Guest) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 at 7:25am

Absolutely! I love talking about this stuff. I think that a lot of scientific minded folks toss alt meds out the window because of the sheer fact that studies haven't been done on them. That doesn't mean they don't work. It just means they haven't been studied yet. I'm skeptical enough to believe that a lot of the reasoning behind the lack of studies is because if people find out that herbal tea can ease anxiety then someone may stand to lose a lot of profit off the drugs that they are manufacturing. I'm pretty skeptical of ALL things that stand to make a large profit. I don't pray over my herbs. I don't dance under the full moon. But I will take a chamomile eye wash to relieve pink eye over antibiotics any day.

#12 Julie (Guest) on Saturday August 27, 2011 at 7:02am

Exactly for the reasons you stated, I started with a friend. We eventually merged with and became a group of moms and dads. And we tackled all those topics--amber teething necklaces, myths surrounding breast feeding, vaccinations, and on and on.

Then a few of us had a podcast called Parenting Beyond Belief, which later became Parenting Within Reason.

We made a small dent, but ultimately all of us were too busy to continue with these efforts. Jobs and family commitments, and other artistic endeavors, too over. Being a parent takes a lot of time.

However, all of our stuff is still available.

#13 Julie (Guest) on Saturday August 27, 2011 at 7:05am

Sorry, TOOK over, not too over.

I'm also a big believer in bringing up kids without religion, and I was brought up without it myself. So I wrote a lot about that experience on the blogs.




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