Monday, October 10, 2011

Raising Skeptics

This morning I read a blog by skeptic Kylie Sturgess, in which she discusses and suggests books that encourage skepticism in children. Bonnie's already read several of the books mentioned, with plans to read more. Sunday and Monday are usually when I reserve my library books that we'll use the following week, giving the library time to gather the books from different branches by the end of the week. Choosing which books to reserve is one of my favorite things about homeschooling, and parenting in general. I love raising my kids to be skeptics and find that, for the most part, it's easy and fun to do.

One of the reasons raising little freethinkers is easy is that all children are born skeptical. One of a toddler's favorite questions is "why?", and as long as kids get positive affirmation that questioning is good and that no questions are off-limits, they will continue to ask why. This of course means that the parent of a skeptical child will be answering lots of questions, and equally and possibly more importantly, teaching the child how to find answers on his or her own.

This brings me to a key point of raising skeptics, that the kids have to know that parents are one source of information, but not the end-source of all information. It's not just okay, it's vital for parents to sometimes answer, "I don't know, but that's a good question!" and then work together to find the answer. The awesome thing about this is that we parents get to learn so much through this process, because kids ask some pretty amazing questions. For example, Jack and Fred recently asked Kelly what skunks eat. Did you know they eat insects, larvae, worms, rodents, lizards, frogs, birds, eggs and berries, roots, leaves and nuts, among other things? We didn't!

One of the best ways to allow skepticism to thrive in our kids is to surround them with a wide variety of books, from all ranges of history and written from many different points of views. Even though I am an atheist, I do not shelter my kids from reading books written from Christian or other religious world views. Much of the greatest literature written has come out of mythology, whether Christian, Greek, Norse, Muslim or other, and my kids read it all. Because I do not sit over their shoulders constantly elevating one particular mythology as fact, they naturally view them all as fiction. In addition, our method of teaching history chronologically with the classical method of homeschooling reveals an undeniable evolution of religious mythology throughout time. It would take considerable effort on my part to keep my kids from seeing these obvious connections of all mythologies and religions.

Along the same lines as surrounding kids with books, I encourage my kids to remain skeptical by surrounding them with science, sometimes through books, occasionally through television programs, and most often by placing them outside in nature as much as possible. A couple weeks ago, we were watching one of our family's favorite TV programs, PBS's Nature, and it was all about hummingbirds. The kids were enthralled, and Kelly and I enjoyed it as well. At one point they mentioned something interesting, that hummingbirds are the evolutionary cousins of swifts and swallows, and used slow-motion video to show them hunting insects in the air, much the same way as swallows do. We had observed ruby-throated hummingbirds coming to our feeder all summer, but had no idea the sweet-looking birds were formidable little hunters as well.

This brings me to a disturbing thought that I often have when watching nature documentaries that inevitably mention evolution: I think of all the little children of creationist parents who either do not get to watch these programs at all (because they mention evolution), or whose parents have to spend time explaining why their Bronze-aged bible knows more about science than actual scientists in the year 2011. The amount of energy necessary to squelch the natural skepticism that would allow kids to buy into such a outrageous concept is mind-boggling to me, especially when contrasted with how easy it is to feed their natural skepticism instead.


  1. "The amount of energy necessary to squelch the natural skepticism that would allow kids to buy into such a outrageous concept is mind-boggling to me, especially when contrasted with how easy it is to feed their natural skepticism instead."

    Unfortunately creationist parents see ignorance as a spiritual investment in their children.

  2. I love the skepticism of kids! I have learned so much myself when I said "I don't know, let's find out!" It's great to show kids how to use a library or the internet to find answers.

    I, too, feel sorry for creationists' children. I remember going to school with some Jehovah's Witnesses. They aren't allowed to read anything not approved by the Watchtower. I have always loved to read and when they told me that, I was astounded by the idea of being denied reading material, something my mother never did. It still makes me sad.