Raising an Atheist Child

By guest author: Heather

Disclaimer: I am not a parenting expert. What I am about to discuss is what is my own way of parenting my child. I never forced my child to choose between Christianity or Atheism. I am just a single mother of an almost six year old boy who decided to change the entire way of raising my son once I realized he was capable of more.

What do you say when your child decides to laugh out loud about Jesus dying during the middle of the Easter sermon? What do you say when your child says, “Mom, that was a funny story” after Sunday school? These are just two instances when I knew my son was like me. What do I mean by like me? I have been an Atheist officially for two years now. I think I have always been one before that point. I never believed that God existed. Now, as a mother, I find that idea to be a fact within my life.

Let’s start with a little history. When W’s father was in the picture, we agreed to raise W as a Christian so he could be accepted in the very conservative southeast Kansas. W’s father was Christian while, at that moment, I was a Buddhist. Every Sunday from the time he was born, he would go to church. It was a time for W’s paternal grandparents to see him. I would have a small break for an hour while W’s Nana held him and showed him off. Once W’s father left, I insisted on keeping the schedule since W was so small. I hated going to church. I found it to be pointless, but W loved the time with his family. I endured this for a couple of years. When W was just fourteen months old, his Nana died of lung cancer. By the time he was almost three, he lost is pawpaw from a different kind of cancer. This meant we didn’t have to go to church every single weekend. Whenever we went to my mother’s house, he would attend church with them. It was his time with them as well.

After the Easter outburst, I began to notice my son’s behavior had changed. While most people would think that he was just stretching his argument skills, I knew it was more. He would try to make an argument over everything. Why did he have to take a bath? Why couldn’t he have McDonald’s for dinner? Why didn’t SleepingBeauty’s parents kill Maleficent when she showed up at the birth party? While these are perfectly normal questions, W was never satisfied with my answers. He kept pushing for more explanations than what I had prepared. Once I told him that I did not believe in God but he was able to go to church with my mom and stepfather, W changed. At first, I thought the change was from my explanation on why I was an Atheist. Now I have two theories. First I think he thought my reasons about being an Atheist were better than being a Christian. Second, I thought he was just trying to please me.

After three long years of fighting with him over the strict rules for the house, I decided to do something different. On his fifth birthday, I decided to throw out the harsh rules and find a way for us to utilize his argument abilities. We established his chores that he was able to pick out. Since he picked them out, he could not argue with me about fulfilling these chores. These chores ranged from making his bed to helping with the dishes. I negotiated putting a few more chores on his board. These were simple rules like brushing his teeth and reading a book every night before bed.

These simple chores led to the first stage in changing my parenting style. Instead of fighting with W every time he disobeyed a typical rule, we would have discussions. Instead of telling him he was wrong or bad, I would ask why he did what he did. I never placed the blame on him. Obviously, something was bothering him and he was acting out. When he did do something that put me over the edge, I would have to abandon my new parenting in order to discipline him. There are times that tradition methods are the only way to capture a child’s attention.

I didn’t anticipate any issues with these rules until he went to kindergarten. As a typical mother, I can tell you that my son is smart and at the top of his class; however, in W’s case, it was true. According to his teacher, and the permanent substitute (long story), W is extremely bright for his age. The only issue they have had with him is with obeying the rules. Every time he gets into trouble, he has a justification for why he did that particular thing. They love that he tries to justify his reasoning, but that isn’t what they want in school. What do they want? They want children who follow the rules without question. I finally asked W what the rules were in order to practice these rules at home.

Now, how to teach your child about religious differences. One of the huge differences that W has dealt with was the fact he is not religious. I believe W is the only child in his school that is an Atheist. I say believe because if there are others, they haven’t spoken up. W has participated in things that we don’t agree with like the Christmas pageant. Even though we do not believe in those particular holidays, W still had to participate in the annual Christmas or “Winter” program. He did it without complaint and I could hear his voice over everyone else. This was a learning experience for both of us. Unlike others, W has learned to participate even when his beliefs do not match. While other children were complaining, W sucked it up and was a part of the group.

This seems to be the biggest difference between raising my son as an Atheist. Before, when something upset W, he would act like it is the end of the world and act out in front of whoever was watching. Now, he will sit quietly until we get home and he will talk to me about it. If I feel like it needs to be discussed with his teacher, I will tell him that we will talk to her the next day. Like any child, W was told never to resort to violence unless he is defending himself. He has been in arguments with children who talk about God or Jesus. It is just something we have dealt with when it occurs. I never tell W that these children are wrong. I told him that everyone has different beliefs. While these children believe in Jesus and God, we believe that those two ideas do not exist.

While many will read this and write me off as a “damn, dirty hippie” I encourage all parents to reconsider how they deal with their children. While W is allowed to make rules, it has been a trial by error. I think parents shouldn’t involve any religion into their child’s development. By giving the child a choice and the ability to argue, the child is allowed to use their brain. Shocking, I know.




  • halbmondklin

    Your child appears to be extremely intelligent. I can only hope that my child will be like W once I have one. Teach him to think for himself and to not rely on others. I believe that your child will become an outstanding person when he grows up.

  • http://twitter.com/freethinkermom Bee Young

    Excellent points! His argumentative tendencies sound like a kid with an open and inquisitive mind. It’s hard for kids like this to understand why they have to blindly follow rules, but fostering a love of inquiry in other parts of his life is one of the best things you can do!

  • Tony

    You really hit on two things in this article: 1. how to raise an argumentative but rational child and have them take some ownership of their own life, and 2. what it’s like being an atheist raising a child in a religious area. I think you brought up some very good ideas regarding point 1. I, too, have an argumentative, bright, rational child, and we have started heading in the direction you did. It seems to be having great consequences on our family life.
    I wonder, though, if you would mind writing a little bit more toward how you as a parent deal with people either badgering you about “how could you do that to your child?” or even badgering him about not going to church or worse about going to hell. Of course, when people ask me, I return with “how could they do THAT to THEIR children?” but do you have any strategies for equipping the kids to handle their own discussions with their peers in this area? Thanks for any comments…

    • Heather

      Honestly, I have been experimenting with strategies. It has been trial and error. When kids talk to him about god, he simply tells him that he doesn’t believe in god. If they continue asking him questions, he can choose to answer or he can say he doesn’t want to talk. As he gets older, I plan to discuss what he thinks he should do when it comes to those discussions

  • Rachel

    I respect you SO much. You hit spot on exactly how I would want to raise my children when I have them. And for the point at the school rules, I would love to see my child justify everything instead of doing exactly as told. I always seek a justification for actions and I believe that schools and public areas should do the same, instead of just using assumptions. Especially if the child’s justification is actually good, and then you can totally burn the teacher!

  • Jennifer Lacey

    I also live in southeast Kansas. It is really hard this summer, especially since my daughter is old enough to go to “vacation bible school.” How do you cope with other people trying to fill your kid’s head behind your back?

  • Eric

    This is an amazing article, and I was curious if you had an theories on why W has decided to follow atheism? If you don’t mind answering.

  • Eric

    It is truly inspiring on how you adapted your parenting style to fit him.

  • atheistdad2dotherightthing

    most impatful part of this piece “Before, when something upset W, he would act like it is the end of the world and act out in front of whoever was watching. Now, he will sit quietly until we get home and he will talk to me about it. If I feel like it needs to be discussed with his teacher, I will tell him that we will talk to her the next day.” Thanks!

  • Rachel

    I would like to ask about the argumentative thing. How would you raise a child that has powerful debating skills and can stand for and justify what they believe in, but do it in the most respectful manner that is possible.

    • Lizzy

      Role Modelling!

      “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~ James A. Baldwin
      If W sees Mum disagreeing with theists (or anyone at all) in a calm, respectful manner he will learn to do so himself, because he looks up to his Mother and believes she knows how the world works the best. It’s amazing how indirectly children learn really, they’re constantly taking in information on how to act from all around them. Their biggest influence is their primary caregiver, which in this case Mum. So Mum make sure she’s a good one and she keeps the lines of communication open so W will always trust and love her enough to look to her first for guidance :)

  • r

    I tell my kids that people who believe in god are wrong. Why lie to them.

    • Lizzy

      Even so, it’s still indoctrinating them. This Mum gave her boy a wonderful gift – the freedom to form his own opinion (even if somehow it does turn out to be ‘wrong’)
      Teaching our kids how to think for themselves means giving them the chance to disagree with us. Not filling them with our own beliefs and value systems letting them be their own people regardless of what we wish them to be.
      W just happened to be naturally angled toward Atheism, as I hypothesize most children are (Read: would be, if left alone)
      ~Peace and love~

      • Gemgirl

        Not sure it’s ‘wrong’ to say there is no god. I wonder about all the silly fluff about ‘every one makes their own mind up’ ‘it’s all personal’ , blah blah. If someone told your kid (if you’re atheist) that the ‘devil is going to strike you down for not going to church and not reading the Bible’…would you tell them that ‘each person has to decide for themselves if the devil is real, it’s a personal decision for all of us’? Would you let them worry about it? I wouldn’t. I would tell the child then and there that is complete hogwash. I wouldn’t want them worrying over something so ridiculous. To me, the discussion of ‘God’ is the same. If you are REALLY teaching a child to ‘think’ for themselves then they need to learn to think with out a ‘god’. If they want add one later….then well, okay.

  • Kate

    Maybe the best thing you could have done was shared the name of the church. I mean, I think that it could help them to know that they failed you….. I’d want to know if it was mine.

    But parents shouldnt force their kids, I know I hated sunday school as a kid, avoiding it like the plague…..
    But. But then we switch churches and I wouldnt trade my faith for anything.

    I’ll blame it on the church.

  • Lizzy

    This is stunning. I hope to be a Mother something like you when I get to that point.
    W is sure on track to be a wonderful man.

  • ma22

    I really respect your parenting style, I’m going to use a few of those ideas when my twins get a little bit older. I live in CA where religion is everywhere but not so in your face and down your throat, I can only imagine how hard it must be to be an atheist in Kansas. I’ve been an atheist since I can remember, like 4. My husband has been one since he was deployed in the army(no atheists in trenches my ass!). We’ve decided to simply not mention religion or the idea of god to them at all. When they are older and someone tells them about god hopefully they will laugh at the notion like I did. If they aren’t conditioned to be religious, will they eventually become religious? I don’t think so but only time will tell.

  • Go Science

    I’m currently a 16 year old and live in a religious family. They are bot strict but made us go to church intill last year.I used to belive in god but then started to become logical and question why not a single shred of evidence exist. Such as facts.( and don’t say the bible or some book from the middle ages and is proven to be wrong already). My parents make us say grace and try to argue with us why to belive but everytime I do get into a debate( actual debate not disrepectful one :) ) and I bring up for them to give a real fact, they say the bible. I then ask how we know it’s true. …and it’s back to faith and ….wait for it….the bible. I don’t put down religion but I found what I belive in and fits me as a person. Good job heather for letting him have an early chance I didn’t have.

    • Alex

      Your parents must not know a lot about the Bible and the evidence for it. There is actually a lot, just to name a few:

      1. The Old Testament prophets made over 60 predictions about the Messiah’s first coming, and all were fulfilled four hundred years after they written.
      2. Over 500 Bible prophecies have already been fulfilled.
      3. The Bible claims the universe had a beginning. Philosophers and scientists rejected that claim for two thousand years. Now astronomers proved the universe had to have a beginning.
      4. The Bible claims that all human descent are of “one blood.” Some biologists argued that different races descended from lower animals. Today (this is true) genetics has verified that there is only one human race.
      5. The Bible claimed that God created animals “after their kind.” Since the nineteenth century, many biologists have argued that animals evolved from other, very different animals. Today, biology confirms that creatures reproduce in their own kind.
      6. The Bible says that Moses wrote the Law, but many historians writing had not been invented at that time. Then they discovered the Cod of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, written centuries before Moses. So the Bible was confirmed.

      I also have 15 more facts that prove the Bible is true, but I’m running out of space.

      • Alex

        Actually, I don’t have time.

        • Stupid people with guns

          I also have 15 more facts that prove the Bible is true haha omg I almost died laughing

      • Mick

        I’m interested in #2.

        Can you list all 500 prophecies along with the proofs that they have been fulfilled?

        I think you just copied that claim from another website and you haven’t any idea what the “prophecies” say.

        I doubt you could list even 100 prophecies let alone 500.

        I doubt you could describe as few as ten off the top of your head right now.

        Have you ever heard the phrase, “Telling lies for Jesus”? I think it applies to you.

  • jgamd

    Your son sounds like my girls,bright and argumentative. The subject of God just came up today. I am an atheist, but I am very concerned about telling them I don’t believe, because they will repeat that at school. On one hand, I want thinking, reasoning children, but I am very afraid that they will argue religion at school and end up being ostracized for it. People in small south GA towns can be that way.

  • Drakefire

    I wish I had a parent like you. Mine are good, but not so accepting of what I believe.