Ethics for young atheists

Bringing up children to be moral, decent people who care about humanity is a challenge. There’s no need to make it any harder on yourself by bringing religion into it.

It’s funny that some otherwise healthy, godless people turn to their childhood religion when raising their own family. They’ve done well enough without it for years, and yet they dredge it all up again to imprint a new generation. I don’t get it, I mean: Why feed something to your children that you wouldn’t eat yourself? Maybe it’s just because they can’t think of anything else to do to instil ethical behaviour in their kids.

But it doesn’t seem too hard to come up with an ethical code that even very young children can understand and which grows with the child as he or she gets older. When our children were small, I started teaching them two simple points:

  1. pay attention
  2. be good

Even when they were two, this made sense. As they grew a bit older, I expanded on the points to explain what these things mean, but I always kept it to two main points, so there was never any doubt what ethical behaviour was. Under “pay attention”, I said this means both “be aware of what’s going on around you” and “mind what you are doing and how it affects other people”. Essentially coaxing children to live consciously, this covers an enormous variety of situations.

For the second point, I go with the ethic of reciprocity which, although it has been taken up by all of the big religions over time, is almost certainly older than all of them and clearly requires no belief in the supernatural. There’s a basic fundamental of human interaction in “the Golden Rule”, upon which all social action is possible, encompassing both respect for others as equal beings and empathy with the suffering of others. Ask a kid, “How would you feel if you were that person?” and you are helping that child build up his or her own ethical standards on a very firm basis.

So far, for my children, these two ethical points — pay attention and be good — are working very well. The kids don’t steal, they don’t fight with other children, they are polite to others, they want to help people in need when they see them, and they generally listen to their parents when we make reasonable requests. What more could anyone ask for? And all that without filling their heads with dated myths that fly in the face of the evidence of their own eyes and ears.


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