Reverence for Nature – Part II – A Mormon and Humane Child
Humanists often get a bad rap in Mormon circles. I can’t even tell you how many Sunday School lessons have derided a humanist outlook as Godless and therefore misguided and/or unethical. Before I launch into my first book review, I feel obligated to say 2 things to this end. First, there are really two branches of Humanism – one is actually religious and the other is secular. Both are, by definition, steeped in a tradition of ethics. Second, regardless of whether religious traditions are folded in or not, humanism relies heavily on reason and logic as an ethical foundation to advocate for socially just actions in order to further the human race. Because of, rather than in spite of, the centrality of the potential of each person, most humanists understand their integral connection to the environment around them.
Zoe Weil wrote, in my opinion, one of the most helpful parenting books I’ve ever read: Above All, Be Kind – Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times. She suggests that raising a humane child requires constant integration of:
- Providing information
- Teaching critical thinking
- Instilling reverence, respect, and responsibility
- Offering positive choices
Because information feeds values and actions, providing information requires a conscious choice about what to expose your child. The logic bent of humanism privileges more over less information, but Wiel strikes a nice balance of pointing out that you might want to limit some info (cultural norms that are frankly questionable – Mormons should be able to climb on this quickly) while promoting other information that encourages good citizenship and a detailed understanding of ecology. Information is not just provided, however. Information is gathered and this gathering can and should be a family event. The goal is to foster inquisitiveness and teach your child how to support their questions by seeking out answers.
Our real life example – Our 3 year old LOVES gas meters. It is a year old obsession that probably comes from us walking along city sidewalks an awful lot combined with the fact that there is a metering component with turning wheels and sound. We let him stop and look at almost every gas meter he wants to look at. Recently he pointed out that electric meters don’t make noise and asked why. We used this as a jumping off point to discuss the difference between gas and electricity. Sometimes when he comes to a gas meter that isn’t running, he is disappointed. Especially in the winter, I use this opportunity to ask why the person isn’t using gas and prompt that it is probably because the person isn’t home and turned off their heat (yeah!!!) while they were gone.
Once your child has information, you really should turn to prompting critical thinking. Even though I think my parents were better than many LDS families, this has been the biggest shift from my childhood; my non-religious husband is not going sit by and listen to ‘because God made it that way’ as an answer. This step is your chance to promote skepticism of all information while simultaneously teaching listening to many points of view, asking questions and ‘believing nothing until it has become true for you’ (p 40).
Real life example – As parents, I think we have a unique opportunity to squash or promote these skills in how we respond to ‘why’ questions. Our first instincts, as someone with more knowledge, is to provide the answer as we see it. But we have found that responding to ‘why’ with ‘well, what do you think’ to prompt all sorts of delightful discussions. It allows the child to take the reasoning as far as they can while you’re inserting other points of view. The result is that the child goes through a guided reasoning process.
Instilling reverence, respect, and responsibility requires thinking of the three terms together because they are all linked. Reverence speaks to the emotion, respect to an attitude, and responsibility to actions. Reverence means honoring those ‘feeling(s) I get when I think of his blessings,’ of recognizing those moments of awe in the environment (a theme I’ll return to in a future post). Respect is the ‘we sit still quietly’ or ‘we say we are sorry’ because we respect others’ space or feelings. Respect is taught initially by adult modeling – turn off the TV if those on it are disrespectful, recycle as a family, etc. As a child’s feelings of reverence are nurtured, however, respect tends to come naturally and then they want to act responsibly. Responsibility means connecting their actions to the consequences AND to showing them that their actions can, in part, alleviate others’ actions.
Reverence example – Stopping everything when the three year old looks up at the sky and says ‘Mom, that cloud looks like X.’ I usually respond with ‘that’s amazing, it does’ even if I don’t see it; apparently I’ve done so often enough that he now often adds the ‘its amazing’ part on his own and my heart melts. By taking that quiet moment to be amazed BEFORE we move onto the science or whatever, I am honoring that awe and reverence for nature. This also often happens with body parts, machines (reverence for human ingenuity), etc.
Repsect example – We turn off the water while brushing our teeth because it is wasteful not to do so. We don’t leave the fridge door open because the cold air escapes and is wasteful. In our house, we try not to waste and we constantly verbalize that.
Responsibility example – Early on we taught that we don’t litter as a respect example. But now our three year old wants to pick up litter because that is the right thing to do. As much as sometimes I would rather NOT pick up trash, we tend to honor his wanting to act responsibly unless it is really gross. He will talk about how littering is bad because it gets into our sewer and then our rivers (again, melting my heart as he tries to pronounce our big, long, river names). He knows why he doesn’t litter and he has processed that when it does happen, he can help.
Offering positive choices requires limiting negative choices (get that over packaged food out of your house if you want your kid to choose between and grow to love good foods). But it also requires thinking out of the box to address vexing problems. This is another area that is a pretty big break from Mormon culture. We tend to put our head in the sand and offer a seminary answer when confronted with world hunger or natural disaster causing significant human suffering. A humane child needs to be empowered and solution oriented; this means you can’t just shield the child from all the evil in the world.
Example – We don’t turn off the news of natural or human made disasters. We talk about big-wind tornados with our three-year old as, in part, a consequence of making our air dirty; we take him to war protests and talk about that when the endless war news show up. As he gets older, we plan of finding specific charities and volunteer activities to address his current biggest scary concern.
The rest of the book discusses how to to this in terms of your own example and how it applies to various childhood stages. I HIGHLY recommend this book if you are all interested in non-3-year-old examples! It addresses being humane in both terms of treating others and the environment well. And it has helped me think through what reverence is and how we teach and integrate it in our home.
But, every time I pick it up, I am also confronted with how very different this approach is to the shielded and non-curious way most Mormons raise their kids. Sometimes I feel very alone in both bucking the consumerist (world) and Mormon (not of the world) trends in child rearing, and I’m not sure what to do about that.