A concerned prospective father sent me a message asking,
“I’d like to learn something as a good father from you. Considering that you’re an atheist, how can teach your children how to behave in good manner and ethic. Because when I was a kid, my parents used to tell me “Be good boy and tidy your room then God will bless you…etc.” I don’t want to say these words to my children as a prospective father. And i wonder what do you say?”
It’s great that you are concerned about being a good father and are looking for the best way to teach and enforce moral values with your child. I wouldn’t want to say those words either, obviously since not only do I feel they are empty promises but they are also counterproductive to our ultimate aim. “Be good and you will be blessed, will go to heaven, or else you will face hell fire, etc…” are nothing more than operant conditions designed to persuade one to act and behave a certain way. It is counterproductive because you don’t want to teach your children to only behave in an acceptable manner simply because they will be rewarded if they do, and punished if they don’t. You want them to behave and live morally because it is the right thing to do and is in their best interest. They shouldn’t have to be motivated by threats of hell fire or promises of heaven or blessings to behave. Because if they are only being good to avoid punishment or to attain a reward, these actions are hardly as worthy and honorable as one who is simply good for goodness’ sake. The real test of character is how one behaves when they believe nobody is watching. So I, as an atheist, teach my children to be good for goodness’ sake. I teach them secular ethics. Be good because it is the right thing to do and it is in THEIR best interest to be moral and well mannered. Instead of threatening them with a punishment or offering them an extra reward for behaving I educate them on the importance and value of being well-mannered and moral on their own.
I think educating them is the key. It is important to educate our children that there are consequences for ones actions and the consequences are very real (opposed to an appeal to supernatural consequences). I give them examples of those that have misbehaved in the past and how their actions rendered real world immediate negative consequences that were not in their or anyone’s best interest. I teach them good behavior minimizes negative consequences, and bad behavior increases if not eventually guarantees’ the likelihood of negative consequences. So it is in THIER best interest that they are well-behaved. I teach them not be good for me, but to be good for themselves. When they realize that being good is for them and contributes to their well-being, then they are truly self-motivated to be good, rather than just behaving because we say to. They learn self-respect and gain an understanding that their actions have long lasting effects that eventually return a relative equal echo. And by “relative equal echo” I’m not suggesting karma; I’m suggesting a corresponding consequence rendered through causality.
For a father to teach his children these things, it is important that we have an understanding of what moral values are, where they come from, and their importance. Moral values are created by man and are formed, shaped, and influenced through society, philosophy, individual conscience, culture, and experience. They are rules to live by that are understood to be beneficial to us individually, the community, and to the whole of humankind. Good behavior directly or indirectly ultimately contributes to our individual survival as well as the survival of the species. Moral values evolve over time relative to mankind’s progression and increasing knowledge of life, the world, and the universe. For example, the moral values of today are quite different then they used to be hundreds of years ago. While some values have not changed, many have. One moral value that seems rather timeless, is the golden rule, “treat others how you would like to be treated” or “don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.” Everyone seems to be able to connect to this. It comes down to reciprocity. But even this is debatable since not everyone shares the same values and holds the same interests.
And since times do change, I feel it is very important to teach our children how to think for themselves, to be independent thinkers so that they have the ability to make sense out of whatever comes their way on their own in the future. I focus on teaching them how to think, not what to think. I teach them the importance of reason, logic, problem solving, evidence, etc… tools that give them the ability to make informed decisions. I typically form a type of Socratic dialog with them so that they can learn how to formulate their thoughts and come to a conclusion themselves. I believe with these skills, this will allow them to formulate their own opinions and ideas about their world and lives. I teach them the mechanics on how to come to their own well-reasoned conclusions. We exchange healthy dialog and I encourage them to ask questions.
So as fathers, we can do our best to teach our children these things, but the real challenge and test comes when our children are influenced and conditioned at school, with their friends, on the bus, etc.. If they spend a significant amount of time in conditions with ill-behaved people that go about as though their behavior is acceptable, our child will have be able to recognize and identify this behavior as improper despite these people portraying it as acceptable. We can only hope that we have taught them well enough, to identify such behavior as such and not to be discouraged or negatively influenced amongst the extent of ill-mannered people that they will certainly encounter. So we have to also teach our children that there are others that aren’t as well behaved as we are recommending our child to be. We can go on to teach them that just because some people act in a certain ill-manner way (sometimes the numbers can be large), doesn’t mean it is okay or okay for them to behave likewise because others are doing it. This is why it is important that we teach our kids to think for themselves, so that they can recognize these situations and make the right decision.
When our children do happen to misbehave because they don’t yet understand the value of good conduct, we should be patient and not be discouraged, we should understand that they don’t understand yet, we have to acknowledge that there are other environmental influences contributing to and influencing them to behave the way they are. We must identify these things to them and continue to educate and explain to them how their specific behavior was not in their best interest (and perhaps even infringed on the well-being of others). Give them alternatives, “had you of behaved this way instead, things would have turned out better” These explanations should not be too generalized; they should contain moderately detailed examples reflecting the immediate circumstance and offer alternate better options. Ask them what they were thinking at the time, what led them to behave that way, etc… figure it out, explain it to them, and offer better options and explain why these alternate behaviors would have benefited them more.
As far as religious influence, it is important to understand that moral values do not come from religion or a belief in a god. Religion just attempts to “resell” moral values as their own and goes so far as to say these values come from a “higher authority” in a attempt to make these moral values “seem” objective rather than man-made subjective values. But ones moral compass does not come from religion, it is outside of religion, because it is with this same moral compass that one is able to determine what is “right” and “wrong” “good” and “bad” in a religion. It doesn’t come from it. Theists pick and choose what to believe is right and good in the bible according to the moral values of modern times. The moral compass they use to pick and choose what to adhere to in the bible and what not to did not come from the bible they are pondering. So religion and/or a belief in a god is not necessary to live morally.
An atheist father is no more challenged than a theist father in trying to teach his children moral values and good behavior. We have the same challenge, but an atheist doesn’t appeal to consequences caused by supernatural intervention to persuade their child to behave (such as threatening a child with fear of hell fire which has the potential to psychologically damage a young mind), if an atheist were to appeal to consequences in an attempt to persuade their child to behave, they would appeal to natural real world identifiable consequences.