Friday, July 24, 2009

parenting and your worldview

You’ve no doubt wondered how you got to thinking about the world in the way that you do. Turns out your worldview is not really as ‘yours’ as you might like to believe. No need to be alarmed though – it’s not really supposed to be yours. At least not in the way we’ve imagined.
The influence of our parents shapes most of how we look at life (the big questions of meaning and meta-physics, moral codes, social norms). Brain researchers like Dr. Ian Wishaw (one of my professors and a leading brain researcher in Canada) will tell you that most of the neural pathways in your brain are established by the time you reach about 4 or 5 years old (right about the time when language acquisition reaches it ‘boiling point’). Inevitably then the core of our worldview has already been established before we are even aware of us needing or wanting to have one. Sure a child cannot express all of the metaphysical concepts that are expected out of an adult but the foundational neural triggers are already in place to guide the individual toward a specific point of view. Knowing this can help us immensely as parents.
As a reasonable parent, I might be worried that my influence might unduly sway my children toward a particular perspective without the advantages of critical thought on the part of my children. There is a school of thought that advocates critical ‘free’ thinking as a means of allowing children to choose either a religious or an irreligious perspective. The use of the word free is hardly honest when we look at the science. We just are not free thinkers – able to think of anything we wish – we are indelibly constrained by the physical capacity and the environmental influence of our given context. We are not free to reason any which way we want to. But here is what is possible. It is possible for parents to give their children critical thinking skills that actively challenge the perspectives that they have received through parental influence and those they might encounter in various arenas of life.
Ryan’s post here serves to debunk some of the prevailing logic in some of the atheist camps that suggests that free thinking will inevitably lead to an irreligious worldview. Ryan aptly points out how biased the illusion of free thinking really is but he also makes a great point about the need for parents to accept the choices our children make even when they are not the ones we would have preferred. What he doesn’t point out (but I am almost convinced he would agree with) is that every worldview must make a step of faith. Faith is not just relegated to a belief in God. It takes just as much faith to figure we came from some random accident. This should not surprise us since we know that so much of what we receive as worldview as children has to be accepted outright since it is hardly testable by a preadolescent brain. We put faith in our parents and accept their influence. Dale McGowan gets that part of the story right in his latest video on Parenting Beyond Belief. You should watch his video so I have included it here…

I think McGowan gets it in many ways but I do not agree with his parenting strategy around influencing ideological (and ultimately religious) views. His tactic is to frame every conviction he espouses with a caveat that it is merely his opinion and that it should be evaluated against other perspectives on the matter. He banks on the phenomenon of reaction that is typical (and well documented) in the adolescent years where the child will shape their own convictions against those handed to them by their parents. I feel sorry for him. It seems he needs to apologize to his kids for holding a conviction – convictions that I am sure have been found to be very practically useful in his own life. What he has done in my view is devalue even if ever so slightly his own views so that influence that he claims for himself is lost. What will happen when his kids meet someone who is not willing to caveat their convictions in the same way?. Enter Television Evangelist…
I think McGowan is right to suggest that as parents we anticipate the reactive stage and I really like the idea of encouraging our children to encounter other worldviews early on. I also think it is imperative to create the space for our children to make ideological mistakes-to espouse ideological perspectives that are less than accurate. What the child should be aware of early on is that any perspective they choose to hold will meet with a challenge. But instead of a caveat on my beliefs I want to create an atmosphere where my children are already at an early age willing and able to challenge me on my convictions and I can challenge theirs. I said to a friend of mine recently that I want my kids to be exposed to the big questions of life first of all in their own home. What I mean is that there is no way that some pot-shotting atheist philosophy prof ought to be able to gain the upper hand on my child when they enter university. There should be no way that my child should become entranced by the magical spells of the word/faith brand of religion. If my child chooses to accept any of those options I want to know that they have fought hard critically to dispute and rebuff and actively engage the claims of these perspectives. Oh and by the way I expect no less should they choose to follow convictions similar to mine.
I have no qualms telling my kids what I believe because they are my convictions. I also show them that from time to time I am able to admit that I have gotten it wrong when a better argument has been presented. I don’t have to apologize for by opinions or denounce them as trivial since they are my own. I feel good about what I believe and still will come to believe. I have a really hard time with arrogant people who claim to have found ‘the truth’ and refuse to consider the relevant arguments against the position they have taken. I think it is possible to hold convictions strongly while still being humble enough to admit that you are wrong. I hope that is what my kids will see in me. I hope they are willing push and challenge and fight for every inch of ideological ground they gain. “I think that as parents, we do have an obligation to teach our children to think carefully and critically and to honour the choices they make.” (Ryan) The key here is in the last part of the statement. Ideological perspectives are irrelevant if they do not affect action. And conviction should match the willingness to act on those perspectives.
For now though, I am willing to run around the house in my underwear and play my music too loud cause after all they are going to rebel anyways right?


Ryan said...

Good thoughts Dale. I think we absolutely have to find a way to teach our kids to think for themselves (early and often!) while at the same time not hiding whatever wisdom and insight we think we have gained over the years.

I do have a question about this, statement though:

"I feel sorry for him. It seems he needs to apologize to his kids for holding a conviction – convictions that I am sure have been found to be very practically useful in his own life."

I agree with the first part—that we ought not to apologize or understate our convictions—but I'm not sure that practical utility is the ultimate barometer. I have not always found my worldview terribly "practical" yet I still unapologetically present it to my children as the truth—or at least a framework within which to pursue truth. Truth does not always equal utility (I'm not suggesting you're saying this—perhaps Mr. MacGowan might...).

Anyway, I enjoyed the post. Oh, and yes, I do agree that every worldview involves faith. And I affirm your decision to run around your house in your underwear, as long as the music you are listening to loudly while doing so does not originate in the 1980's.

Increasing... said...

Thanks Ryan but the 80's will not go quietly into this dark night of plastic popular music.
As for the comment on utility...
I suppose there might be convictions that one might hold that are not entirely useful but I'm not sure what value there would be in holding them. As for my sentiments toward Mr. MacGowan, I simple meant that I found it odd to be diminuative or apologetic for convictions that one had already found to be useful. I suppose that many of us hold convictions that are not terribly practical, but it would seem to me that unless those convictions affect behaviour at some level they are not really convictions at all. I could understand a more understated approach if the ideological concepts being expressed where speculative in nature.
What you and I might be differing on is the semantic use of the concept of practicalityor usefullness. For me in this context I am using to describe ideology that is helpful in describing and motivating action generally. I am not using these terms to describe ideology that is most beneficial or expedient given the circumstances (which is a perfectly legitimate use of the terms but not the meaning I was intending to attach to them in my post)
I hope that does not muddy the waters too much...