How Will You Teach Your Child Morality Without Religion?

When kids understand pain, they understand how to cope with stress and how to play well with others -- something you can teach with and without religion.
11/20/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

There is something about raising a child that gives people freedom to invade your space. This weekend, returning from Montauk beach, we stopped at a Greek restaurant to nab grilled lamb chops in tzatziki sauce (fast food roadstops don't cut it). My wife Sarah was breastfeeding our 6-week old at the table while I kept 5-year-old twins entertained. A woman approached the table and stood over us with a wonderful opening line, "I asked my husband if I could come by and look at your baby and here I am." And then she proceeded to gawk. And then 10 seconds later, she talked about her own two children when they were kids. And then I waited out her stories, thanked her, and returned to the menu with my kids. But she still stood there. Ten seconds later, two baby pictures slap beside my dinner plate, as if we were ending a round of Texas hold 'em. Two minutes later, our waitress freed us by jumping the queue.

When my wife was pregnant the first time, a relative by marriage asked me, "If you and Sarah aren't religious, how are you going to teach morals to your kids?" We were talking about lowriders before this thus, I was surprised by the non sequitur. I don't remember being baffled by this issue... I was quite confident I could raise decent kids without the following dialogue:

"Raven, I know you're only 5 and your prefrontal cortex hasn't developed but stop hitting Chloe across the face with the remote control. Raven, the gash over Chloe's eye is starting to split. Raven, her optic nerve is dangling. Raven, she's dying. Raven! Remember the verse Matthew 5:24?... Whew, thats better."

My wife and I have hit a slew of parenting workshops. We absorbed great tips. Remember that babies are visitors to your house. You don't have to shut down the sounds of life because there is a child. Play Social Distortion on the stereo. Dance. Laugh without abandon. Babies will adapt. Get on one knee to talk to kids at eye level. Empathize first, then react. If your kids have the physical capacity to do something, let them do it, and expect them to screw up a little bit less each time. Give them 10 minutes to respond to new situations in their own way, even if its slower than you would. Let them get upset, angry, pissed off and unleash a fury of evil words ("I wish you weren't my parents") without the need to reprimand them or go tit-for-tat. That aggression will become assertiveness if you guide them. You want your kids to be assertive leaders and they need supportive encouragement to get there.

But beyond the basics, parenting experts scare me. If there is one thing I have learned as a psychologist and scientist its that "averages fail to tell the story." We all know the typical research study. Extraverted people are sociable and cheerful whereas introverted people are downtrodden. Happy people are healthier and more creative, altruistic, productive and grittier than less happy people. Sounds sensible until you take a step back and realize that most scientists often ignore a fundamental question. Are there different types or clusters of extraverted people? Introverted people? Happy people? Unhappy people? For instance, in my research lab, we found that not all socially anxious people are shy and quiet and by making this assumption, people fail to understand the complexity of social anxiety. Same goes for personality, happiness and parenting.

Don't let what works for the average parent with the hypothetical average kid guilt or control you. Use expert advice as a template to work from, not an instruction manual to follow sequentially. Some kids respond well to sticks, some kids respond well to carrots. Some kids are more sensitive to context, some kids require an incredible/insane amount of structure. In my humble opinion as a non-expert in parenting, the best thing parents can do is teach their kids how to tolerate pain. With an elixir of love, curiosity, compassion and autonomy. Because pain is coming, in abundance. Its not the only thing parents can do but I am not giving a top 20 list of things parents should focus on.

When kids understand pain, they understand how to cope with stress and how to play well with others -- something you can teach with and without religion.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees, and health professionals on well-being. He authored "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life" and "Designing Positive Psychology." His new book, Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology is available for pre-order. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, see the contact information at