A mindful take on (non)tradition

Two years ago I blogged about why I don’t do Santa with my kids, and what I wrote still stands. So far there have been no issues; we simply don’t make Santa a part of our Christmas traditions, and AJ hasn’t noticed anything lacking. AJ is in preschool now so she hears a lot about Santa, and she talks about him sometimes. Sometimes I’m not sure whether she really knows that Santa is make-believe or whether she thinks he’s real, but the same could be said about her relationship to many other fictional characters.

Most parents who do Santa with their kids try to reverse-engineer the myth to teach good values and give greater meaning to holiday traditions. They reframe Santa as being symbolic of the spirit of giving, an example of generosity, a lesson on how to have childlike wonder and imagination, etc. Obviously I don’t think any of these explanations really work as a justification. I think they are all afterthoughts to a longstanding tradition that most people follow simply because it is a longstanding tradition.

I read this article, The holiday lies we tell our children, encouraging mindfulness in parents who do Santa. The article encourages parents to keep up the Santa lie for as long as possible in order to keep these reverse-engineered values alive and to test their kids’ ability to figure it out for themselves. For me it further shed light on how ridiculous today’s iteration of the Santa tradition is, and it saddens me to see the level at which some parents undermine their children’s intellect by telling lie after lie to keep the charade going. However, the end of the article has a series of tips for parents on how to be mindful about holiday traditions, and I found them thought-provoking. Below are excerpts from the four tips in the article and my thoughts on how they apply to my family:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s inner experience

What does Santa mean to your child?  You can ask, “When you imagine Santa, what do you feel/think/experience?”  A child needs a sense of mystery, of wonder (actually, we all do).  Learn to sense the world though your child’s imagination.

  1. Be aware of your own inner experience

To me, a mindful parent is one who is aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing what they are doing.  A mindful parent is also tracking the impact what they do has on their child.  So in regard to our cultural myths, why are you retelling the myth?  What does Santa, or whatever myths you tell, mean to you?

The two points above made me realize that I have my own reasons for being anti-Santa, and my reasons may not resonate with my children. They have their own inner experience of the way we celebrate holidays that’s different from mine. So it’s important that I not only be mindful of my own reasons for not doing Santa, but also consider it from my children’s perspectives and try to reframe our Santa-free Christmas in ways that are meaningful for them.

Granted, my kids are only 1 and 4, so they have no way of really understanding what holiday traditions mean yet. But I already know a lot about their personalities, and one thing I know is that they are both Feelers. I am a Thinker, and most of my reasons for not doing Santa are Thinking-based. Objective truth is more important to me than personal feelings. Not lying to my kids or undermining their rationality is more important to me than giving them a feely, magical, mysterious experience. But as Feelers, they would probably value the magic, mystery, and camaraderie of being Santa-believers more than the rationality. So I need to give them other holiday traditions that emphasize a feeling of wonder, mystery, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. And when they’re old enough for me to explain why I didn’t do the Santa rigamarole with them, I will emphasize those reasons that tap into their sense of empathy and justice rather than the reasons having to do with objective truth and skepticism.

  1. Convey your family and community history

What are the traditions and rites that your family or community celebrate?  If they come from some established tradition, then many of the values and norms you pass along are long-standing and steeped in history.

My husband and I don’t really follow any long-standing traditions and norms, and that’s one of the things I love about our family. As skeptics, we carefully consider each value, belief, tradition, and ritual that we adopt and pass on to our children, so there are no family or religious traditions that are not of our own making. However, our values have their own bases, and one of them is that my husband and I are both Rationals (intuitive thinkers, or NTs). We need to be mindful of that because as our children are Feelers, we will need to explain our values to them in ways that they can connect with and find personal meaning in, as well as help them understand who we are.

  1. Define your rites of passage

What are our rites, our transitions?  How do we move from one stage to the next?  A mindful parent is having two conversations at once with a child.  The one related to the thing we’re talking about, and the one related to what that thing actually is spokesperson for.  Our culture is losing many rites of passage, of passage from one stage to the next.  As we are a symbolic species, we relate to allegory, myth, story, narrative, archetypes, character and so on.  Symbolism allows us to relate a learning from one circumstance to another.  It’s how we generalize our learning, and one of the ways we pass down information from one generation to the next.

I don’t think of my children’s growth as being in discrete stages with thresholds through which they pass from one to the next, and I don’t view any aspect of our holiday traditions as being “only for kids” or “only for adults”. In my own experience, rites of passage have never been defined by traditions or ritual but have always been organic, derived from lived experiences as I make my own meaning continuously through life. That said, I understand that many people do derive meaning from traditions and rituals as rites of passage, especially children. That is a topic for another discussion, and something I will have to think a lot more about. Symbolism, narrative, and myth can be helpful ways to define and interpret life experiences, and I want to honor that for my kids in ways that also honor reason.

An atheist mom

Apparently, a lot of people who don’t know better think my husband and I are Mormon. I can see where they might get that impression: we got married and had a child quickly, and at a relatively young age compared to our college-educated peers. I’m a stay-at-home-mom. My husband wears glasses and unstylish button-down shirts. I don’t drink caffeinated beverages.

If you’re one of the readers who clicked over to INTP Mom from my old blogs, Leaving Eden and Peaceful Atheist, you might know me as a former evangelical Christian who became an atheist while attending a renowned Christian college. A lot of people ask me if I’m still an atheist. I am, but atheism takes up surprisingly little residence in my mind now. I rarely read or talk about atheism or religion anymore. I would happily discuss it if asked but I don’t feel the need to initiate conversations about it.

My husband KJ is an agnostic and skeptic who never dabbled in religion. For him there was never a God, never the promise of eternal life, never a divine plan for his life. All of these things were once central aspects of my life, and when I became an atheist, I had to deal with the absence of them. KJ and I have very similar philosophies about life, morality, and values. For him, skepticism has simply always been the obvious, common sense way to live. That’s why, even though our beliefs about God and the supernatural are the same, he calls himself agnostic while I call myself an atheist.

Atheism is simultaneously very important and very unimportant in my life. I don’t think about it, but it affects every area of my life. Here’s a little bit of what being an atheist looks like for me:

Because there is no divine plan, I know that I am responsible for what happens in my life. I don’t expect things to be accomplished in my life unless I accomplish them. I don’t make decisions lightly because I know there is no such thing as fate. I know that there are direct consequences for all of my decisions and actions (and all of my indecisions and inactions), from my career choices to the amount of polyunsaturated fat in my diet.

Because there is no God to sin against, I know that the only forgiveness I need for my transgressions is from the people affected by them. I spend my time and energy on trying to do better instead of lingering over my unworthiness.

Because there is no afterlife, I know that the time I have with my family is limited. I savor every moment with them and I never miss an opportunity to give my husband or daughter a kiss.

Because there is no God, my husband and I know we are our child’s best supporters, advocates, and protectors. We do everything we can to keep her healthy and safe. We make sure she gets all her vaccinations on time, save and plan for her future, and keep up with the latest developments in pediatrics and child safety. We make every parenting decision consciously because we know that the molding of her character depends on our guidance, not divine guidance.

Eventually I would like to blog more about atheism, especially as it pertains to parenting. So far it hasn’t been a subject of focus because my daughter is so young and other concerns have taken precedence. If there are any specific topics you would like me to blog about, let me know.