Olivia’s Story: Helping a Young Freethinker Blossom: Dina Davis

By Dina Davis

As my oldest child, a headstrong girl named Olivia, started first grade last year, the challenges associated with raising my two children as young freethinkers started to emerge. While I was not surprised that Olivia would enjoy her fair share of verbal confrontation at a young age, I was a little surprised that she would be singled out for her nonbelief by a Christian classmate at the tender age of seven.

It all started with the basic question, Do you believe in God?” My daughter answered matter-of-factly with a simple, “No.” The unrelenting intensity of the young boy’s verbal assault on my daughter over the next several weeks left me stunned. As a typical clueless parent, I had no idea that seven-year-olds could be so entrenched in religious beliefs. Given the natural curiosity of this age group, it was surprising to find that a child preferred to tell his classmates that they’re going to hell over finding out why someone has different beliefs from his own.

One day, while discussing a classmate’s birthday in class, my daughter’s Christian classmate asked the teacher when God’s birthday was. To my amazement, Olivia told me that her teacher actually tried to answer this question rather than recommending that this kid talk to his parents or church about it. Olivia told me that she felt isolated in her class, thinking that she was the only one who didn’t believe in her classmate’s god.

This same seven-year-old ramped up his attacks by telling every first-grader with ears about Olivia’s impending trip to hell. He even expressed his Christian outrage about Olivia to a fellow classmate who, by all appearances, has a strong Hindu influence in his life. I decided it was time to take action as a parent. The time had come to contact the school about the situation, as it was causing increasing discomfort for my daughter to attend school.

One never knows what kind of reaction you’ll get from someone when you come out as an atheist. I prepared myself for a short, awkward conversation with the school’s principal about my family’s nonbelief and the problems that Olivia was having with her classmate. The principal was very professional about it and referred us to the school’s counselor, Kate. I steeled myself for a similar short, awkward conversation with the counselor and made the call. After introducing myself and telling her about Olivia’s situation, Kate opened up and admitted that she, too, was a freethinker. I couldn’t believe our luck!

Olivia found huge relief in the conversations she had with the counselor. Kate shared her stories of growing up as a nonbeliever and helped Olivia to understand that she is not alone in her convictions. Even more important, Kate helped Olivia realize how courageous she is for having a different point of view and for sticking to it when others question it. Kate provided a well-timed boost of Olivia’s confidence and self-esteem.

Counselor Kate intervened in the classroom with activities and discussions on diversity aimed at the first-grade crowd. One of the activities involved the class working together to build a paper person, then tearing it apart while hurling insults at it. After tearing pieces of their paper person apart, the children discussed how it must have felt for their paper classmate to endure the insults and injury. Given what I overheard from at least two of the children after school that day, the exercise was thought-provoking.

Admittedly, we were fortunate to have such a great counselor working at our school. Given the great diversity of the student body, I feel strongly about speaking out against the religious intolerance that my daughter and a few of her classmates were experiencing. This disrespectful behavior was bound to alienate children from other cultures within the classroom–children who may not have the confidence or are too fearful to speak up about it.

This school year, I was pleased that my request to have Olivia assigned to a different teacher had been honored (I let Olivia make this choice for herself). Just three weeks into second grade, however, Olivia came home exasperated. Another classmate had asked her whether she believed in god. Again, my husband and I talked with her about how proud we are as parents that she stands up for herself and chooses to question what other people won’t.

At this point, we realized that we needed to develop a strategy that would help Olivia cope with the question of whether she believes in god. We came up with an idea for a game, usually played during dinner or while driving in the car. The premise of the game is that there is no quicker way to drive someone crazy than by answering their question with another question.

The starting question is always, “Do you believe in God?” Olivia’s first response is usually, “Why do you ask?” As clever parents, we generally evade her first question and repeat the first question to her or some variation of it. She fires back another question as a response and the game progresses like a verbal ping-pong match until either she tires of the conversation or her opponent becomes confused or annoyed.

When presented with a statement from her opponent such as, “If you don’t believe in god, you’re going to hell,” Olivia casually responds with, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Olivia’s favorite ending zinger question is, “Have you ever considered becoming an astronaut?,” which has the effect of changing the subject without the opposing party realizing what just happened.

The beauty of this exercise is that as Olivia gets older, the conversation has the potential to turn into a thought-provoking debate with a classmate. As the parent of a blossoming freethinker, I can’t wait to see it evolve from the evasive maneuver it is today into a discussion that helps open young minds.

“My daughter and I are life-long, free-thinking residents of Washington State. I became an atheist at the age of 15, shortly before submitting a term paper entitled ‘The Non-Existence of God’ to my Jesuit humanities professor. Since earning my BS degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, I have worked various jobs, from forensics engineering to systems safety engineering. Engineering is straightforward and simple when compared to my current challenge raising two young freethinkers. My future plans include running for an elected office, the ultimate atheist taboo. Olivia is my strong-willed, free-thinking, rabble-rousing second-grader. Her future plans include attending Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft, just like her hero, Harry Potter. But that could change by next year.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation