Ask Mandisa 5 – Secular Parenting

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the, if not the, largest organization for African-American or black nonbelievers or atheists in America. The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community. I reached out to begin an educational series with one of the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States. Here, we talk about secular parenting.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The basic principles of parenting do not change, whether religious or secular/atheist or believer. You mentioned a story in personal life with report cards with the youngest and the oldest child for you. 

What are the basics or ground rules for good parenting? What are the means of eking out justice for violations of rules set out ahead of time?

Mandisa Thomas: I think many believers think atheists do not have rules and do what we want to do as far as our lives are concerned. That is not true. For parenting, it is setting rules for them. When it comes to education, we take it very, very seriously.

We offer as much help and advice as we can. We stay on top of them. We make sure they are doing their homework. We make sure they are doing their work. When they do well, we reward them. We take them out for dinner or give them something they like.

When they do not, we take away privileges. There is TV time on weekends. We can take that away. We do not allow our younger children to watch TV during the week. So, on the weekend, if you are not doing well in school, you will not watch TV at all, not play video games.

You will do the work, study more. We will make sure you are improving in that area. For us, we like to set those rules early to make sure that they know the educational process is important. That they are not going to rely on this rule being something negotiable.

Jacobsen: If this comes to things with significant impact over the long-term in a young person’s life, especially in a knowledge economy now, how do you gauge how a child is doing in education at various levels? 

How do you keep them in bounds in terms of satisfactory to even exceptional grades?

Thomas: It is important to understand every child learns differently. That not every child will be as academically inclined as others. My middle child is more of a creative type. He is more of the type that tends to like working more with his hands than actual readings of the books and such.

But we do challenge them to go beyond their comfort zone. My middle son, my oldest son, who did not have as good of a report card this quarter. We will challenge him to do more reading at his grade level or above.

For that, we understand that he does not have to read all the hard science or literature books, but the basic stuff. He needs to keep up with the work. If there is something that he is trying to give up on doing, we will make sure that he is engaged in the learning process.

So, he gets better. We do not allow our children to give up on anything, especially not when it comes to their schoolwork. They are not allowed to just tap out and give up there. Now, there are extracurricular activities that are not necessarily of interest to them.

My sons do not like basketball or sports that much. That is okay with us. They are at Taekwondo and things like that. So, we do not push them to sports that kids are expected to like. But when it comes to schoolwork, if they need help, we always encourage them to ask questions and let us know when they need help with tutors or tutoring.

When they need assistance, we can get it to them. But we will not know unless they tell us, or if we look back on their work, which is something that we do. All our children have been raised independently enough to speak out, speak their minds, when they are behind.

So, we do not need to check up on them. Or there will need to be a bit of a disciplinary action on our part, or certain privileges will be revoked should the performance not improve.

Jacobsen: How do you work to build those relationships with faculty, administrators, teachers and community to provide a proper environment for not only your own kids but other kids, especially living in a pluralistic community with a variety of faiths and non-faiths?

Thomas: We make sure we keep an open line of communication between ourselves and the teachers. They have all our contact information. So, if there is a problem in any form, we can respond and communicate very quickly. We can respond very quickly.

Because we are such a liberal and progressive household. Our doors are pretty much always open. We allow our kids to participate in most activities that are of interest to them. Even if we do not engage with our neighbours all the time, we make sure we are friendly and communicating enough.

That if they need something then we will be right there. That has been very, very helpful for us with older children. We have a daughter who just graduated college. We have pre-teen and teenage boys too. Keeping the line of communication open has been, first and foremost, the most important thing.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

Thomas: Thank you.

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