Wendy Thomas Russell is an award-winning journalist, author, and editor. Here we talk about her story and views, and work.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s provide some minor background on you. What is your story?
Wendy Thomas Russell: I was raised in the Midwest — Nebraska and Missouri — and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a journalism degree. I’ve spent more than half my life in Southern California, though. First I worked as a newspaper reporter, where I discovered a passion for investigative journalism and creative nonfiction. Then, in 2008, I branched out into book-writing. Eight years later, I founded my own small press, which specializes in contemporary nonfiction. I live in Long Beach with my husband, Charlie, and 13-year-old daughter, Maxine.
Jacobsen: How did you discover talent in writing, editing and publishing?
Russell: When I was in fourth grade, my teacher pulled me aside and told me I was a good writer. I was blown away. My parents had always enjoyed my childhood poetry and what-not, but I sort of thought that was their bias talking. Then, when I went to work for my first daily newspaper, I took an editing test as a prerequisite. The editor told me afterward that no one had ever sacred as high on the test as I had. As for publishing, I’m still waiting for someone to tell me I’ve got talent in that department.
Jacobsen: When did you come into the secular community or find, at least, a secular community?
Russell: My blog — which was initially called Relax, It’s Just God but then later morphed into Natural Wonderers on the Patheos network — was my first foray into the secular community. From the get-go, I had a lot of support from Dale McGowan (Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers), who provided another natural inroad.
Jacobsen: Why did you decide to write the book Relax It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious (2015)?
Russell: When my daughter was five, she informed me that God had made her. It was a factoid she’d managed to pick up at preschool from a Jewish friend, and it took me completely by surprise and, if I’m being honest, scared me quite a lot. Until then, I sort of thought not talking about God or religion was an acceptable child-rearing choice. But I was wrong. It quickly became apparent to me that if I wanted to raise a critical thinker who was open-minded and tolerant and literate enough in religion to not feel like an idiot outcast in school, I needed to start having some conversations. As I started to explore, I started to realize that my perspective and experience could be helpful to others in my situation.
Jacobsen: What are the ways in which secularism can be seen as a positive for both religious and secular families in the context of education about religion?
Russell: Secularism, like most isms, is only as positive or negative as the people who wield it. People can do shitty things in the name of secularism, and they can do wonderful things, too. In the context of religious literacy, I’m an advocate for teaching children a little bit about all religions in a neutral way.
- “Easter is a holiday that celebrates the day that Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven.”
- “That lady is wearing is a hijab. It shows she is a Muslim.”
- “Your teacher is going to Israel on what’s called a ‘pilgrimage.’ That’s a sacred custom in the Jewish tradition because Israel is the birthplace of Judaism.”
Jacobsen: In terms of the main steps of secular parenting about religion, what is a proper way to do it, e.g., no endorsement while no denigration too?
Russell: I think it’s helpful to remember that speaking about religion in relatively neutral language won’t entice kids to that religion; but it may very well keep them from saying offensive things to nice people — whether on the playground or at family reunions — or from formulating unfair prejudices. I define indoctrination as teaching children that your way is the only acceptable way to believe and that people who disagree with those beliefs are less moral, intelligent or worthy of respect. Religious people can introduce their children to their beliefs and celebrate them without indoctrinating them; secular people can, too. You can tell a child you firmly believe your way is “true” without telling her that other ways are bad or stupid. I think that’s an important distinction.
Jacobsen: If you could add anything to the original version of the text, what would it be for you?
Russell: An index.
Jacobsen: When can secular parents be rude? When can religious parents be rude?
Russell: Do you mean when are they rude, or when is it acceptable to be rude? People are rude all the time, for any number of reasons. (Particularly on Twitter!) But that’s rarely our base goal. Rudeness (which, in my mind, connotes a snarky-ness or carelessness of words) generally stems from fear, or is a byproduct of a person’s attempts to get his or her needs met in any particular moment. We can all do better at interacting with people who disagree with us, but it takes deep breaths and conscious effort. A secular parent, like anyone else, can be assertive and honest and straightforward without being mean.
Jacobsen: Any other upcoming books? Any recommended authors?
Russell: I just co-wrote a second book, called ParentShift: Ten Universal Truths That Will Change the Way You Raise Your Kids. The book is entirely evidenced-based and structured around ten principles that apply to all children everywhere — regardless or religion or geography or ethnicity or anything else. They are things like: All children have emotional needs (and, incidentally, respond in surprisingly predictable ways when those needs aren’t met!); All children need age-appropriate limits; All children have neurological responses to stress; All children need opportunities to solve their own problems; All children model their primary caregivers; All children go through developmental stages and have unique temperaments; All children need caregivers who honor their personal boundaries… etc.
Unfortunately, a lot of the everyday disciplinary tools we use with our kids — timeouts, threats, raising our voices, revoking privileges, grounding, 1-2-3 Magic, star charts, bribery, rewards, manipulative praise — undermine one or more of these universal truths and, as a result, sabotage so many of the short- and long-term goals we have for our kids. And, the truth is, we don’t need any of that stuff. It’s completely unnecessary and just makes our lives harder. ParentShift provides dozens of alternative tools, all of which do two incredibly important things: Preserve each child’s sense of self-worth, and build an impenetrably close bond between parent and child.
As a side note: Although the book is for all parents everywhere, secular parents who may harbor worries that their kids will fall victim to the indoctrination of others will find the book invaluable. After all, our influence on our kids is only as strong as our relationship with them, and their ability to withstand pressure from the outside world is only as strong as their self-esteem.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Russell: Nope, you’ve covered it. Thanks for the opportunity!
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Wendy.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.