Empty vessels

An assortment of clay pots in various sizes

The biggest privilege that anyone gets in life is the chance to teach another person.

Most of the people we meet come to us as fully formed adults, with their own opinions, their own values and their own outlook forged by their experiences. We can converse with them, we can exchange ideas with them, but we rarely persuade them.

More often, when we encounter someone we disagree with, we strike sparks. We each come away more convinced: us of our beliefs, they of theirs. In the face of cognitive dissonance, people grow stubborn. They reject advice, they harden themselves, they cling tighter to what they think. It’s extraordinarily rare to say something to another person that makes a lasting change in the course of their lives.

But when it happens, it’s a feeling like no other. It’s a blossoming, something huge and wonderful arising from something small, like dropping a pebble that changes the course of a river, or planting an acorn and seeing it grow into a towering tree. It’s a ripple that spreads outward forever, passing through the world and leaving it changed. It’s attainable immortality, not the fantasy versions peddled by religion: lasting proof that you lived, that your life mattered to someone, that you made a difference.

This, I’m convinced, is the thrill of being a cult leader. Having people like putty in your hands, hanging on your every word and treating it as holy truth, is an incredible rush of power. It’s a temptation that few people can resist. But, of course, most of us will never get to be the head of our own cult.

The other, at least slightly more attainable, way to have this privilege is to have kids.

Children come into the world, if not as blank slates, then as empty vessels wanting to be filled. They have a boundless, instinctive curiosity, understandable in the light of evolutionary history. They’re hungry to learn everything about this place in which they find themselves.

In my almost eight years of being a parent, I’ve found this out for myself every single day. My son bubbles with questions, effervescent, like a glass of champagne. He wants to know everything there is to know. And I’m doing my best to oblige him.

I’ve taught him about religion and mythology, about the immense tapestry of human imagination with which we’ve peopled the heavens. I’ve taught him about science, about evolution and cosmology, the scientific method and skepticism. I’ve told him about history, from the Roman Empire to the Vikings to the colonial era to civil rights. I’ve taught him about literature, music, art and chess, and probably more things I’m forgetting.

In short, our kids are empty vessels, and it’s our duty as parents to fill them. We pour ourselves into them, our ideas and our knowledge. We hope (as every generation before us hoped) that we can pass on our accumulated wisdom so they start on a higher step than we did, so they don’t have to learn through painful experience.

As an inevitable part of this, we also pass on our values. Any good parent aspires to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong – and that seemingly simple task brings with it a whole cosmos of moral reasoning. Whether we teach that morality is utilitarian happiness-maximizing, or following universally applicable rules, or obeying tradition or religious dogmas, either way it makes a huge difference in how they conceive of good and bad. Even if you try your hardest to be value-neutral and to let your kids make up their own minds, you can’t help but pass on your values by demonstrating what you care about.

Getting to do this is both a privilege and an opportunity. It’s an unparalleled chance to shape the life of another person in lasting ways.

However, some parents – especially religious fundamentalists and other cultic belief systems – make the mistake of thinking that means they can make their kids turn out any way they wish. It’s the logic of the famous Jesuit saying, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.”

But it’s not true. Kids may be empty vessels, in the sense that they initially lack knowledge which we can impart to them through our teaching and our example. But they’re not soft clay that we can mold into any form we choose. Vases can all hold liquid, but they’re not all the same shape. Just so are our children. They come into the world with their own unique mix of traits which parenting can’t alter. The lessons you impart, when poured into them, may yield something completely different than what you expect.

Many parents resist this conclusion, but I don’t. As an atheist, I believe in individual freedom, and I try to parent in accordance with that philosophy. Of course, I want my son to grow into a good and ethical person, to be successful in life, and to be happy. But I’ve already accepted that he won’t be a carbon copy of me.

And that’s a good thing! Unlike religious dogmatists, I’m not so arrogant as to believe I’m infallible or that I have all the answers. We should all hope that our kids will know more and do better than we will. We shouldn’t want them to echo us, but to surpass us.

I see my role as a parent not as mapping my child’s course through life, deciding their beliefs and their interests in advance. Rather, it’s helping them figure out who they want to become. However my son turns out, I’m sure it will come as a surprise – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t wait to see what that empty vessel will become when it’s filled.


  1. Katydid says

    As the parent of two grown kids, I heartily agree: they are their own people, and it’s obvious from the time they’re very small. You can live your morals and do your best to set a good example, and sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly, it takes, which is why there’s the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.

    • says

      Yes, I’d agree that kids resemble their parents on average. I’d also say that parents have more influence on their kids than anyone else, but there’s two ways that can happen – either by kids embracing their parents’ beliefs, or by repudiating them and going to the opposite pole. I’ve seen that happen both with liberal and conservative families I know.

  2. says

    I agree with your approach.
    Here is one way I started to teach my younger daughter about the value of evidence. When she was little, like two or so, but had started talking I would do things like give her arm a little tickle. She would say ‘You’re tickling me daddy!”
    I would ask her how she knew it was me and she would point to my finger, which was party of my hand, which was attached to my arm, etc. etc.
    I absolutely believe that the most important thing we can teach our kids is how to think for themselves.

    • says

      Excellent parenting suggestion!

      Teaching kids to ask how we know what we know, in my opinion, is far more important than teaching them any specific set of facts.

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