There was a similar question to this one on moms4mom.com but I had trouble finding it earlier.

My husband and I were raised Catholic, but neither of us believe any more. We have two daughters, and I'd like to raise them with morals without constantly breaking out the Bible or Catechism. I'm currently reading Parenting Beyond Belief, but I'm looking for suggestions as to strategies or methods for teaching solid moral foundations without reliance upon specific religious materials.

  • I've made some edits to try and avoid this becoming a request for a list of books and other resources, as such "list requests" are generally a poor fit for our format. Please feel free to bring this up in Parenting Meta if you disagree with the edit.
    – user420
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 13:48

13 Answers 13


You raise them with morals by being good parents and instilling your own values upon them. Morals don't require some form of sanctioned text books.

  • 1
    Agreed. Especially since there are so many different ideas about what the phrase 'good morals' even means.
    – mmr
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 0:07
  • 2
    Basically my answer. You have your morals for reasons other than your religion now. You were raised that way but now you keep those morals for other reasons. Make sure your kids know WHY you continue to keep those morals. Pros and cons of keeping them or going against them (Why you think they should wait for sex: might get pregnant, diseases, complicates relationships, other than just the religious reasons you grew up with)
    – BillyNair
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 6:08

I think the only difference teaching morals as a non-religious parent is that you explain the reason FOR the moral, too. Religious parents may or may not. You don't just do onto your neighbor as you'ld have him do to you. You do it so everybody stays happy and nobody cries. It doesn't have to be just "because Jesus said so" or "it's written in...". There are very common sense reasons for all the morals people have come up with over the ages.

But in all cases, you need to LIVE those morals. Don't tell the child to put away the toys if you're not willing to get up off your butt and help him. Or if you're not willing to keep the house clean yourself.

There's also nothing WRONG with SHOWing the kid the bible or whatever book, either. There's actually some pretty good stuff in Song of Solomon and a few other spots. There's some total junk, too, (virginity, dowries and stuff) but that's life.

As with all things religious, your child will eventually need to decide for himSELF whether to be religious or not. Although, in my opinion, I just don't understand how you can expect all that stuff to be absolutely true when enough of it has been proven false enough, that you can tell it was made up by man.

I'm a grandpa now, so i have some experience in this matter.


I think one of the main benefits of religion is that it gives you an external framework to help determine what is the right course of action that isn't susceptible to your own personal whims and changing desires.

This can be attained by other means if you are not religious. I am Catholic but I also tend to go by a coda loosely based on deontology and Kant's categorical imperatives:

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

When teaching my kids, I word this along the lines of "What is the rule you are going by? What if everyone followed that rule? How would the world look? Do you want to live in a world like that?"

For example, say one of my kids stole something from their siblings. I would probably say something like "You took that from your brother. Is that an ok thing to do?" "How did he react?" "How would you react if he did that to you?" "What would happen if everyone was constantly going around taking other people's stuff and people were reacting like that?"

  • 1
    Yes! Teaching empathy is critical for understanding the necessity of a moral code.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 14:31

It sounds like you are having difficulty because you were raised in a religion that used scripture to support moral learning, and now having turned away from religion—but not necessarily your values—you feel you need an equivalent in order to teach your children appropriate behavior.

It may help you to think of religion in a more secular form: religion can be thought of as a social formation in which a community has agreed to appropriate behavior through the interpretation of scripture. When learning social rules (or when one is chastised by the community), scripture is used to demonstrate the community-sanctioned behavior.

You can do this without necessarily using scripture. You can involve your children in it too.

  1. Write down your household law. This should include everything that is non-negotiable, for instance, "We treat everyone with respect and kindness. We help each other. We share and take turns. We listen when others are talking. When we can't resolve disputes with words, we bring the issue to Mommy. We do not hit unless we are in mortal peril. We do not yell unless we are in mortal peril."
  2. Discuss these rules with your kids (if they are old enough). Talk about why these things are important. Not because it says so in the Bible, although obviously you can use it if you choose, but because these rules provide fairness and justice to every family member.
  3. Post the rules somewhere they can be seen, like a wall or refrigerator. Talk about examples of rule infractions, discuss alternative courses of action, and praise them when they apply the rules and most especially when they apply the reasoning behind the rules.

You don't need a book or Ceiling Cat to justify your values. As a parent, you are your child's highest moral authority. As Thackeray said, "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children."

But hey, no pressure, right? We all just do the best we can.

  • Can I please +10 this? Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 15:16
  • Yeah, right, no pressure ;-)
    – Treb
    Commented Aug 2, 2012 at 13:05

Much of what the Dalai Lama has written provides wonderful guidelines for living and for being a human being, without tying into any particular religion (even his own). His new book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World proposes a secular ethics which aims to go beyond religion (or be independent of it). I also found his The Art of Happiness very compelling. In this book, he cites compassion as the most important value. A virtue that quite naturally follows from compassion is tolerance, which incidentally forms one of the founding pillars of Dutch society.


In my mind, it's not really about religion or beliefs; it's about values and you surely have values regardless of what you (not) believe in.

I am not religious and I don't use a book or a spokesperson to tell me what is right and wrong, and why. I have a "gut feeling," an inner sense that directs me. Most of this is totally obvious and straightforward to me; if you question me why I think that stealing is bad, it's simple for me to explain. For simple things, I often exaggerate the idea to make the consequences evident: Picking 1 chewing gum isn't going to harm the store, but what if every single customer did that?

Some issues are more delicate, or have a bigger grey zone -- when are you old enough to (insert activity X here), when is abortion justified, etc. -- and this is where you can have solid, grown-up discussions with other people (and especially your spouse and children) to discover alternate points of view and arguments for them.

In a non-religious environment, morals and values are based on the effect of the consequences. So the resources you are looking for are activities that can uncover these consequences. You can start out softly with discussions and ramp it up into statistics, demographics, studies, and whatever scientific approaches seem appropriate or applicable.


I think non-religious households teach morals in much more understandable way than religious households.

Religion says - you do x because god/scripture/prophet/whoever says you must, and if you don't you will be punished after death. Some of the rules may actually be unethical or immoral by other religions - which can cause problems.

Lack of religion says - understand the right thing to do and treat others accordingly. You may not get the same treatment back, but you would hope you would. This behaviour should not cause problems.

At the end of the day, the effect should be the same - we should be nice to each other, be non-judgemental, supportive, loving and kind, no matter what religion someone may or may not have.

  • 2
    Technically "Atheism" is a statement about the existence of god, not about how to live your life. Secular Humanism may be the term you are looking for.
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 3:05
  • While I agree that in SOME religious households it can be all about fallowing the rules that is not true in all. It is equally true that in households where there is not a practiced faith SOME families teach great ethical lessons while others do not. Stereotyping on both sides of the proverbial aisle only create distrust, misunderstanding and hatred. Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 21:19
  • @balanced - totally agree. My answer was about why households teach good ethical lessons. The end result of good ethical lessons should be happiness and kindness, I would just rather see it come from the individual rather than from some outside influence.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 22:30

Start with the golden rule and take it from there.

Pretty much everything comes down to explaining the effects of the childs actions on others, or dealing with the emotional effects of others actions on the child.

Essentially you are finding it hard to do this without reference to religious text as it normally takes the form of "do X or suffer the consequences". Without that unilateral declaration of correct behaviour your are moving the conversation with your child from "obey" to "think".

We have had this conversation when our children turn up with other childrens toys. Getting them to think of how they would feel if a toy was taken from them seemed much more natural then an admonishment that "we do not take other peoples things". It also leads nicely into a conversation on how they can remedy thier mistakes.


I don't know why people think the two things must go together. I know plenty of highly religious people that are not moral people as well as non-religious people who are. As others have said, be a good example, talk to them about their decision making and talk to them about your decision making so you are modeling even your thinking for them.

If you are looking for ideas about books and resources to use, Aesop's fables have been around for thousands of years and are full of good nuggets and lessons for life in general (you'll likely remember the tortoise and the hare or the crow and the pitcher I believe). Of course, modern updates and takes on the fables can also be found. Additionally, most cultures have tales with lessons in them so any number of parables or fables can be used from around the world for these "ethics" lessons - any fable will do. You can even tell Christian parables such as the Good Samaritan without having to make it about the religion and just discuss the moral lesson behind the story.

As you read any story depicting protagonists and antagonists making a decision, you can discuss the possible outcomes to the decision together. Allow them to practice predicting consequences of a choice for themselves and for others and pretty soon they'll be thinking about decision making in a way that allows them to make informed thoughtful decisions whether they are determining to buy that new gadget they want so badly or something more morally based like whether to walk over and help the geek getting beat up by the bully right now.

Make sure you sit down for a daily meal together. The single most important determining factor in a child's social skills and emotional character is whether or not he or she has supportive and connected parents at home. Sure, you can use books about manners with them alongside those fables and other stories you read, but just modeling good caring, listening skills, and ethical choices will take you a long way. Hearing what is going on in their lives, what they are thinking about, struggling with, observing in friends. . . over a shared meal you prepared and are eating together is the best way to be sure their morals and the decisions they are making around those morals are aligning with your family values (and that your kids have good manners and social skills along the way too).


This is a problem that I've faced as well. While it is simple enough to say that if you yourself encourage good morals, your kids will model good morals, it is also important to have the support of a community behind you. If nothing else, you will be competing against communities when your children are older.

My wife and I decided to join the local unitarian church for precisely this reason. While any number of children's book emphasize the values we like--sharing, compassion, hard work, and so forth--organized groups such as churches or charities show those values in action and provide a group of role models of various ages for your children.

I would say that as far as teaching morals, you can't go wrong with modeling good behavior and pointing it out in any books you read or activities you engage in, but your children will benefit from seeing those values in action far more than from discussing them in the abstract.


Living and leading by example is the easiest. Our brains (thanks mirror neurons!) are designed to mimic what's going on in our immediate social network. You don't need mythological stories to get that across.

That said, you can still introduce religion as a study into the home. Start with Norse then Greek mythology and then work into exposing western and eastern religions. You can learn a lot too. Kids learn much more when they see their parents engaged in learning.

Treating it as a study of human development and history lets the values-based discussions come about without having to let dogma get in the way.

We "tour" churches a lot. One Sunday we'll pop into a synagogue, then another Sunday pop into a mass. By exposing the kids to all the various forms of "storytelling" the kids are exposed to the same (and different) value-systems and while letting them note the common denominators.

It gives them a rich perspective while exercising their critical thinking skills. And yours 8-)


It sounds as though you're going through something I went through a little while ago.

About 8 years back, I thought I wouldn't have children. "I wouldn't know how to raise them", I thought, I hadn't yet completely broken with religion.

Finally the day came when I recycled all but one copy of the scripture (I used to have.. 6 or 7. I was nuts). Finally, I was free.

And the whole question becomes what do you believe? What do you want them to have that you missed? What do you want them to also miss that you missed because of your religious upbringing? (A lot of experimentation).

If you think about it, religion doesn't do all that much but give people a bigger stick to shake. Your kids won't necessarily listen to you just because religion. But really, you don't need that stick. You need rules, and ways to enforce those rules, including punishments, etc. You just need to truly hold your child's best interests at heart.

The short of it is you have to figure out what you believe. When should they be allowed dating. Why or why not? Do your research. And sort this out with your husband. It can be fun. Figure out the rules and play it by ear. You'll be fine.

  • Why is it to do with beliefs? Why not values? Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 12:37
  • What I meant by believe is how you believe life should be lived ie your "morals and values".
    – bobobobo
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 12:11

According to my personal experience there's no better way to be the best exapmle to your kids. That means not just saying to be good... Children copy us all the time. Even if you think they don't hear or see what we're doing. Their perception is limitless. And don't avoid meeting who you concider to be 'bad people'. Naugty aunts or peers show new experiences and even if their behaviour is tempting, it's enough to explain our children what is wrong (not that they're bad). I have no problems with my kids. They have much of freedom. They know and choose the rigth way (not always of course) and just behave good. No reason to fear them with God..!

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