How can we tell our religious family we’re letting our kid choose her beliefs?

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By: Kyle SimourdCC BY 2.0
My husband and I are expecting our first child in July, and we couldn’t be happier. That said, there’s one subject that we both feel passionately about — religion. We want our child to be able to choose their religious path for themselves.

We’re both atheists, but our families are deeply religious (my family is Catholic, his family Southern Baptist). My parents understand and respect our religious preferences, and won’t force their opinions on our child… but my husband’s mother is not that way.

How can I gracefully explain to her that we don’t want our child subjected to any guilty feelings toward religion or fingers pointed at us that our views are “wrong”? — Emily

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Comments on How can we tell our religious family we’re letting our kid choose her beliefs?

  1. This may be one of those instances where you can try to preempt the thing you’re avoiding (religiosity being foisted on your kid) but in actuality there’s not much you can do except field it when it happens in a way that affects your child. By the time your child is old enough to understand that grandma is proselytizing you’ll be able to say, “grandma believes in a very powerful guy that kinda controls everything, and part of her deal is that she has to try to convince other people to believe that too; what do you think?” There’s obviously a lot of room for your own nuance in there. 😉 And there’s always the private, stern, “this is not up for discussion; thanks for respecting our choices!”

  2. (Let me put on my Master’s in Theology hat for this one!)

    My husband and I are a dual religion couple – he is Muslim, I am Christian. We were both raised in dual religion homes (he in Judaism/Islam, me in Christianity/Paganism). We’ve navigated this. One thing to keep in mind is that for some faiths (especially the conservative types), evangelizing or talking about their religion or giving witness to others is actually a requirement of the faith. Southern Baptist tends to be a rather conservative faith (although I do not know the particulars of your MIL’s particular flavor of it). If that’s the case, she might feel as though she MUST keep doing this. If that’s the case, you might have to confront a choice about whether to simply let her and then supplement your child’s theological or religious education (or lack of it) by letting them know that not everybody thinks that way. Or you might wish to not have her in your home anymore. All are valid choices.

    Religious issues are always a but sticky because they tend to inflame the passions more than anything else. You can’t make your MIL behave a certain way. You can tell her how you WISH she’d act around your child. And hopefully, that works. But if she persists, you’ll have to firmer with her. Overall, I’d emphasize that you respect her beliefs (even if you really don’t, it’s nice to say), but that you believe very strongly in the freedom to choose one’s own religion. Also, it would be nice to be able to clarify exactly what is okay in terms of speaking about religion in your home and what is not (sometimes, people have a tendency to interpret “please don’t talk about your religion that way” as “don’t say anything about your religion at all”). Is it okay to talk about it, just as long as its not confrontational? Can she discuss religious ideas with your child, or would you rather not? My husband and I took the “inclusive” approach in that all our parents can talk about religion with our daughter and even attend their services and meetings. All we ask is that they never denigrate or attack anyone else’s faith. One thing to keep in mind is that for a lot of people, religion is a huge part of their life. They want to share it. Would you be okay with your MIL sharing her faith in a gentler way? One thing I am okay with is my father (the Christian) reading a “child’s Bible” (which is basically select Bible stories told in a very gentle way) to my daughter as she gets older. We’re okay with that stuff because it introduces Christianity in a gentle, non-confrontational way, and it lets my dad share a big, positive part of his life with her. If your MIL would find it hard to leave her faith at the door, would you be okay with letting her bring it in, as long as it was done in a non-confrontational, child-appropriate way? And this can go for your Catholic parents as well. Personally, I like to think letting your child be introduced to multiple faiths is an excellent way to encourage them to explore. The choice is ultimately yours, that’s just what we did.

    • In this vain, my parents don’t start conversations, but if we ask a questions and their religion factors into the answer they say so. So they might say, “my faith tells me that we go to heaven when we die,” or, “my believe in right and wrong is based on the teaching in the bible,” or something else of that nature. It’s not confrontational, and it leaves other people to say what they feel or believe in response. It also puts the person (read child) asking the question in control of the conversation.

      I believe that questions are the most powerful tools we have in conversation.

  3. I’m in a similar situation, and I do not put up with any BS from my mom. If your husband is unwilling to make it very, very clear that Grandma is not to proselytize to the child, you might be stuck with that duty (or at the least, go to couples’ counseling–might be nice to do this before you give birth, and get on the same page about a lot of things, since you may not have time after).

    I’ve asked my parents to use phrases like, “Some people believe” and “People believe a lot of different things. Grandma believes that Jesus died for our sins.” That sort of thing. I’m sure they don’t always do that when I’m not around. I also say stuff like that to our son. I got rid of all baby books that mentioned God or prayer for a while, but that seems extreme now and he’s old enough to understand things. When “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear” says his prayers, I explain that praying means thinking about all the people you love, and feeling thankful for all that you have. (No God necessary, right?)

    Part of this process also involves *me* being open-minded, which is hard because growing up in a born-again Christian family, being one myself, scarred me. If I think it’s OK for my son to be obsessed with Buddha images and statues, which he is, all by himself, then I have to have a bit of room for allowing other images and ideas to float in. He can occasionally go to church with my parents, and I may take him to a non-evil-religious church like Unitarian church sometime.

    He is secular Jewish on the other side of the family, and will have to confront Judeo-Christian God ideas when he prepares for his Bar Mitzvah even though the family is nonreligious. (This makes my mom crazy, “If he can do Jewish rituals, why not Christian ones?” “Because the Jews didn’t try to convert me and everyone else in nasty and violent ways.”)

  4. Thank you all for the great advice!

    I definitely am not opposed with my husband’s mother teaching our child about her religion and what she believes, but she tends to be of the sort that her way is the only correct way, and other opinions are wrong. My husband and I sort of see all religions (or lack thereof) as just different paths to the same place. We want our child to feel free to believe whatever they want to (even if it’s nothing close to what we do), but I’m just worried about the shaming or the, “well, if you don’t believe in Christ you WILL go to hell and you don’t want to go to hell, do you?” type thing. I’m just not sure how to gracefully talk to her about that. Perhaps say feel free to share your beliefs, but please no hell-talk?

    • Yeah, you can say that. Frankly, I’m not sure why speaking to a small child about Hell is even useful – all it tends to do is scare the daylights out of them, which isn’t exactly a great way to introduce a child to any faith (it would probably be more likely to turn them off of it). I think it helps to be up front about what is appropriate. You can phrase it respectfully as “Talking like that will frighten him/her. Please don’t do that.” You might also want to start out by always being present (or your husband) when MIL is with your child – just to see what she says or does. If she messes up, you have an absolute right to say “You cannot say that around my child.” If she continues, perhaps some time apart might be in order.

      If your MIL does behave in a negative way with your child, you have some options to counterbalance that. Since we’re exclusively talking about Christians here (since that is what your MIL is), perhaps you might want to have a counterpoint to help balance anything negative she might have to say? I don’t know the type of Catholics your family are, but if they are of the liberal mindset, it might help your child a lot to hear from Christians who espouse a different kind of Christianity then your MIL. Or some friends or other acquantainces. Little kids can have a tendency to accept what family says as fact, so it can be helpful, even beneficial, to see Christians who disagree on stuff. It can only encourage them to think for themselves.

      • Absolutely yes to the last part. That was hugely helpful for me as a child- seeing all the ‘different’ ways somebody can be of one religion. My family runs the spectrum from ultra-conservative, you will burn in hell etc etc to very ‘god is love man’ groovy hippie types. The super peaceful loving gentle talk did a lot to counter balance the hateful, scary talk.

    • That seems totally reasonable to me. Discussion is fine, scare tactics aren’t. Just ask them to focus on the loving aspects of Jesus if they’re going to talk about their beliefs with your child.

  5. Are you me?
    Also due in July, planning on bringing up a child without religion but surrounded by religious family!!!

    We have decided to view religion as an educational subject, the way I used to teach it in school. So once he’s old enough to understand I’ll teach him that people all over the world and amongst our friends and family have different beliefs.
    I will help him learn about what Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists etc believe in and if any friends or family want to help by taking him to their places of worship once in a while that would be fine with me.

    Family will be told that we’re bringing him up without a religion but instead with a respect for himself, nature and the people around him.
    And once he’s old enough to make his own decisions he can choose a religion if he wants one

    • This is kind of our approach, too; we’re categorizing religion along with other big things that makes a person who they are but which vary dramatically even within a close community (gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, beliefs about morals, aesthetics, etc…). Our goal is to teach our kids that everyone has their own beliefs that are just as valid and worthy of respect as anyone else’s. We have informed our very religious mother-in-law that this is our plan, and that our kids are absolutely welcome to learn as much about her religious practice and belief as they want to know…as long as it is always made clear personal beliefs are just that, not absolute truths.

      She can get pushy and passive aggressive when she feels like her religion is being challenged, so we waited for a calm, quiet moment to bring up our plan, and informed her in no uncertain terms that pushing her beliefs as truth will lose her the opportunity to spend time with her grandchildren. This might feel harsh, but given her history and inflexibility, I feel like this is the only way we can get her to truly listen to our wishes. It still leaves the window open for her to share her beliefs in an open conversation, which she definitely appreciates.

  6. I’ve been wondering about this! My parents (my mother in particular) are pretty conservative Christians — like, my mom freaked out about the possibility that there *might* be Buddha statues somewhere in the Japanese restaurant where we got married — and, though she generally keeps her views to herself aside from occasionally suggesting that we should go to church, I won’t be surprised if she gets more vocal once we have a kid. My husband’s mother is less conservative, but still religious and, ironically, way more vocal about it (frequently having our niece recite things about Jesus to us, etc). She in particular has actually said, “Well, you’ll start going to church once you have kids.”

    Obviously, we’re not in it yet… so grain of salt and all that… but I’m planning to address the potential proselytizing by following it up with conversation like, “People believe all sorts of different things. Grandma believes in God and Jesus, but Mommy and Daddy believe something else. Other people believe in… (examples from people we know, etc.) You can believe any of those things, or little parts of a bunch of them, or none of them! It’s up to you.”

    We’ll see how that goes in practice, though. It also helps that neither of our families are local, so it would just be occasional exposure, which I hope will mostly be a learning opportunity. If you live close to your families, and anticipate constant guilting about raising your child without any particular religion, then you might need up-front tactics.

  7. I’m also due in July and I guess agnostic describes myself and my husband best, but I’m currently taking a different path with my 12 year old.
    I’ve brought her up as Catholic (as I was) to give her a little grounding and sense of purpose, which is what I experienced up to about her age in the Catholic Church…. but I also encourage her explore other religions and we talk about other belief and value systems. I always stress that a belief is personal and religion should never be used as a weapon or a way to make people feel inferior, that they all have the same core/ root.
    I have NO idea how this girl in the belly will be raised, I guess we’ll figure that one out in time.

  8. My husband and I face this issue, too. We are ex-Mormon atheists with large, almost exclusively Mormon families. We plan to address the issues as they arise. We already take every opportunity to respectfully disagree where appropriate, so that our views are well-known. Take every opportunity you can. If someone asks about christenings and similar rituals, be as clear and as forthcoming as possible. My husband and I plan to just keep at it, no matter how tiring it gets, because we feel that the family relationships are important and that peace is possible. We are also prepared to discuss everything with our daughters as they get older, even though I know that many of their questions will be difficult to answer. It’s harder when the answers aren’t canned and ready to go like they are in most religions.

  9. An essential phrase to remember when discussing ‘comparative religions’ with a child if you want him/her to choose her/his own path: “What do YOU think?”

    So, for example, a conversation even with a fairly small child could go, “Grandma believes [that], I believe [this], some people believe [another thing] or [something else]. What do you think you believe?”

    If you want them to make up their own minds then you have to make sure that they know that their opinion or belief is as valid as everybody else’s, even if ‘everybody else’ is a grownup and got it out of a book. When they get a little older, of course, encourage them to find their own books. 😉

    • I think it’s also good for kids to know that they don’t have to choose one. They can keep learning, changing their minds every day, or simply decide that it’s OK not to know. Our culture’s kinda bad about accepting uncertainty; kids seem to be pretty cool with it, if you present it as something that is OK rather than unstabilizing.

      • “I don’t know” is certainly always an option.
        My approach to religion is basically that ‘I don’t know, and really nobody else does either, but this what I believe’ and I think I passed that message along to my daughter. (Of course she thinks she has the whole thing figured out now, like you do when you’re seventeen. ;))

  10. We’re in a bit of a similar situation. We just moved back to be closer with family last year and religious differences have come up. My husband and I are pretty staunch atheists. We’ve both been burned badly with childhood religious brainwashing, so making sure our children don’t get the same type of deal is really important to both of us. My grandma is Mormon and a HUGE part of my older son’s life right now. He goes to stay at her house just about every Friday. At first it wasn’t that big of a deal. He was only three and Jesus didn’t come up very often. To be clear, I have no problem with him learning about Jesus or the other parables of the Bible, but I DO NOT want him to be taught that it’s the ONLY way to think…and my grandma is pretty absolute in her beliefs.
    After a while, I noticed that he knew exactly how to stand when they prayed over dinner, and she spoke of teaching him how to pray. I knew that it was time to start the conversation. I went to the book store one Friday while she had him and got a lot of different books both on his level and his baby brother’s about all different kinds of religions. We have several on Islam, a couple of Buddhism, and a few random ones on different pagan beliefs, plus I’ve always got my eyes open for new ones. I figure, if he’s going to get the Christian school at grandma’s, it was up to us to teach him about the many other religions of the world in our house. He still hasn’t actually spoken of any Bible parables to us, so I know he’s not really getting the indoctrination like I did, at least not yet. But we’ve been studying up, rehearsing how we’re going to handle such things, and keeping an open dialog about how everyone has different beliefs.
    Come back to me in ten years, and we’ll see how well we were able to handle things. 😛

  11. I suspect when we get round to this, there are going to be conversations with each set of parents about what they will and won’t be discussing with my child. On the other hand, I want my kids to learn from their wide and varied cultural heritage. I am okay with my children learning about other peoples’ religions, I will very much not be okay with them being told that it’s the flat out truth. This is in the same way that I will not be okay with them being told they’re fat or being fed McDonalds (also conversations that we’ll be having).

    I think it’s important for your parents to learn that the way they parented is not necessarily the way you intent to parent. That does not have to reflect badly on them, but it’s also your choice entirely.

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