How do you handle a relative giving religious education to your child without you?

Posted by
How do you handle a relative giving religious education to your child without you?
Coexist Vinyl Sticker from StickThisInc
My mother-in-law knows I’m a non-religious person. It’s been the subject of very awkward conversations and loaded questions and hasn’t always gone well.

The first question from her upon learning her son and I were pregnant was, “Can I take the baby to church?” To which I replied that I don’t mind if she does, since my own mother takes our daughter to church when she visits. But she knows my parenting plan of exposing my child to all religious options. And after hearing that, though, she gave me a horrified stare and said, “I’ll always root for my own team.” While allowing our child to attend church is not my husband’s favorite idea, he’s willing to deal with it.

All of this so far I can handle, until my two-year-old came home singing about Jesus. My husband is willing to give the benefit of the doubt here, but has anyone tread this road before, and have any advice on how to handle it? What language do I use to make it clear I don’t want my toddler being pushed into a certain religion before she’s old enough to understand? – A

Allowing your mother-in-law to take your child to church is a generous offer, especially if you’re waiting a while to start introducing more religions into her life. Kids are sponges and will begin to absorb those specific hymns, prayers, and guidance very early on, even if they don’t really understand them yet. So hearing her singing a song from church is no surprise.

There seem to be two options that I can see: you either delay her from attending church until she’s a little older and ready to be introduced to other spiritualities at the same time, or you can start exposing her to more religious ideas now, along with her current church attendance.

She’s only two, so it’s hard to know what she’ll even remember from this time, if anything. But time flies and she could have been attending for years before she knows anything else. If diversifying her religious exposure is important to you, as it seems to be, you may want to start one of those alternate routes now.

It could be as simple as conveying that you want her to wait to start attending church and you’ll let your mother-in-law know when it’s time to start, based on your timeline of introducing more religions into her education. I say “simple,” but I know it won’t be.

Let’s take it to the readers…

Fellow Homies: do YOU have any perspective on this? Have you ever navigated the waters of a religious family and a desire to expose your child to many religions? What’s your advice?

Comments on How do you handle a relative giving religious education to your child without you?

  1. Both my older child’s private kindergarten and my youngest’s daycare say grace at lunch and talk about God frequently. My oldest’s school does talk about other religions around their major holidays, but I would just rather them both be educated without religion involved. Unfortunately, we’re in the bible belt. We don’t encourage it at home, but we do answer any questions to the best of our abilities usually by stating “this is what some people believe.” My mother was super religious and wanted my girls to be as well, but after being raised that way I would not want to force that on another person. We talk of the solstice, nature, love, and hope around our house. We also try to instill kindness and understanding, but it’s a bit hard sometimes with toddlers.

  2. This happened to us, but kind of a reverse situation. We’re a Christian family, and we had a family friend keep an eye on our toddler while we were moving. He is not a Christian, and my son wanted to read a book that mentioned Jesus. He obliged, but I overheard him telling my two year old after the book was over that none of it was real. We’re still friends with this guy for sure, but he doesn’t watch our kids anymore. It’s easier in this situation because he’s not a relative and it’s a bit easier to say, “thanks, but no thanks” when he offers to watch our kids. I really think it’s just a trust issue. You have to make it known that when you’re placing your kids in someone else’s hands (even a close relative) it’s a matter of trust that your personal convictions for your children are respected.

  3. Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Pagan. My husband was raised UCC Christian , but is now an atheist. I also minored in comparative religion in undergrad. We do not even do Santa Claus with our daughter, so we’re considered fairly hardline.

    When my mother asked to take my daughter to Sunday School, where my mom and stepdad are teachers, I agreed. My daughter is 5, and we’ve been exposing her to the concept of religious equality from day one. It’s a very liberal church, and my parents have full knowledge of my and my husband’s religious beliefs. I tend to think of this as educational, in small doses. She goes maybe 3 times a year. If your MIL is taking your daughter to church every week, or even half the time, that seems a bit much for a child you are not raising to be a Christian. But it’s ultimately your call.

    Some advice: 1) Check out books on many religions from the library, and read these to your child. Answer questions, but only if you know the real answers (so Google, if necessary). 2) Check in with your kid after she goes to church; the fact that it’s a church may be fine, but the specific messaging may be problematic to you. (For example: my parents’ church is pro LGBTQ rights and pro DACA. If they preached against either of these, I wouldn’t allow my daughter to attend.) They may also vocally and relentlessly declare other religions, or “non-believers,” to be sinful. So check in and make sure you can live with the message. And 3) if you think it’s crossing a line, shut that shit down hard. No compromise. I say this because it’s important for your child to see you take a stand against any beliefs you cannot condone. Those raising children in a specific religious doctrine will be accustomed to doing this regularly, so take a leaf from their book here. If your child was attending Girl Scouts, and they tried to tell her how the whole country should vote in the next election, you’d pull her from the club. There really isn’t any difference. It’s your job to instill the morals and values you believe in, and that might mean a hard “no” to religious instruction–that is really all that church is for, and it’s the whole reason your parents want her to attend.

    Additional note: Lots of non-religious parents intend to expose their kids to a variety of religions. I’ve never met any who actually did so. Are you seriously planning to take your child to a synagogue and a mosque and a Buddhist temple and a Catholic church and a Wiccan full moon circle, and sit through services with them and stay for cookies after and all that business? No judgement either way! If you are not (and most people won’t), then you are NOT planning to introduce them to many religions. So I’d recommend avoiding them entirely, as much as you’re able. I actually have done all of those things, but I enjoy it, and you really cannot expose a child in any other way. I think it’s better to leave it completely untouched than let one religion you don’t even practice become the only one the child is “exposed” to. Just food for thought.

    • Jenn,

      Do you have any suggestions when taking your child to a religious service that you are not a member of? We too are interested in sharing a variety of beliefs with our child, but I am wondering about just attending a service at a synagogue or mosque for “exposure”. How do you ensure that you are being respectful of those who are worshipping?

      • I’d suggest starting with your network that you already have. Do you have any friends or relatives of other religions who would be happy to expose your child to their religion? They’ll have a better idea of a good experience for your child to have. For example, I wouldn’t take a child to synagogue for their first experience of Judaism, because they’d probably just be really bored and confused. I’d probably invite them to Shabbat dinner as it’s more child friendly and accessible.

        Another approach, if you don’t know anyone of a particular religion, look out for public events and open days. For example in the UK there’s Visit My Mosque Day when mosques invite local people to visit and sometimes places of worship include tours as part of other local events. Be aware that some places of worship have quite big security concerns, so it’s always best to email in advance rather than just rock up if you’re not sure. (This also avoids the problem of showing up at the wrong time because their website hasn’t been updated.)

        • Find yourself some Jewish friends and score an invite to Passover!
          A Jew who loves an excuse to invite non-Jews to Passover

      • Hi there! Sorry for the delay.

        If you ask most people in religious communities, you’ll find they want you there. There are very, very few exceptions–Mormon temples, Hasidic Jewish temples, and Scientology centers are common examples of religious spaces that don’t welcome outsiders in the US. These are religious groups you’d need to approach in a different way, usually by contacting their offices and asking for a meeting. Mormons will happily come to your home to answer questions and present their philosophies. Hasidic Jews will usually invite you to a service with advance notice. Scientologists have special meetings designed to introduce people to the faith, and they’ll gladly let you attend with your child.

        The thing is: religious leadership would rather you ‘expose’ your child to their faith than have you ignore it, or present it inaccurately. You might feel embarrassed to be the odd person out in these environments, but don’t let that translate into fear of rejection. That’s extremely unlikely to happen. The most uncomfortable I ever felt entering a religious environment was attending a service with a majority-black Baptist church when I was 16 (I’m white and not a Christian), because I didn’t want them to think I was some kind of religious/racial tourist. Even at 16, I was a painfully honest person and so I told the pastor exactly what I was feeling. They welcomed me and helped me combat my obvious nerves with such warmth and understanding. Religious tolerance relies on people being willing to make themselves uncomfortable in order to better understand. You seem willing to do that, and people of faith will respect it.

  4. Our method was every religious book my in laws got the the kid disappeared. I said nothing when my mil led the kids in a bedtime prayer in front of me then told my husband who told her to never do that again.

  5. So I will tell a story of being that child:

    My parents came from different faiths, my mother was raised Catholic and my father is Jewish (although really somewhere along the athiest/agnostic line is a better description of his personal beliefs. When my parents got married my mother had not yet converted to Judaism but did when I was about 5 years old but my parents did decide to raise any children in a Jewish home prior to their wedding.

    When my sister and I were little, probably before my mother converted, my maternal grandmother sat us down and told us that the Jews killed Jesus. We in turn relayed this information to our mother and must have been a bit confused since that didn’t seem to jive with my Jewish family. To be honest I don’t really remember much of any of this but my mother did sit us down and clarify that no the Jews did not kill Jesus.

    She then went to her mother and told her that she could not discuss religion with us unless she or my father were present. We haven’t had an issue since then and we have celebrated Christmases, Easters, Weddings, and Christenings with my mother’s family without issue. Holidays tend to skew a bit secular and we understood that we were there to celebrate with our family even though they celebrated differently than we did. In turn we have had my mother’s family at all our B’nai Mitzvot and occasionally at Passover seders. When Hanukkah and Christmas fell at the same time we brought our Hanukkiah with us Christmas at Grandma’s.

    So we were lucky, my parents families were ultimately very supportive of their choices and we felt welcome at both grandparents’ homes for holidays. It does take a little boundary setting and a little discussion. There are definitely bumps in the road but it can be navigated. And in the interest of full disclosure my Jewish great-grandmother did sit shiva when my parents announced their engagement and it took her awhile to come to terms with the decisions my parents were making. It wasn’t until I was born and they had a Jewish naming ceremony that she was convinced my parents were going to have a Jewish home.

Join the Conversation