'Very Religious Parents' Trying to Indoctrinate Their Grandkid

I got a letter from a reader today. Raise your hand if you can relate.

Looking for some advice on how to deal with my very Christian parents and my daughter. She'll be 2 in January and is already saying "Amen" and "Yay God." I am not Christian and feel disrespected by this. They know that I have COMPLETELY different beliefs. Any advice on how to "respectfully" get them to stop?

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Pretty typical, right?

I started to write this mom a private response but, with her permission, decided to make it public. I'd be curious — and I'm sure she would be, as well — to hear advice from anyone else who has had some "success" in dealing with this particular problem. In the meantime, here's my two cents:

1. Be brief, be direct, and be nice. Brief because this is a can of worms that can get cray-cray pretty quickly. Direct because this is important and you need to make sure there are no misunderstandings. (No one wants to have to have this damn conversation more than once.) And nice because that’s what’s going to keep tensions from escalating.

2. Try to get your parents' buy-in. This is the goal. If your parents understand where you are coming from, and genuinely want to help you out, you won't have to worry that they will try to indoctrinate your kid behind your back.

3. Be ready to lay down the law. If, after stating your case, your parents refuse to cooperate, you need to let them know — as briefly, directly and nicely as possible — that there there will be consequences. Then you need to tell them what those consequences will be.

You might start out this way:

Mom and Dad, I’ve noticed you’ve been sharing your religious views with Jane and I’m glad to see that. Your Hinduism/Buddhism/Christianity is important to you, and I want you to feel comfortable talking to her, and me, about anything that is important to you. That said, because I don’t share all your beliefs, it’s really important to me that Jane gets to make up her own mind about what to believe. So when you’re talking about your faith, I would really appreciate it if you’d be clear with her that these are your beliefs, and not just straight facts. (You can do this really easily by just adding “I believe” or “we believe” onto statements about your religion.) Again, I’m not asking you to withhold your beliefs, but rather to put them into a context that allows for other belief systems to be respected, as well.

If you get an “Okay,” that’s a success. Done and done. Move on. If not:

The thing is, if you aren’t willing to temper your language, it puts pressure on me to use strong language, too. Every time you teach Jane something as though it's the only truth, I have to balance out — or even "undo" — what you’ve said. And that's not good for your relationship with Jane, or with me. I'll feel disrespected and even antagonized. But if you speak in a way that leaves room for Jane to make up her own mind, I'll feel more comfortable with the whole thing.”

Again, if you get an "Okay," great. If they still don't cooperate, you might ask: “Well, what would you be comfortable saying?” See if, after a little back and forth, you can agree on an approach.

If that fails, then your parents are being overbearing a-holes. Here's where those consequences figure in:

If you want to continue to have one-on-one time with Jane, you will have to agree to an approach that works for all of us. I’ll give you some time to think about it. Let me know what you come up with.

That ought to get their attention.

Also, a quick reminder: Richard Wade, the incredibly wise "Ask Richard" columnist over at the Friendly Atheist has some great advice for secularists dealing with religious family members. You might check out his archives sometime!

The Best Thing About Being a Secular Parent? You Tell Me!

Not long ago, my sister and her husband invited an old friend over for dinner. The friend is a talker, so their nights with him usually require a lot of generosity on their parts. He tends, my sister tells me, to drone on endlessly about inane topics — including, but not limited to, good meals he's eaten recently. You know that guy too, don't you? Yeah. Well all do.

Anyway, on this particular night my sister's 4-year-old son was sitting at the table with them. He apparently had taken his cue from his parents because he was being very patient and respectful throughout most of the meal. But finally he'd had enough. In his adorable little 4-year-old voice, he started saying BOOORING as the friend was talking. Luckily (or not), the friend is a loud talker, too, so he kept going, oblivious to the review he was getting. But at least three times Little Guy punctuated this man's story with BOOORING before my sister was able to quietly  hush him.

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I talk a lot here about the unique challenges of being a secular parent — from interacting with judgmental or aggressively religious relatives to dealing with religious bullies at school to just knowing how to approach religion with little ones — and I don't often focus on the good stuff. The fun stuff. The easy stuff. Because, well, as Little Guy would say: BOOORING.

But today I'm making an exception. The truth is, for all the challenges that come with it, being a secular parent is so damn fulfilling. It can make many conversations so much simpler and easier. And secular parenting seems to have so much in common with good parenting, too. The way we respect all of our children's feelings, for example, not just those that embrace a certain God. Or the way we encourage kids to think independently and follow no one without question — whether it be Jesus, Muhammad, the local drug dealer, or a libidinous high school boyfriend.

But before I drone on and on — BOOORING — I want to hear from you:

What do you think is the single best thing about being a secular parent?

Feel free to comment below — or on Reddit or Stumbleupon, Facebook or wherever else you see this post pop up. Or you can e-mail me privately at relaxitsjustgod@gmail.com.

Then be sure to check back! I'll publish the list in May.

What Does Your Kid Really Know about Religion?

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Most parents, I've found, want their kids to know about religion. Maybe the reasons are strictly educational, or maybe they're cultural, practical, even political. Regardless, most of us — whether religious or nonreligious — live in a diverse and complicated society whose collective beating heart is powered by the Internet; our children, we know, will be more successful at living if they understand the nature of faith and its role in people's lives.

And, yet, so few of us are willing or able to teach our kids about religion. Why is this? We're busy, of course. We've got priorities, and all that. But isn't more of it a simple lack of knowledge? Wouldn't most of us be willing to say something if we knew what to say or where to start? It's not like we can reduce "religion" to some simple concepts, right? The whole subject seems to run wild and far and resist any kind of containment. So where does that leave us?

Consider this:

A U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted in September 2010 found that a little over half of the American public knew that the Golden Rule was not part of the 10 commandments, the Qur'an was the Islamic holy book and Joseph Smith was a Mormon. Even less knew than the Dalai Lama was a Buddhist, Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and the Four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This is not to show how ignorant we are as a society — in fact, I was sort of impressed by some of the percentages — but to offer a starting point. We parents aren't expected to teach our kids everything; but we should at least cover the "basics" — the basic events, the basic people, the basic places, the basic meanings.

For the next week, I'll be finishing up a chapter for my book on how parents can "teach religion" without knocking themselves out. (You're welcome.) My plan is to single out the need-to-know stuff from the rest of it, and suggest lots of painless (if not fun) ways to deliver the need-to-know stuff to your kids' amazing brains.

So, now's the time I ask for you input:

What have you done to introduce your child to religion so far? What (if anything) about the subject interests your kids the most? What gets their attention?

And what about you? What has been the biggest challenge in promoting religious literacy in your house? Where do you falter? What tools are you missing?

In short, help me help you.

Thanks, guys!

Oh! And, by the way, congrats to Megan Parker, who won the copy of No! That's Wrong! in my book giveaway.  See? Subscribers to my blog get cool stuff. (That's a hint, people.)

And now this:

 

Do You Share Negative Views about Religion with Your Kids?

Fifty-seven percent of the nonreligious parents I surveyed earlier this year said they viewed religion "negatively, with exceptions," while another 21 percent said they viewed it "both positively and negatively," depending on the specific religion. This shouldn't be all that surprising. Hell, even religious people have issues with religion. I bring it up, though, because I wonder how many parents are (unintentionally or intentionally) passing on these negative views to their children. I honestly don't know, and because I'm a moron*, I didn't think to ask that specific question in the survey.

It's very possible that, in a quest to give kids a chance to make up their own minds, parents keep quiet when it comes to placing judgment calls on religion in general. But it's also possible that parents feel they're entitled, if not obligated, to share their opinions. Even parents who don't wish to "poison the waters" might not edit themselves in every situation — including ones in which their children are likely to overhear.

If you’re reading this blog, there's a good chance that you're not an anti-theist. But that doesn't mean you don't have strong opinions about some religious beliefs. (I'd be disappointed if you didn't!)

So, I'd like to ask you….

Do you share negative opinions about religion with your kids? If so, which ones? And how old were your kids when you decided it was time? Also, do you balance out negative views with positive views, or give each view the weight you think it deserves.

Thank you kindly.

* Your cue to strongly disagree.

Must We 'Come Out' as Nonreligious?

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I think most of us can agree that coming out of the closet when you're gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is important. A person's love life is central to a person's life — in the same sort of way that mating is central to a bird's life. There's just no way around it. To forever deny such a basic, defining part of one's identity is bound to have deep detrimental affects. But coming out as nonreligious is different. Lack of religion isn't necessarily intrinsic to a person's life and happiness. Not believing something is passive, not active; to "not be" something, all you have to do is nothing.

Still, there are arguments to be made that nonreligious people have a duty to out themselves, especially when they have children who are looking to them as role models. And certainly, there are benefits to speaking "your truth," both for your sake and, many would say, for society as a whole. But there are drawbacks, too.

So help me out here: Have you "come out" as a nonbeliever to anyone? Why, or why not? And what difference did it make in your life?

'But What if Santa Believes in God?'

One of the best things about writing a parenting blog about religion is that people send you their funny, insightful and just plain cute religion-related kid stories. Especially if you ask them to. People who read blogs are nice that way. So, to brighten up your Thursday, here are seven stories guaranteed to make you smile — if not guffaw. Enjoy! And thank you, readers, for sharing your lives and laughter with me.

Laura wrote:

My 5-year-old daughter, Alice, and I were talking this past December about all the big questions: Who is God? Do you believe in God? How did the world get made? etc.  I answered in my best think-your-own-thoughts vein with things like: Some people believe God made the world, and other people believe the world wasn't made by anyone.  We talked about the Big Bang a little bit, and she seemed to be agreeing with the scientists and skeptics, and then she comes out with this worried-sounding question: "But what if Santa believes in God?"

From Harry:

It was late spring, after our garden was in, when our aging cat Maggie died. My daughter, 3 years old at the time, was handling it surprisingly well. She was talking about us burying Maggie with a glimmer of excitement. She was happy to help us push the dirt into the hole to cover her up. I was feeling really proud of the incredible parent I must be to have a 3-year-old able to handle death so lightly. Later that night, she was talking to her Grandma about what we had done that day. And then I heard her say, "We planted Maggie today, and soon we are going to have KITTENS!"

Carla shared this story:

Traveling down Interstate 57 near Effingham, IL, there is a giant, white cross erected by the side of the road.  My 3-year-old son, Gareth, says, "Look, Mommy, that is a big T!"  Not ready to have that conversation, I said, "Yes, that it is a lot of people's favorite letter." 

Tiffany wrote:

My son’s name is Loki, which, for some reason, was the only name my husband and I agreed on.  Both my husband and I are atheists, but we try to expose our child to different ideas, religious and otherwise, from all angles. It’s up to him to make the decision in the end. As a result, we read lots of myths.  Interwoven with Greek mythology are stories from the Bible, the life of Muhammad, and Loki’s all time favorite: Norse mythology (of course). After reading a particularly awesome ‘Loki story’ that day, my son put it all together. “Mommy,” he said, looking at me with all seriousness. “I am—a GOD.” 

This one came from Shahzad:

Before becoming an atheist, I had been attempting to raise my son Ijaz (about 4 years old at the time) in the Islamic tradition at home and had taken him to the mosque on two occasions for annual Eid prayers, where he was able to follow along with the Islamic prayers that required multiple prostrations. My wife and I assumed that he was doing okay with these annual visits, but we learned otherwise when he heard us discussing the upcoming Eid and immediately interrupted to clarify his disdain for the mosque visits by saying, "I don't want to go to that place where people lie down." It was funny to realize that this was what my son had taken away from our understandably half-hearted attempt at following my childhood religion.

Alexa said:

The boys and I had a really funny discussion a few months ago, when I was reading Greek myths to them. Sirus said, "Wait - how come there are 12 gods here? Is Zeus the same as the God who created Jesus?" When I said no, he asked, "So were they wrong? Or are we?" It's a good thing my mom wasn't in the room for that, she would have had a coronary when I said, "The answer to that question is, what would you rather believe?" 

One of my all-time favorites is this one, which I received via e-mail some months ago. Unfortunately, I can't find the original message and no longer have the name of the writer. If you're reading this and you recognize this story, please let me know!

Before school began, I chatted with my 5-year-old before bed one night. I told him about how he was going to be meeting all kinds of new kids at school. Some will look like him, some will look really different. Some will like all the same things he likes and some won't like those things at all, and some more still will like things he can't stand. Everybody is different and nobody is wrong when it comes to what they like and don't like. Then I explained that some people believe in a man who, according to beliefs, lives up in the sky in a place called "heaven" and from up there he watches over all the people on the Earth. Not everybody believes in him, but a lot of the kids he will meet DO. He asked me the man's name, so I answered "God." His response? "I don't think God is a good name for him. His name should be Rollbert."

God, That's Funny!

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There are few things I enjoy more than hearing stories about the cute and funny things young children say. I think it's the combination of their undeveloped vocabularies, eagerness to imitate adults and dead-pan delivery that makes kids of a certain age so damn engrossing. My nephew is about to turn 3 and running at full-throttle in terms of cuteness. Every single thing that kid says or does charms me to one degree or another. I remember when Maxine was 3 — I was always reaching for my notebook to write down things she'd say.

Here are some of them:

* I was teaching Maxine to write the letter "M" and giving her stickers each time she got it right. After a while, I said, "Now I want to work with you on A's." She said: "Now I want to work with YOU on TOYS."

* One day, I found Maxine standing in front of the toilet with a pool of urine at her feet. She hadn't been able to get to the toilet in time. "Mommy," she said. "I'm so sorry I peed on the floor. That was a wrong and bad idea."

* I asked Maxine if there was anything she hoped to get from Santa for Christmas. She said, "A pink teddy bear." I suggested she go tell our "Elf on the Shelf," Johnny, so he could relate her wishes to Santa. She found Johnny and said: "Johnny, please tell Santa I want a pink teddy bear for Christmas..." Then, as my husband and I exchanged one of those "isn't-that-cute" looks, she added: "And diamonds."

I could go on and on.

And, if you have young children, you could, too. Which, as it turns out, is precisely why I'm telling you all this. Starting today, I'll be collecting stories for my book (and this blog, of course) about kids and religion, and I need your help.

If I'd thought of this a couple of years ago, I might have called it "Sh*t My Kid Says about God." Now I'd rather die a slow, painful death than write a "Sh*t My Whatever Says About Whatever." But the point is roughly the same.

I'm looking for all your cute, funny, charming, surprising stories. And, seriously, anything goes. As long as your kid is involved, and it relates to God or religion or the nature of the universe, I'd love to hear it. It could be one line — my daughter once told me: "When the moon is up, God is holding the sun. When the sun is up, God is holding the moon" — or an entire discussion, like the one I related to you in this blog last September. It could even be a picture drawn by your kiddo, or relevant piece of writing.

My only requirements:

• If you include quotes, please be sure they are actual quotes.

• Email me at relaxitsjustgod@gmail.com or message me on Twitter (@WendyRussell), rather than telling your story in a comment.

• Please specify whether you'd like your name/your child's name to be withheld.

 •••

Also, an another note, my Survey for Nonreligious Parents is going great. Thank you so much for your participation and for passing it along to others. Another few weeks like the one we had last week, and this thing will be just about wrapped up. Thanks again!