Question from a reader: How do you deal with well-meaning friends and family who talk to your child about Heaven?
Ah, starting with the Big Guns, eh?!
Unless you are fortunate enough to come from a freethinking family you will certainly have to deal with extended family or friends taking liberties with your children's innocence and good little hearts. Often behind your back, some well-meaning person will start feeding stories of an afterlife to your small one, an afterlife that sounds golden and perfect and beautiful and obviously the best place ever.
It has happened to me, so I can also tell you what NOT to do. Instead, I’ll give you the benefit of my dozen or so years of figuring this out.
How to address this?
Of course you know, an A-#1 Perfect Answer that fits all family situations is not possible here because every single family is different and so many different scenarios like this play out every single day. But you can start by answering a few questions. Is it important enough to you to speak to these well-meaning people? How out are you as an atheist? What is your comfort level with handling disagreement? What is your relationship with these people who are determined to share their mythical stories with your child? Will these loved ones have a problem with keeping their beliefs to themselves? Let's assume that these people are very important to you and you wish to maintain or strengthen your relationship with them. If this is so, take a few breaths.
Let's start with a few givens, points that are essential to a good, strong freethinking parent. First of all, you are the parent. It is within your right to make thoughtful decisions about what is important and what you want to expose your children to. In fact, it is more than a right, it is a responsibility. Second, it is reasonable and healthy to be a skeptical parent. Next, it is right and correct that you speak up when anyone moves so far beyond the boundaries of what you consider acceptable. Sadly, the truth is that most people who operate within a religion believe that it is their duty to share their good news. So, as a parent, as an atheist, it is always easier to stand up for your rights when you feel entitled to those rights.
No simple answers come to you out of the ether. With so many possible scenarios and with no way of outlining every possible response of these people, it comes down to this simple truth: the only person that you can control is yourself. Having special family members and friends in our lives is a treasure and is what makes life worthwhile! So, with an eye toward retaining a close and respectful relationship with these errant people who are doing what they believe is a loving thing, let's think about what you, as the parent, can do.
Know that you are the parent and you are in the right in this situation. Your expectations and wishes need no apology. You are the parent. Whether we are talking about grandparents sneaking candy behind your back or loved ones allowing behaviors not allowed in your home, you are the parent. Confidently remind yourself that you have every right to do what you believe is right in your family. With assurance, practice standing up for yourself. Firmly assert that, while they might not agree with your parenting, you ask that, if they disagree with you, they bring it up with you in private rather than to have this disagreement in front of your children.
Know that you have the right, the responsibility, the authority to decisively parent in a way that is ethical and honest to your truth.
Keep it private. As much as possible, keep the conflict with these beloved people in private, away from your children. Children are incredibly astute and will have an instinct that they’re in conflict between the important people in their lives. Chances are, since your disagreement is about religion, the conflict could be considerable and long-lasting. Having your parenting questioned in front of your children will result in resentment. Encourage questioning to be done behind closed doors. But this may not remain feasible if tensions get high.
The children will know. But know this. Eventually, the children will know. I am a firm believer in honesty at their level. When the children start to notice and question the conflict or problems, I believe in acknowledging the questions honestly and answering the questions that are asked without too much specific information. Remember, what our intuitive children are looking for is to know that we love our family and friends and that we are handling things well. Remind them that you love the questioning relations and that you love the children and that all will be well.
Establish boundaries. In every single relationship in your life you have boundaries, certain limits to what is acceptable or expected. Even those relationships that have never even thought of discussing boundaries still have boundaries. A person who is overriding your wishes, on some level, knows that they are beyond the boundaries of what is allowed. Remind them that relationships are built on trust and you want to be able to trust them with your children. Not as a threat, as a reminder, as a statement of truth and expectation. Remind frequently, as necessary.
Keep calm. I can honestly say that I did NOT keep calm the first several times that this happened in our family. My initial reaction was to confront... loudly. I felt hurt, angry, and betrayed. These scenarios did not go well! What did go well was when I took my family member aside and spoke to them in private and reminded them that they must respect my role as the parent and they must respect my wishes with regards to keeping interaction with my children secular. It may be helpful to make an appointment or date to have a discussion with the people in question at a time when the children are not within ear shot.
Many very devout people won't like it. And you can not truly control anyone else or stop people from doing things that you dislike, especially people who are determined to undermine you. It is my experience, and a common experience, that people tend to continue secretly pushing their agenda. Keep calm and be proactive. It may be time to do some work with the kids.
Talk about it with your children. You won't be able to control everything that enters your child's world, but you can prepare them for the world in which they live. Raising a child is like building a structure, so start with a good strong foundation of science, wonder, nature, and love. Within your safe, relaxed, fun, and loving relationship, allow them to explore ideas that sound magical.
Trust reason. The time that you put into the raising of your child will almost always far surpass the time that anyone else is involved with them. Deliberately introduce your children to science and critical thinking early in fun and creative ways. Since we are talking about an afterlife in this question, I encourage reading many different fairy tales and mythologies to your children from an early age. I will get back to this again in a future column, but suffice it to say that, even if your child does go through a period of entertaining the idea of heaven or other afterlife story, eventually this type of story will ring the bells of magic to a child who is schooled in reason.
Honesty and respect. Always communicate clearly and diplomatically. This issue will not resolve itself easily for many people in your life. When you see interaction between this person and your children that you appreciate, mention it! Let them know that you see and appreciate their efforts. Let them know, also, that you care for them and make them aware of how important they are to you.
Stick to your guns firmly, with respect for your friend or family member, and, if necessary, limit time with those people. Anytime a person is undermining or sabotaging your parenting methods, be it about skepticism or any other issue that is important to you, you have the right to stand up for yourself. In a perfect world your wishes would be respected.
In a difficult world, if your wishes are still not being respected, and in cases where your parenting is being strenuously undermined, if you feel a strong need to make some important and difficult changes to the relationship you may need to. Determine how much involvement you want to have with your beloved friends or family. If you have come to a place where you feel the need to create space in this unsatisfactory relationship, do all in your power to maintain a sense of family and love in the spaces. But do keep this for a Last Ditch Step.
As a new atheist parent or as a first-generation atheist you might feel very protective and defensive in a situation like this. Let me remind you of these key steps to take:
- let time and nature and consistency build that strong freethinking foundation for your children.
Trust that all will be well.
If you are a newbie atheist parent and you have a question
please send it to: Karen.Loethen@gmail.com
I will answer as many of your questions as I can.
Photo Credits: Karen Loethen