Don wrote a very long and candid letter which I have edited here for space reasons. I have kept the details that I believe are pertinent to the challenge he describes:
I’ve been following your new posts on The Friendly Atheist site for a couple weeks now. You have a great gift of communicating sensitive issues so elegantly for many diverse audiences. Thanks for everything you’ve given the community! Your advice and tone is exactly what is needed in our society. Keep up the great work!
My wife and I both grew up in Christian homes/communities. We both went to church every Sunday and were very active in our churches. We’re both from North Carolina, right smack in the Bible Belt.
In my teens I started experiencing religious doubt and became more skeptical of the existence of God. In college I continued to become more skeptical. Soon after I met my wife, she began down her path of skepticism. We now both consider ourselves atheists. We’ve found friends (new and old) with similar beliefs and methods of parenting. We’ve developed our own support group to commiserate with and explore new ideas.
We now have a daughter, she’s almost 2 1/2 years old. Soon after she was born, my parents approached me asking if we were planning to have her baptized.
At that point I faced the decision to hide my current views on religion and do what I knew my parents would want or to take advantage of the opportunity and tell them how my views had changed. I did the latter and I still am glad I made that decision. It wasn’t easy and there has been some tension for sure but I feel good about being true to myself and my family. It’s no secret that my family is discouraged and disheartened by our change of religious views.
On several occasions they have made remarks and at one point even gave us a letter stating that they thought she should be raised in a church.
Now for the issue at hand. When my family gathers for dinner, regardless of location, they pray. This is perfectly fine with us and even encouraged in our own house. We respect other’s views and want our home to feel welcoming to all beliefs. We obviously do not pray ourselves but we remain quiet and respectful while they pray.
For quite some time now my family has been making a huge deal about the act of prayer at the dinner table and even going so far to slapping our daughter’s hands together into a praying position. At first we were somewhat alarmed by the situation and even remained passive towards them not knowing how to handle it. Recently we have started instructing our daughter in front of the family to remain quiet and respectful during the blessing, telling her that she wasn’t required to put her hands together or bow her head.
This has resulted in some rather unsettling looks from family members, especially my dad. It’s been very uncomfortable to experience, because I’ve always been so close with my family, and it makes the moments immediately following the prayer even more awkward. We’d prefer they lead by example, not by force. My wife and I have tried to take the high road and make it known to my family that we believe that our daughter has the right to exercise her choice just as they do, even at a young age.
The message doesn’t seem to be getting across to them and we’re not sure how else to handle it than firmly and in a potentially hurtful manner. While the specific scenario seems petty I fear that it’s a springboard for a perpetuation of similar events throughout our daughter’s life (and future children as well). I’m hopeful that resolving this issue now will preempt similar challenges down the road. I’m very interested in your thoughts on how I should approach this sensitive issue with my family.
In our house, at the dinner table, we take a moment to note something we are thankful for that day. I consider it more of a moment of reflection and gratitude for what we have. I also think it’s a good example for our daughter to having something to correlate with similar rituals, such as prayer. When friends and family are over we open the table to anyone to do what they prefer before a meal.
We’ve asked for respect from my family in a number of ways. We’ve tried to remain diplomatic and patient as they come around to our rather newly announced set of views. It’s been over two years now since the day I opened up to them and most days I don’t feel like we’re ever going to gain they respect that I feel we deserve. I’ve always been close with my family and never imagined a divide such as the one I’ve outlined in this letter.
Any thoughts or tips would be very much appreciated! Thanks again for your time and dedication to a very important topic. It’s been extremely worthwhile for me personally.
Your daughter is a rope in a tug-of-war. After giving your parents more than two years to get adjusted to your views and to show basic consideration for your ways in your own home, the time for patient diplomacy is coming to an end. This has devolved into a power struggle that focuses on your daughter, but it is really a struggle over you.
Step by step, as a teen, as a college student, as a young married man and as a new father you have gone through the process of differentiation from your parents that all children must do to become truly independent adults. The parents cling, and the children squirm. We all, all do this dance of holding and breaking away, and in the end the parents must finally let go. It is the way humans develop. You finding your own path included your atheism. Not all differentiated paths do, but yours did.
Sometimes the last stages of these struggles for self-definition are hard, and sometimes they are… harder. In your case it seems that there will have to be a summit of some sort, to finally and definitively establish your relationship with them as adult-to-adult instead of parent-to-child.
I think you are correct in your assessment that this is just the beginning of their attempts to mold your daughter to their ways and beliefs. Losing control of you, they will attempt to compensate vicariously through her. They will persist for years unless you put a firm and unequivocal end to it now. The longer it continues, the harder it will be to stop.
I’m not surprised that the prayer rituals at your and their dinner tables have escalated for some time now. It is presently your parents’ only opportunity to impose, through your daughter, their religious will on you. I don’t know if the actual incident was as aggressive as it sounds, but slapping or forcing her hands together into a praying position at your dinner table is way out of line. It is an example and a poignant symbol of the kind of authoritarian control over children that you and your wife overcame, and which you want your daughter to never have to experience.
I can understand your counter-measures at subsequent meals of overtly instructing your daughter in front of them that she need not hold her hands together or bow her head, and simply remain respectfully quiet. But I don’t suggest that you keep using that kind of demonstrative method. All that was really to speak to them more than to her. The main thing your daughter is noticing is the tension in the room. You don’t want to inadvertently use her as a pawn against them any more than let them use her as a pawn against you.
There is going to have to be a reckoning between you and your wife as a united front, and your parents, without your daughter present.
Before your speak to your parents, draw upon your group of supportive friends who have similar views and parenting methods to brainstorm specific things you want to say. Write them down in the form of clear and concise demands, and even rehearse it, having someone play your parent’s roles.
There are three main areas that you must firmly assert with them: the end of their parenthood of you, the establishment of your adulthood with them, and the affirmation of your parenthood of your daughter.
They will always be your parents, but they can no longer parent you.
Their relationship with you must include the same respect for your boundaries that they would have with any adult. They may make suggestions, but they do not order you. If you decline their suggestion, they don’t perseverate. You are in charge of your home, and they are your welcome guests as long as they respect your boundaries. It is reciprocal when you visit their home.
You and your wife are the girl’s parents. They are the grandparents. You outrank them. They interact with your daughter only in ways that you approve. You have the right to spell out what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for anyone who is with your child. They must not try to use her against you, or try to covertly insinuate anything into her behind your back.
Your secular moments of mindful appreciation at your meals sound lovely. In your home, you can be as accommodating as you wish to be, allowing others to do their ritual, but no one, no one at your dinner table or anyone else’s, should be forced, coerced or obliged to participate. Quietly sitting it out must be anyone’s option.
Don, both you and your wife sound so gracious and amiable that I think the two of you can find a way to firmly present your clear and concise demands without being hurtful. If your parents throw a fit or become petulant, then confront them on who is being childish and who is being adult. Do not accept parenting from them and do not accept childish behavior either. Coolly demand, expect and deliver adult-to-adult behavior.
There will be tension, of course, and it will linger. So what? It’s already tense, but you’re being disrespectfully treated. Tension with acceptable behavior is an improvement. Mixing in, as I always recommend, a lot of that closeness and caring that you have for them will help to relax things over time, reassuring them that you love them, showing that you’re a good father, a good husband and a good son. And yet, without taking any of that away, you are also first and foremost, your own man.
I wish all the best for your entire family. Your parents have a gracious, loving and conscientious son. Your daughter is a lucky kid, and when she, as she must, makes her final differentiation from you, I’m confident that she’ll have learned by example how to do it in a gracious, loving and conscientious way.