Ask Richard: Atheist Ex-husband, Christian Ex-wife, Kids in the Middle

Hello and thank you for your time.

I grew up a christian and was raised in a baptist home (yikes). I am divorced and I have two children ages 11 and 7. I have only been an atheist for 3 years. My children were exposed to christianity from birth and still attend church with their mother, which scares the proverbial Hell out of me. They do not know of my change in ideology.

My question is, when do I talk to them about it? Even though I am an atheist, I still pray with them every night that they are with me. Now I realize this seems odd but, I believe it brings them comfort… the kind of comfort that is no different than my daughter’s stuffed alligator that she sleeps with every night… and talks to. I do not believe the alligator can hear her anymore than god would in our prayers. Am I misleading my children? or it is ok, to a point in their age, to make sure they feel comforted.

Dad of Two

Dear Dad,

This is very complicated, very delicate and there are many “ifs,” so based only on your letter, I cannot give you many definitive suggestions. I can only generally lay out for you issues of which you should be aware and pitfalls to avoid. Some possibilities I describe may sound worrisome, but it may turn out that this is resolved more easily. If I discuss something that is obvious to you, or if I warn you against something that you’d never even consider, please forgive me.

Children in divorced families are caught between conflicting loyalties. They are naturally loyal to both their parents. When their parents disagree on something important, the kids can feel uncomfortable taking one side over the other. When the parents don’t get along and even dislike each other, the kids end up having varying levels of guilt mixed into their love for each parent. They think in either/or, black-and-white terms. Understanding things like gray areas, ambiguity, nuance and compromise are for much more mature people. Even many adults never master these. So in the kids’ minds, when they are loving one parent, to some extent they may think they are being disloyal to the other.

The severity of that inner conflict and the pain involved is determined mainly by how conscientiously the divorced parents cooperate to mitigate it for the kids. In the best of cases, the parents communicate openly, and agree to make it clear to the kids that loving them both is okay, and that they don’t have to choose one parent over the other. Then the kids’ discomfort can be greatly reduced. It is also important for such conscientious parents to make it clear that it is not the kids’ fault that their parents don’t get along. Internalizing that undeserved guilt is a sadly common consequence when their feelings are not openly and frequently discussed.

In the worst of cases, the parents, focused on their own resentment for each other, use their kids as weapons against each other. They will denigrate their ex spouse in front of the kids, and even tell them to spy on the other. Meanwhile, the other parent may be doing something similar, so the children become ropes in a tug-of-war, or stones to be thrown back and forth, or very conflicted double agents. Many other metaphors would express the situation where more damage is done to the innocents in the middle than is done to the two enemies who are in conflict.

Your two kids, going back and forth between you and their mom are already caught in at least a little of this. That is inevitable, even in the best of cases. What you must do for them is to at least not make it worse. You may be able to make it better with patience, humility and selflessness.

Below are some of the “iffy” issues that are not clear here, and would affect your best course of action:

  • Are you able to cooperate with your ex-wife to promote the best interest of the children?

In the best scenario, you would first tell your ex-wife about your atheism, and alleviate whatever fears and misconceptions she might have from that revelation. Then the two of you would work out a detailed agreement about the children’s religious upbringing, about how things like prayer would be handled, and how you will tell the kids about your views.

I realize that best scenarios are rare, but if there is any room there, work with it. If she is not as willing to cooperate with you as you are with her, it may take some time to negotiate with her and to coax her to focus on realistic solutions that benefit the children, but also respect both of your needs.

  • Is atheism vs. religion going to be a very severe a conflict between you and your ex-wife?

If it is so contentious that it will cause the “weaponizing” of the kids, or make them the prize in a contest of who will “win them over,” then it may be preferable to not reveal your non-belief to your ex-wife at all. If you choose to not tell her about your atheism, DO NOT tell your kids about it with the requirement that “This will be a secret between us, don’t tell Mommy.” That would severely increase their inner conflict of loyalties, and it would most likely leak out anyway. A tangled mess of tension, guilt, confusion, anger and hurt would come from that. Avoid, if you can, teaching them to lie to someone they love.

  • Do you want to get the kids to see things the way you do?

As a parent, it’s natural that you would want that. But the question really is, how badly do you want that, and to what amount of conflict are you willing to subject the kids? Thinking that you will be “saving” them from the evils of religion would be just as regrettable as your ex-wife possibly thinking that she’s “saving” them from the evils of atheism. Both of these mentalities are based on a vision of a future outcome that is probably colored more by emotion than reason. They both tend to increasingly focus the parents on wanting to be right and wanting to have their own way. The wellbeing of the children in the here-and-now begins to recede into the background.

You have the right to try to influence your children, and so does your ex-wife. Short of illegal abuse, neither of you have the right to completely prohibit the influence of the other. If cooperation with your ex is not an option and competition is too destructive, then your course will have to be to influence them quietly by your example. They will benefit from watching you be a man who is true to his convictions by the way he lives rather than the things he says.

Regardless of the course you take according to the considerations above, you can begin being more true to your own views by not participating actively in their prayers. When they say, “Are we gonna say our bedtime prayers, now?” you can smile and say, “Sure, you can if you want.” That subtly gives the choice to them. If they say, “Aren’t you gonna pray with us?” you might smile and say, “That’s for you kids, Sweetheart. I’m going to sit here and think about how much I love you.” That is after all, what you’re actually doing.

You compared their prayers to a stuffed toy they use for comfort. They know that you and other adults no longer use stuffed toys, and they see no problem with that. Your subtle message is that this is a thing that people grow out of.

Over the next several years, you will have thousands of interactions with them where your example will be more a powerful teaching tool than a specific tutorial. They will watch how you think things through, how you hold back coming to a conclusion while you look for evidence, and how you make it okay for anyone to question anything. When you help them with their homework, you will be frequently asking things like, “Hmm. How do we know this?” or “Okay, what evidence is there for your idea?” You will be planting the seeds of skepticism and critical thinking.

Perhaps soon, perhaps not soon, the right time will come for you to speak to them frankly and openly about your unbelief. There are so many unknown conditions in your situation that it is not possible to recommend a specific time or age that is best. At ages 11 and 7 they are probably beginning to be able to understand the basics of what you want to tell them, but there is so much variation in children’s cognitive and emotional development, and so many variables in your relationship with their mother. I’m sorry that I have to say it depends, it depends, it depends.

When the time comes, tell your kids the truth about yourself. Don’t talk about God, talk about your lack of belief, and what you need in order to believe something. Make it clear to them that it is up to them to decide for themselves what they will believe as they grow up. Make it clear that it is okay for them to change their minds as time goes by. Make it clear that you will love them if they choose to disagree with you. That must be completely true for you or it will soon be shown to be false, and it will only make things worse. Be in every breath the man who speaks the truth he lives.

Dad, your focus on wanting your kids to be comforted at this age shows that as a parent you have your priorities in the right order. It means that their wellbeing is at the top, and your personal needs taper down from that. As they grow, you will be more able to accommodate your needs with theirs so that you are not constantly sacrificing being true to yourself in order to be kind to them. It will probably be a gradual shift until they are able to be their own persons standing alongside you, having learned by your example as you adjusted to their increasing maturity.

Your kids have an excellent father.

Richard

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About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Joel

    wow, that was awesome. Thank you, Richard

  • Robin

    Richard, your response was excellent. Thank you for your willingess to help others out.

  • Siamang

    Whooo…. Richard nails it.

    As a child of divorce, let me just say… you really nailed it.

  • stephanie

    Great response! These things are always so tangled.

    My good friend has the opposite problem, as she is the Atheist and her ex the religious one. She had to get arbitration to make him stop telling their son she was living with Satan and that he should be afraid to sleep in her house. What kind of parent abuses a child like that?

  • tom

    That is awesome advice. The first thing I thought of was how he could lose custody rights over this as religious as our nation is, but it’s getting better thanks to people like you!

  • Jim

    I’ve been thru this. Twice.

    What I’ve settled on over the years is that once you each understand what the other believes, just let it go. If you push it you only become a threat to their beliefs. Don’t talk about religion unless a situation comes up or they bring it up. Don’t try to encourage them to believe what you believe. Instead, teach them to think for themselves and to think critically and independently about all things. Every couple of years or so I would take an opportunity when it came up to ask what they believed, then to ask why they believed it. I didn’t respond to what they said, I just listened. I also did my best to set an example. The more important things are what you do and what they think, not the other way around.

    The above just applies to beliefs, not science or facts. I teach/taught them about things like evolution, the earth’s formation, the universe, etc.

    Both of my older kids grew up to be nonreligious. My son went from being very involved in church (3-5x a week) in high school to a full fledged atheist once he hit college. My little one is learning that just because her BFF believes in ghosts that doesn’t mean she needs to.

  • http://seangill-insidemyhead.blogspot.com/ SeanG

    Great response. I want to second the education. Teach your kids critical thinking and reasoning skills. Leave direct discussions of atheism out. Parenting Beyond Belief is a great resource for that (http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com/). PBB has forum topics discussing just this type of thing. You’re not alone in this situation.

  • Dad of Two

    Thanks Richard for your detailed response.

    And thanks Jim. You and I share the same thoughts.

    I just want to communicate something that I left out. My goal here, honestly, is to not make sure they grow up to be Atheists. In all actuality, I want to offer them the opportunity to question and think for themselves – two luxuries I was not offered as a child growing up.

  • Javier de Mercedes

    Sincerely awesome.
    I don’t have children (I mean we don’t) yet but I’ll refer a couple who are dealing with this issue.

  • Matt D

    I really like Jim’s process of educating his children (evolution etc).

    I do a similar thing with my 4 year old.

    He loves animals (and believes God made them as they are) so I like to play little games to help sow the seeds. Like asking “why do you think an Arctic fox is white?”. Without prompting he suggested that it was so other animals wouldnt be able to see him – he’s a smart little guy.

    I dont do this to screw with his head – its just so that when he encounters evolution in school for the first time it wont shatter his (mother’s) Xtian view of the world.

    To Dad of Two – as long as the kids are number 1, everything wil be fine. It’s a long race – and if you can raise them to think for themselves they’ll be fine.

  • Mohan Karthik

    That was Brilliant Richard. I’ve been a fan of yours since “The God Delusion”, and well a convert because of you too. But its stuff like this that defines life and how it is.
    Thanks a lot. I hope more parents read this and understand the difficulties of a child.

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you, Mohan, and everyone else for your compliments. If my efforts prevent or relieve some suffering, I am satisfied.

    Mohan, just in case there is some confusion, it was Richard Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist who wrote The God Delusion. I’m just a humble retired family counselor.

  • gsw

    “They know that you and other adults no longer use stuffed toys”
    While we old ladies have cats, I also have a teddy bear.

    Stagering thought: Could it be that we Europeans are less hung up about religion & the whole god thing because we get to keep our teddy bears until we leave them to our grandchildren in our wills?