I recently shared concerns I have with my SIL about how my 10-year old son is having a terrible time trying to interact with the kids in our neighborhood. We just moved here so he doesn’t know anybody, and he literally runs away if approached. (We’re seeking professional help.) She was very supportive, and it was a good conversation.
The next day she sent an e-mail to me and my husband, and she also copied it to my FIL, since she had told my MIL the things I shared with her about my son’s debilitating shyness/possible social phobia. That upsets us because she really had no business passing that along without our permission, but I guess I should have told her that our conversation was to be kept in confidence. The e-mail consisted of a long list of ideas of how to help our son cope with his shyness, and it was obvious that she meant well in sending it, because she loves our son very much.
However, one of her suggestions has us really upset because she knows that I am an atheist. I told her last year, and she accepted it and hasn’t treated me any differently since finding out. Here it is:
“Go to church, any one that you feel comfortable with. Teach him about God and Jesus so that he can have a faith life and an understanding of God’s loving presence for comfort and support, anxiety reduction and peacefulness…”
WTF? I would never dream of telling her to stop filling her kids’ heads with Christian dogma, so I’m in shock that she would expect me to teach my child something I don’t believe to be true. I’m sure she wouldn’t teach her children that atheism is a desirable philosophy to have, so I’m appalled, quite frankly. My FIL is not comfortable with my atheism, and told us once that he doesn’t think we’re being fair to our child since we don’t “teach him that he has a heavenly father”. The subtle needling that we get to take him to church is bad enough from my FIL, and now we get this little gem from my SIL.
Should I let her know that this advice bothers us, or do I just drop it to keep the peace? I feel like the implication is that my atheism is inferior to her theism, and by extension, my parenting is inferior as well. By the way, my husband is not religious, but he does believe there’s something out there. We agree that we should let our son decide for himself about the god hypothesis. I quizzed my son recently about his feelings, and he says he’s an atheist. He said, “How can something immaterial be more powerful than nature?” I’ve never thought of that one myself!
Dear Righteously Indignant,
Whether or not you should say something or drop it depends on many things that only you could know, and some of those things you might not know. You’re trying to figure out what is in another person’s mind from what might or might not be implied messages in between her words to you. That can be frustrating and a bit crazy-making.
One argument for leaving it alone is that if it gets worse, then you’ll be sure, and you’ll be able to speak up about it with certainty.
One argument for speaking up about it now is that if you wait and it does get worse, you’ll have more resentment about it, and it will be harder to resolve things amicably.
It’s almost certain that your sister-in-law views her theism as accurate and your atheism as inaccurate, just as you have the opposite view. But you are feeling defensive and resentful about an attitude of moral and personal superiority that she might or might not harbor.
Your indignation seems to be based on your assumption that she is deliberately and consciously implying her disapproval of you, your atheism and your parenting, similar to the more explicit criticism you get from your father-in-law. That assumption about her attitude might not be accurate. Going by your letter, there is little indicated about her attitude, and much about your speculation about her attitude. Needling you indirectly might be her conscious intention, or her remarks might be due to simple insensitivity, forgetfulness, or a somewhat inept application of good intentions.
To quote Robert Hanlon, Robert Heinlein, Napoleon, and Goethe, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”
If you decide to talk with her about it, a casual conversation would probably be better than returning an email. You had better results when the two of you spoke face-to-face. There would be two separate issues to discuss:
The first would be about confidentiality. Many people assume that personal or sensitive conversations are okay to share with others unless they are specifically asked to keep it in confidence. Because of my background as a counselor, I always assume that any personal or sensitive information told to me even in an informal chat should be kept confidential unless I am specifically given permission to share it, and only with specific people. A great deal of strife and hurt could be avoided if that were the more common assumption.
The second issue to discuss with her would be about recommending religion as a solution. You’re shocked and appalled that she would suggest something you would never dream of suggesting to her. Keep in mind that some, though not all, Christians think that the Golden Rule does not apply to their efforts to proselytize non-believers who don’t proselytize them. When confronted with the inequity of their unwelcome attention, they often use the paternalistic rationalization that they’re doing it “for your own good,” and that the salvation of your soul trumps any principle of reciprocity. They think they possess a divine license to break such basic social rules, so it’s often futile to try to philosophically argue them out of that position. Sometimes the only recourse is to simply tell them to stop.
In your own words and in a relaxed setting, consider saying something along these lines:
Thank you for being so supportive and caring when I confided in you about (my son’s) recent difficulties. I know you love him very much, so I’m sure you meant well when you talked to (your mom) about it, and when you sent (your dad) a copy of the email that you wrote to (me and my husband).
However, with personal matters, we would rather have the choice to involve them or not, so please keep such things between us unless I say it’s okay to share it with someone else. (My husband) and I of course will be just as careful with personal things that you share with us.
We appreciate your several ideas to help (our son), but as I hope you already understand, teaching him to become a Christian is not what we wish. We’re teaching him to think carefully for himself and to make his own well-considered decisions in life, including making up his own mind about religion. You have been very accepting of me despite the difference in our beliefs, and I want to continue to be accepting of you. I hope that we can stay as close and comfortable as we’ve been.
Something gentle like this might work, might not, or might work partially. When dealing with someone who is doing an annoying thing, people have their own preferences about tact versus frankness, and so people will apply them differently, or apply only one. There are no foolproof methods.
If a pair of tweezers will do a job, then there’s no need for a sledgehammer. I tend to prefer an escalating series of responses, giving a tactful request the first try, before moving on to a frank instruction, and if that fails, a pointed demand. That way, the person who is doing the annoying thing cannot claim that I didn’t give them fair warning before coming down hard on them. If you and your sister-in-law can be friends who have reached an understanding, that’s better than being enemies who have reached the end of their patience.
I think you and your husband are doing an excellent job of parenting your son. He sounds like a sensitive and thoughtful boy, and he’s lucky to have both of you. Try simple things like arranging for a neighbor to come over to visit with just one of their children. That way your son is on his own turf, and he might feel more at ease sharing his own toys and games with just one kid while you and the other adult are chatting close by. Then depending on the result, at another time try having another child visit. This will give your son a gradual easing into the neighborhood without the intimidating prospect of having to meet and trying to be accepted by everyone all at once. With the combination of the right professional help and your encouragement to think for himself and believe in himself, I think it’s very likely that he will adjust to his new social environment, and he will become confident and happy.
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