Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My 11-year-old son, Max, has asked me for advice, and I’m turning to you because I don’t know what to tell him. First a little background – I was raised in a very religious home and married his father when I was 18. We divorced a year after my son was born, and we have both since remarried. My ex and I still get along quite well and are on friendly terms. Even the fact that he is still very religious and I am very much not hasn’t been a major issue, although I feel that may not always be the case, especially after the conversation I had with Max this past weekend.
Max informed me that he doesn’t see any reason to believe in a god, as he doesn’t see any proof for one. This is, obviously, contrary to what his father believes, and that’s where he wanted the advice. Now, normally he’s with me on the weekends, but the few he spends with his father they go to church. Also, Max’s dad will ask him to pray at meal and bedtimes, and Max wants to know what he should do about that. He flat out told me that he’s scared to tell his dad what he thinks, as he’s afraid his father will be mad and/or sad about it. I’m at a total loss as to what to tell my son.
On the one hand I would like for my son to be able to be totally honest with his father. I don’t like the idea that he would try to keep something like this a secret, or that he would feel like he has to hide what he believes. At the same time, I worry that my ex-husband (along with my ex father-in-law), would attack my son’s beliefs. I fear that anything they would try to do to “save” him could be damaging. Max is very sensitive, and I don’t like thinking of him going through the things I went through when I came out as an atheist to my family – and I was an adult and no longer under their control at the time, so I know it was easier for me than it would be for Max.
I don’t know what to do. Do I encourage my son to remain closeted with his beliefs until he’s a little older and better able to deal with his father’s disappointment? Do I encourage him to talk it over with his dad, to get everything out in the open? Is this something I should try to get involved with as well, perhaps trying to set up a time for the 3 of us to meet on some sort of neutral grounds, in an attempt to be some sort of advocate for my son? I want to protect him the best I can, but I don’t know what will ultimately be best for him in the end.
Any advice you could give would be greatly appreciated.
Parents cannot have all the answers for their children, and when they don’t have an answer, it’s okay to honestly tell them so.
Eleven years old is pretty young to have to deal with this issue, but it happens when it happens, and it seems to be happening earlier with succeeding generations. Max has brought his dilemma to you because he doesn’t see an obvious easy solution. The difficulty he’s facing is painfully familiar to you, and you don’t see an obvious easy solution either. So you have in turn brought the dilemma to me.
I’m afraid that I don’t see an obvious easy solution either.
So I’m going to bring the dilemma back to Max. In terms he can understand, talk with him about all the things I’ll describe here. Most importantly, listen to him carefully, and do your best to make it easy for him to talk to you. It sounds like you’re already good at that. When you don’t know what to suggest, honestly say that. The two of you putting your heads together for a shared challenge will build a stronger bond, even if neither of you are coming up with immediate solutions. In the end, it’s that bond of caring and acceptance that he will need the most, rather than any particular strategy.
Children of divorced parents walk a narrow line, trying to follow their natural loyalties for both of their parents. When disagreements or conflicts arise between the ex-spouses, the children can sometimes become a rope in a tug-of-war between them, or worse, the children can be used as a weapon by one or both parents against the other. If the kids cannot freely talk to at least one parent about this bind they are in, they are forced to hedge, evade, and pretend. They can secretly feel guilty for being disloyal in some degree to both parents. They often learn to conceal their feelings from others in general, which can later make it tough to have close relationships. Eventually they conceal their feelings from themselves, which is not healthy.
Fortunately for Max, you and your ex-husband are on friendly terms so far, but nothing is as deeply divisive and unpredictably contentious as religion. It might be resolved amicably, or it might not.
Max needs to be able to openly express to at least one of you his conflicting loyalties, and know that he is still loved and accepted by the parent whom he tells. He already has that foundation with you. Whether or not his father is capable of that level of wisdom and maturity remains to be seen. The test will be when the truth comes out about Max’s belief, and it will come out sooner or later. Exactly how that happens might not be as important as when it happens.
Both you and Max are torn between the desire to be truthful and what both of you anticipate might be the consequences for telling the truth. Max is worried about his father’s anger at him, but he’s also worried about his father’s sadness. For many kids, having a parent be disappointed in them is worse than having a parent be angry at them.
Truthfulness is very important, but people should not follow the principle of truthfulness mechanically, without regard to other principles, including their right to protect themselves. Telling the truth exists within the context of the relationship between the teller and the listener. If the listener is not capable of responding to the truth in a way that honors the teller and the telling, then it may be better to withhold the truth until the relationship changes. The teller might need to become less vulnerable, and the listener might need to become more receptive.
Describe for Max what your experience of your own coming out to your family has taught you, and what your experience of your ex-husband has taught you. Let him know that you will love him and support him in whatever decision he makes about how to handle the situation. Let him know that he can take is time; there is no need to rush into a decision.
You are not being derelict in your moral teaching by letting him make the decision and letting him make it in his own time. You’re helping him to see that in life there are often no easy, clean solutions, and sometimes he must choose the least messy solution for the time being. By your example, you’re also teaching him to have compassion for others who are facing difficult dilemmas.
Whatever you do for Max should be with his agreement. He might want to leave it alone for now, and put up with praying and going to church. He might want you to be present at a three-way discussion with his father about these issues, as you suggested. He might prefer that you speak privately with his father about it first, and then let them talk it out.
Hopefully, whenever the time comes, his father will show himself to be mature, compassionate, patient, and above all, loving. But regardless of his father’s response, Max will have learned those qualities by working with you.