Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I have a friend who is not a declared atheist, but she is non-religious and has been raising her kids without religion. Her extended family is Catholic but it seems until now they have pretty much minded their own business. Her younger son is in first grade and recently he has become interested in Jesus, has expressed worry about not following Jesus, wants to pray at bedtime, go to church with his uncle, etc. She is not sure where this came from all of a sudden, but possibly an animated children’s TV show had something to do with it. My friend is wondering what is the best way to deal with her son’s concerns, and also what to do if her family members get involved. What would you tell her?
The boy’s expressions of concern sound too specific and too earnest to have come only from a religious cartoon show on TV. I think a specific person is feeding these ideas to him, and the uncle he mentioned stands out as the most likely. Why would the boy specifically want to go to church with his uncle unless his uncle had urged or invited him?
Your friend first needs to gently talk to her son, asking him in a casual way about his concerns, conveying neither approval nor disapproval, only a relaxed interest. She should first just gather information, particularly where, when and with whom he has been talking about these things. That information will help her to decide what she should do if one or more of her family members are responsible.
Sometimes religious family members who see a young relative being raised “unchurched” take it upon themselves to implant their beliefs into the child, and though they might be “well meaning,” doing such a thing without first clearing it with the parent is completely out of line, an unacceptable intrusion. It can cause a multitude of relationship problems.
Another level of this is not that likely, but the small chance compels me to mention it: If the boy seems guarded and reluctant to divulge who has been talking to him about these things, that raises a more alarming prospect that someone is establishing a collusion with him: “Don’t tell your mom that we talked about this.” That kind of secretive and divisive intrigue would be downright outrageous, and anyone doing it should be confronted and stopped immediately. As I said this is not frequent, but I have encountered it.
The main point is that she as the parent should be in control of her son’s education about religion, not some unknown person or persons teaching him whatever they wish.
If she is comfortable with him hearing religious ideas from a family member, she should have all that overtly agreed upon in detail with them first, spelling out what limits she stipulates. She should monitor it all closely and talk to the boy about it frequently.
If she is not comfortable with what her son is being exposed to, she needs to confront the source and demand that they immediately stop. The family dynamics in that kind of confrontation are very complex and often very emotionally charged. Her best approach would depend on many factors that are not described in your letter, so I can’t suggest a specific strategy. However it is done, the final outcome should be that clear and firm boundaries with all persons involved are dictated, not negotiated by your friend, and those boundaries must be enforced strongly and consistently.
The term “non-religious” that you use to describe your friend can mean any number of positions on a spectrum from assertive atheism to believing in deities but just not being religiously observant, so her particular responses to her son’s concerns would depend on where she stands. She needs to be as clear as she can be within herself on religious questions, and know what she wants her son to be exposed to, when, and by whom. Without that clarity, she will have difficulty reassuring him if he has anxiety about what he has heard, and helping him to think about these things as rationally as a first-grader can. Even if her viewpoint is “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” she should be prepared enough to answer his questions honestly and comfortably.
To guide her in giving her son an education about religion without the indoctrination, I recommend that she read Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief, and his companion book, Raising Freethinkers. I have also known atheist parents who begin to read a variety of mythological stories to their children, which helps to put Biblical stories into that kind of context. A friend of mine has found that The Brick Bible, both the Old and New Testament editions which are illustrated with Lego figures have been useful to help introduce Biblical stories without the child assuming it’s supposed to all be true. But I think it would be very important for your friend to read those along with her son, since he’s already been convinced to some extent that the stories are true. She should also be very watchful of the kind of TV shows that he watches, since you say that he recently saw some kind of animated religious children’s program.
Parents face a constant and bewildering barrage of challenges from all around their kids, and directly from their kids themselves. Their best response is to establish a relationship of mutual honesty and genuineness with their child at a level that is appropriate for their age and sophistication. They as parents should clearly be in charge but still able to let their children know that they’re not perfect, they don’t know everything, and they sometimes have fears, doubts and confusions just as the kids do. This allows the children to see themselves as having some valid input even though the final decisions must be up to the parents. Their relationship then becomes a continually adjusting partnership that gradually expands the child’s freedoms as it equally expands his responsibilities.
If your friend approaches her son with this kind of two-way trust and respect, and she answers his questions honestly and without pretense, and she asks him in return what he thinks about his questions, she can begin to nurture in him a confident, rational thinker who can eventually make wise and age-appropriate decisions for himself as he grows and develops.