Ask Richard: Secular Mother’s First Grader Is Suddenly Worried About Practicing Christianity

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

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?

Thank you,

Dear Ruth,

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.


Relevant posts:
Ask Richard: Single Mother’s Parents Are Proselytizing Her Kid
Ask Richard: My Catholic Parents Are Indoctrinating My Kids

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Michael

    If I were the mother, I would quietly ask the uncle if he would enjoy her telling his children that God does not exist and they don’t need to pray to him. If he says no, tell him she would appreciate the same consideration.

  • Baal

    My wife and I have been raising our son without religion.  It’s been interesting at times to see what he picks up.  We’ve also been screening ‘gifts’ from our devout family members who use them to proselytize.  I’ve thankfully not had to deal with the same problem as the OP. 
    Our primary issue is that he’s a nice open kid who assumes he can talk to folks and not get berated for being who he is.  From time to time, the christians have told their kids to not play with my son.  I had tried to let him know to be careful about establishing a relationship with a person before letting out this particular detail.  He’s 11 so I don’t think he’s really ready to express that much caution.  (On one occasion he tried to set up a play date for a Sunday AM with a neighbor…)
    It’s always bothered me that these good christians don’t care enough to ask ahead of time (assume we’re all christians?) but once they find out it’s a horrible betrayal.  I certainly don’t feel obligated to intentionally disclose early.  Atheist is not an illness.

  • dorothy30

    thanks, i just ordered Dale’s book. My oldest granddaughter just turned 2, i hope this will help me handle this topic as a grandparent. Her father (my son) is an atheist, as is my immediate family, but my daughter-in-law comes from a religious family and they are always sending religious themed gifts (bible stories, tshirts with prayer verses on them, etc)

  • Mommiest

    We allowed our kids to go to church when invited by friends. It was never a problem, we told them what our views were and defended their right to make their own decisions. We have a bible and a koran around the house, and they have read whatever they wanted to read. We have talked about conflicts between religion and science as well as religious conflicts past and present. The older one identified herself as Pagan or something for while, the younger one has always claimed to be an atheist since he was 7 or so. Both now claim atheism (ages 17 and 14). We couldn’t be prouder.

    It’s our job to educate and support them.  It’s their right to choose for themselves.

  • Stonyground

    I thought that the answer to this letter was a very well thought out and comprehensive answer to the problem. In the UK we don’t tend to have over zealous relatives to contend with, what we do have is CofE* controlled primary schools**. I don’t think that parents should indoctrinate their kids, so I was happy for my daughter to attend a CofE school (Not that we had a choice in our area) while making it clear to her that I do not believe in God, that other people do, and that she is free to make up her own mind. At age fifteen she is an atheist.

    *Church of England.

    **Elementary schools.

  • Deepak Shetty

     Atheist is not an illness.
    But it can be contagious :)

  • Aljaž Kozina

    Great answer!

  • Anna

    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.

    I’m sure Richard is correct that the boy’s fears stem from a person, not a television show, but it does make me wonder what the child could have watched. It’s a shame that parents have to worry about proselytizing cartoons on top of everything else.

  • Baby_Raptor

    The first thing that popped into my mind was VeggieTales, but I don’t remember them being big on the indoctrination bit. 

  • Anna

    That was my first thought, too, but I haven’t actually seen any of the cartoons. I don’t know if they’re that evangelical. I know they tell children that a god exists, but I’m not sure if they express that children should be worried about not believing in Jesus.

    The boy’s fears seem pretty specific:

    recently he has become interested in Jesus, has expressed worry about not following Jesus, wants to pray at bedtime

    If it was a television program, it must have been pretty heavy duty. For a six-year-old to “express worry” about not following Jesus, he must have been exposed to some sort of threat. And even the Catholic extended family strikes me as an odd source. Unless they’re fundie Catholics, I’m not sure why they would go after a first grader instead of lobbying his parents.

  • chicago dyke

    there’s also the possibility of another child pushing jeebus and fear. kids can garble messages pretty astoundingly, left to their own devices. i remember this from my own childhood, and experiences with racism. i was pretty sheltered and didn’t experience a lot of it from adults. so it was all the more freaky and disturbing when i got an early dose of it from a younger child who clearly didn’t even understand what the concept really meant. i can totally see this kid getting peer pressure from another child with whom he goes to school and is from a religious family. 

  • da_news

    I agree, my daughters (15 and 18) have been surrounded their entire lives by family members who are devoted Seventh day adventists.  They have been give a plethora of proselytizing paraphernalia including illustrated bibles, Vegetales videos and numerous books from various christian bookstores.  They have been to church with friends and family including Mormon, SDA, speak in tongue type evangelicals and Catholic.   I think seeing the various forms of crazy has instilled in them a higher level skepticism then they would otherwise have.  We have always let them experience the religions of those around them but at home they learned to ask for evidence for the claims being made.  Because of that they have both become well spoken atheists and can defend their positions based partially on experience and exposure.  Religion isn’t threatening if it’s not indoctrinated and taught as the “one truth”.  It just becomes silly stories that aren’t very well written. 

  • dantresomi

    This can only get ugly and not because of the religious differences but because someone was feeding this info to the child and asking the child not to tell the parents. As much as we would like to avoid conflict in these kind of situations, it is inevitable. 

  • John

     Perhaps they know the parent is a “lost cause” but are determined to “save” the kid whether the parent likes it or not.

  • Anna

    Maybe, but that doesn’t sound like any of the Catholics I know. Catholics are usually considerably more laid back. Unless they’re super conservative, which is always a possibility.

    Even so, being worried about “following Jesus” sounds much more like an evangelical Protestant concern, as are possible threats over what might happen to a child who didn’t follow him.

  • Richard Wade

    Keep in mind that that is only a possibility to be watchful for that I described, not necessarily what is actually going on in the mother’s situation.  

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

     it’s a horrible betrayal. You hit the nail squarely on the head.

  • Buster Adams

    I don’t see how Atheism is easy to defend. Agnosticism is easy to defend, because it is the admission that the speaker doesn’t have enough evidence/information to make a rational and informed decision. Atheism, like Gnosticism, in order to be a rational conclusion, requires proof that God does or does not exist. No one can truly prove that God does not exist, so Atheism is just as much of a faithful belief as Gnosticism.

  • Uday 20492

    you don’t need to disprove god, you need to disprove religion, which is fairly easy. start with the difference between pagan religions and the abrahamic ones (pagans are more like superheroes,if you know what i mean. indra, the god of war, agni, the god of fire, surya, the sun god [i'm a hindu born, so.])

     and once the kid is out of the ritualistic worshipping phase and into the vague superpower  phase, introduce him to the mathematical wonder called probability and statistics. that in turn takes care of the questions regarding fate and destiny, and ‘why did that happen to me’ type questions.
    finally introduce him to secular philosophy and epistemology, question him about what he knows about his ‘superpower’, what are the attributes, and how does he know ? let him deal with the questions, he will be fine. never answer these questions yourself (if he wants to fight the idea, he will attack the source of the idea, a natural tendency amongst human beings, which means you. you don’t want to lose authority, it affects they way you can guide him on more practical issue, like say, teenage sex.), lead him to a library every saturday, sunday (say), and let him explore.the entire things will take years, but it will work. you are essentially giving him a crash course in the way human thought evolved. :)

  • 09richardk

    Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity. The only defense it requires is the lack of proof religions offer. And I can prove that God does not exist because it’s a logical impossibility. Omnipotence means God can make a burrito so hot that even it can’t eat it which can’t possibly be true because God can do anything, even eat a steamy, plasma-y burrito. A god, however, so long as it’s not omnipotent, is absolutely possible. Very unlikely, but possible.

  • David McNerney

    I’d suggest going one step further and take the child to church herself.  Talk to the priest, make it clear that she is not religious but that her son is curious.

    As long as religion is seen as something “we don’t do”, it has an allure and a power. If it’s just another one of those humdrum things that some silly people do, then it quickly loses that power.

    My son, who’s 10 and religiously inclined, told me with confidence the other day that I couldn’t sing Christmas Carols because they were about Jesus and stuff – I told him that I could do what I liked because those rules only applied him and not me.

  • Tainda

    That’s how I raised my daughter as well and she is 19 and an atheist.  

    If you don’t let your child make decisions like that for themselves, it causes resentment later on.

  • Birdie1986

    This is similar to the approach I take with my son.  My husband professes a belief in God, although in more of a “hedge your bets” sort of way – i.e., he doesn’t want to die and then find out he was wrong and he wants to believe that he will spend eternity with his loved ones.  His father and mother are very religious, but also somewhat open-minded (although they think they are more open-minded than they actually are).  They know that I am an atheist, but I have told my husband that he can take my son to church because I want my son to make up his own mind.  My father-in-law has been pressuring my husband to make sure he takes our son to church (father-in-law has a PhD in Theology and was a Religious Studies professor at a small liberal arts college for many years and is a minister (but not at a church)).  I think my father-in-law sees my atheism as just misguided and that deep down I really know there is a God.  Yeah, he can believe what he wants.  Luckily, my inlaws are not preachy.  They just have their faith, go to church, and pray before meals.  Other than that, they don’t push it on my son, except through encouraging my husband to take my son to church.  Luckily, again, my husband is somewhat lazy in that regard, so they almost never go to church.

    My son finally asked me straight out whether I believe in God and I told him I do not.  This was just after he discovered that the tooth fairy is not real, and slid down the slippery slope to Santa not being real.  He said it wasn’t right to lie to kids about stuff like that.  We told him there’s a difference between lying to someone to get them to believe something so that you can hurt them or get them to do something and pretending to have fun.  I think he gets that.  He also says he does not believe in magic because he learned on Johnny Test that it’s all “atoms” and not magic (those shows are good for something).  He says as soon as we told him that Santa made himself small enough to get down the chimney by using magic, he was on to the whole Santa thing.  So, I can see that my son is trying to think it through, and I’m fairly confident that going to church is only likely to make him less inclined to buy into the whole God thing, particularly now that he knows I do not believe.  My father-in-law can try all he wants, but I really believe that knowledge is power, and so the more my son learns about religion, from both sides, as long as he isn’t put in situations that are akin to brainwashing (like emmersive Christian camps or things of that nature), he will make the reasoned decision.  If not, it’s his choice.

  • Anna

    I agree, but I would caution parents to treat Christianity the same as other religions. If children are only taken to church, if the biblical god is the only god that’s ever talked about, I worry that they would be more inclined to think of Christianity as special and unique. I would never just take my children to a church. If they were curious about religion, they would be going to mosques, temples, and gurdwaras, too.

  • Rich Wilson

    My son likes Veggie tales.  They seem to assume everyone is a Christian more than try to convert kids. At first I made a point of debriefing him on the theological aspects, but he’s more disappointed that there aren’t really little ponies with wings and horns and graphics on their butts.

  • Buster Adams

    Statistics mean nothing in a theological debate.

    In order for statistics to mean anything, you would need a control, or another universe in which you had evidence that God did or did not exist. Statistical evidence against God would be something along the lines of “I tested ten other universes and there was no God in any of them. So it is unlikely here” Nonsense.

    Nothing you said constituted any kind of evidence that God does not exist, because there is no such thing.

    You cannot prove or disprove the existence of God to another person. Pretty much everyone just draws a conclusion based on what they want to be true and goes with that. No one actually tries to find out for themselves.  

  • Buster Adams

    God would not have to be omnipotent. It is a common theme in many theistic belief systems, but God could be something never conceived or discovered by any person as of yet. Which is why it is so laughable when people consider “X religion says this” type arguments to be evidence supposedly disproving the existence of God.