Dear Libby: How can I be a good role model?

Dear Libby

I have a situation that I thought you may be able to help me with.  I’m a liberal Christian whose brand of faith has more to do with living out Jesus’ example of love than anything else — I tend to identify more with Quakers than most denominations I’ve run across, but the absence of a meetinghouse in my area has kept me from becoming more involved.

I have a dearly, dearly beloved aunt who, over the years, has become increasingly fundamentalist in her political and religious views.  Her family is rather hard to categorize — they’re very right-wing politically, involved in the Christian homeschool movement, and tend to espouse the “package deal” view of Christianity you’ve discussed where political views different from theirs mean someone is doing Christianity wrong. However, they left a Baptist congregation because the emphasis on Christian Patriarchy was making their daughters bitter and, while there are several Quiverfull families at their current group home church, they personally aren’t followers.

In order to keep the peace and preserve my relationship with my aunt, I have never shared my actual religious and political views — she knows that I’m Christian and so assumes that we’re on the same page, and to avoid argument I have simply worn my Conservative Hat during visits rather than correct her.  As a result my aunt and uncle have held me up to my cousins as a role model for what a Christian young adult should be.

Now that the kids are spending so much time socializing with Quiverfull families, I’m concerned that they’ll have no one to go to with questions or doubts as they get older.  I worry that misrepresenting myself with my aunt is giving them a false idea of how attainable their idea of a good Christian young woman is — they don’t know that I lost my virginity at seventeen, for example, or that I’ve taken emergency contraception, or that I’m pro-choice, or that I’m currently sleeping with my best friend, or that I fail to feel guilty about any of these things.  They don’t know that I’m politically one of the heathen liberals their congregation abhors.  I want my cousins to know that there are multiple ways to be Christian, not just their parents’.

I want them to feel like they can talk to me if they have doubts.  Mostly, I want them to know that I’ll love them and be there for them no matter what they do or how “Christian” their behavior is.  But I don’t know how to do that without at best undercutting their parents or at worst truly damaging my relationship with my aunt.

Is there anything I can do or say to conduct myself as a more honest role model for my cousins?  I’m quite content to let my aunt continue to think that I’m right on the Christian fundamentalist spectrum with her, but my cousins listening and watching complicates things.  They’re great kids and I want to do right by them.  Any suggestions?  Or in the end is it not my concern?

Thanks,

Kaitlin

I understand Kaitlin’s concern because it’s one i myself face. My siblings know that I have left many of my parents’ beliefs, but they don’t know that I have left religion entirely. They don’t know that I support LGBTQ rights. They don’t know that I am pro-choice. I worry that if one of my siblings were to question God’s existence, or to be gay, bisexual, or transgender, or to become pregnant out of wedlock, they wouldn’t know that they could come to me and find acceptance.

In my case, though, I think the fact that my siblings have seen me go against my parents and form my own views in at least some areas will be enough. While they might not know, for instance, that I am pro-LGBTQ rights, they would probably know that of everyone in the family I would be the most likely to accept them regardless of who they are.

Here is the advice I would offer Kaitlin:

1. Don’t be a complete pushover

I understand you putting on your conservative hat around your aunt. I often do the same sort of thing myself. However, if your cousins see you as a pushover, simply affirming whatever your aunt says and bending over backwards to agree with her in everything, that won’t help them if ever reach the point where they feel the need to stand up against your aunt and forge a different path. I guess what I’m saying is that there has to be a balance here.

2. Don’t hedge around your cousins

When you’re alone with your cousins, don’t be afraid to tell them if you disagree on something. Don’t make it a big deal of it, just state it as a matter of course. For example, if one of my younger sisters says something to me about her being under our father’s authority, or about college maybe not being important for girls, I simply state that I disagree and leave it at that. If she wants to ask more questions, I’ll answer them, but once again, simply stating things concisely and non-judgmentally. You’re not saying “I think your mother is wrong” but rather “I have my own thoughts.” Though those may be technically the same, they come across very differently.

3. Be strong and self-confident

Model what you want your cousins to see and emulate. Be confident. If you’re college, be driven and purposeful. If you have a job, do it well. The goal is for your cousins to see your life – as an independent woman who forms her own thoughts – as something that is familiar, possible, and attainable rather than foreign, ungodly, and distant. If they see you being happy and confident living your own life, that will normalize the idea. You’re not saying “you have to be like me” but rather “it’s possible to be a good person and live different lifestyle from the one you’re being raised in.” This opens the door and makes leaving and living differently seem like an actual option.

4. Be always willing to listen

Don’t judge your cousins. Listen. State simply and without judgement that you disagree with them if it seems appropriate, but don’t judge. (In other words, listening without judging does not mean simply agreeing with everything that comes out of their mouths, even if it is in your opinion completely crazy.) Always show them openness and your willingness to be a confidant and friend. That way, if they start to have questions, or run into conflict with your aunt, they will see you as someone they can turn to.

Conclusion

I’m no expert on this, I’m just trying to speak from my own experience. I hope my thoughts help, and I wish you and your cousins the best. I’d also like to open the floor to suggestions from my readers. You guys can be really insightful, and many of you have been in the place of Kaitlin’s cousins, so please speak up and add to what I’ve said!

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    The only thing I would add is something pretty obvious already, tailor it to their ages. If they are still very young you probably can’t say nothing to them and expect they might not parrot back to their mom but as they are older and get the concepts of grey
    behaviour instead of the black and white of young kids it might be easier for you to present a different role model than your cousins would see. Just be patient, even if you think you are not showing the reality of your model of christianity right now, there’ll probably be good oportunitites in the future. Just my 0’002 euros.

  • Karen

    Regarding Kaitlin’s interaction with her aunt, I would also recommend practicing the art of changing the subject when the discussion gets difficult. If people who are listening, do so carefully to a few of these exchanges, they’ll come away with the notion that perhaps she doesn’t agree with her aunt but doesn’t want to pursue the subject. There’s also the eloquent shrug-and-walkaway. I and my husband practice these with my mother-in-law, and while she _suspects_ we’re atheists, she doesn’t have anything concrete to go on. (Of course, you can’t hold everything in forever, and it’s dawned on her that we’re fairly liberal, but despite the fact that we’re in our 50s she can write that off as the lack of wisdom of the young.)

  • Caravelle

    I wonder, how feasible is it to respond to some of the aunt’s fundamentalist Christian statements with Devil’s Advocate type responses – like “but some might argue that…” or “from what I understand the liberal position on this is actually…”, basically keeping the subject at arm’s length and treating it like an academic exercise, not something you actually believe ? It would probably clue everyone in that you’re more liberal than they thought but they (and your aunt) might still think you’re fundamentally on their side, while if your cousins ever have questions or doubts they’ll know you’re at least open to a different point of view.

    (this idea is completely uninformed and based on not even the slightest personal experience that might parallel Kaitlin’s so if it’s completely off-base or has been tried in the field and found not to work I’d be grateful to hear it)

    • Kaitlin

      “Kaitlin” of the Dear Libby letter here. Caravelle, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve tried more neutral presentations of information — I once corrected my uncle’s claim that “80% of Planned Parenthood’s business comes from abortion”, saying that it was actually closer to 2%. I thought they’d receive it neutrally, given that you’d not want to look foolish by using the wrong figures in an argument, and instead it made the whole conversation escalate to a level that wasn’t really warranted. They wanted to know where my numbers came from, whether the sources were “liberal mainstream media”, my aunt started going on about wanting to protect me from “going down the wrong path” with my views… It was very silly, to be honest, but frustrating enough that I’ve had to tread carefully with information that doesn’t conform to their views.

      Granted, the same approach may work wonderfully with different people — I’m actually a huge fan of the ‘thought exercise’ approach in the main — but my aunt is just too rigid for it to take and tends to respond to challenges with volume, not calm discussion. The whole situation is just very sad for me, as I’m coming to the realization that much of my fondness for her is based on a person that she used to be rather than who she is now. I feel like my cousins are missing out on the best of her.

      • Caravelle

        Thank you for the additional information Kaitlin, I’m sorry to hear your relatives are in so deep… I wish you the best of luck though.

  • Rilian

    I don’t know how related this is, but I was reminded of it.
    My little cousins are always asking if I’m a boy or a girl. I tell the really little ones I’m a boy. But three of them (ages 6, 7, and 9) now I’ve told the slightly more true “I’m a girl but I want to be a boy.” That’s not the “approved” trans lingo, but I think that wording makes more sense to a little kid (unless the little kid happens to be trans themselves). Anyway, that the “tailoring” to the kid’s age. But in this case, I don’t much care if they repeat it to their parents. At some point the whole family will have to know.

    • MadGastronomer

      It is, of course, up to you how you explain your gender to anyone.

      I do find that, “Sometimes babies are born who look like little girls, and everybody thinks they’re little girls, but they’re really little boys. And sometimes babies are born who look like little boys, and everybody thinks they’re little boys, but really they’re little girls. When they get old enough, they can tell people what they really are.” to be understandable by pretty much any child old enough to formulate the question.

      Not every trans person experiences their gender that way, but I find it’s a pretty good place to start. I put it out there as a suggestion for anyone who wants to explain to children that trans people exist.

  • Camden

    Kaitlin,

    This sounds similar to my dad, but he is not as pushy as yr aunt appears. I get a similar response from him when I presentation of facts (“liberal media”, etc. )

    The difference is he knows I’m a “heathen liberal” (he has called me the high-priestess of environmentalism – a badge I’ll wear w/ honor, tho I’m really not pushy abt it 99% of the time.) But I am his daughter and he’s not in deep enough to disown me.

    I think what Libby advises would Be helpful. I’d only add that you shouldpush yourself to be more honest. Take it slow, but if you take a step out of yr comfort zone and stand there a bit yr comfort zone will expand bit by bit.

    Good luck!

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