© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The Conversation / Can you hear me now? 10

If you’re a nonreligious parent getting serious pressure or interference from a religious family member about your parenting choices, you’ve got to sit down and have a talk.

Last time I suggested a way of rethinking both the problem and the solution. It isn’t about changing the other person’s mind—it’s about reducing the dissonance that results from your differences. It’s not victory you’re after, but a relaxation of tension and building of mutual confidence. It’s détente.

Note 1: This conversation isn’t always necessary just because your religious perspective differs from your parents, in-laws, etc. Some religious grandparents are entirely respectful of their children’s rights to approach religion any way they wish with their own kids. Others offer nothing more challenging than the occasional grumble, whine, or plea. If you have one of these, be grateful. This post is about a stickier wicket—the grandparent or other relative who threatens, harasses, argues, pressures, and/or actively interferes with your right to raise your kids as you think best when it comes to religion.

Note 2: This is also not about your right to confront an antagonistic relative. For all I know, said relative has earned a merit badge in Self-Righteous Scumbaggery with you as the final project, and your right to retribution is enshrined in six different UN charters. But this post isn’t about us and our personal rights. It’s about creating the best possible family situation for our kids.

Note 3: There are countless variations on the nonreligious parent/religious grandparent dyad, but certain basic principles apply across the board. Be flexible and adapt as needed.

And off we go…

gma31990This approach is related to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a powerful and effective concept developed by Marshall Rosenberg and others. It starts with empathy—making an effort to grasp and feel what the other person feels, to hear things as s/he hears them, and to frame what you have to say accordingly. It can leave people feeling heard, understood, and honored – even if they continue to disagree. It can lead to amazing breakthroughs by recognizing that win and lose are not the only meaningful terms in dialogue.

When a secular parent tells me about locking horns with Grandma, I ask what Grandma is concerned about. The answer is almost always the same—the familiar goulash of hell, morality and discipline.

These concerns may be part of the mix, but I don’t think they are usually at the heart of things. The relative may even be convinced that hell-avoidance really is their main concern and may say exactly that, but I have reason to believe otherwise. (I’ll get to the reason by the end.)

Consider this: Most deeply religious people have their religion woven into their personal identity. It’s not just Grandma’s explanatory system or a moral code—it’s often who she is. She’s likely even to see it as the best of who she is. When her first grandchild was born, her visions of herself as a grandmother centered on sharing the best of herself, the deepest and most meaningful part of her life, with her grandchildren, and of proudly sharing her God-fearing descendants with her admiring friends.

The news that said descendants would be raised without religion would have hit her first and foremost as the end of that vision. Worse still, she would often feel personally dishonored and shut out. Finally, she would feel embarrassed by the judgments of her churchgoing friends.

So then: Hell, morality, discipline, identity, self-image, honor/dishonor, exclusion, family pride, and the judgment of others. A pretty potent mix. We can’t solve them all. But we can do some pretty impressive healing with just a few words. And in the process, we will give nothing away and tell nothing but the truth sur cette page.

There are four important elements:

HONOR the person. You can continue to think whatever you wish about the person’s beliefs. But people deserve respect as people. Refuse to grant that and you have no basis for discourse. If nothing else, honor their intentions, which (however misguided you think they are) are usually good.

EMPATHIZE. Make a real effort to see things as s/he sees them.

REASSURE. Some of his or her concerns can’t be helped. Some can. Reduce the concerns by addressing those you can.

INCLUDE. This is huge. A clear gesture of inclusion can repair an immense amount of damage and bring down walls. Most people will respond to that generous gesture with a desire to not abuse it. For the rest, some reasonable limits can be placed.

Here’s the idea:

I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are important to us. I know you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that.

I know your religious faith is a big part of your life. If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do—worried that this big part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.

I want you to know that it will be shared. Even though we’re not going to church, it’s important to us that the kids learn about religion so they can make a choice for themselves.

We want you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe. Let’s set up a time for you and me and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate so you can talk to her about your faith. How does that sound?

Details are hammered out next, so you should be prepared with a sense of what is OK and what is not. But ONCE THE CONVERSATION HAS HAPPENED, s/he will be infinitely more receptive to a few simple ground rules. For me there were two: no thoughtstoppers (no reference to hell or the idea that doubt is bad), and present all beliefs as your own (“I believe that…”), not as givens.

Sometimes it won’t work. But I’ve heard from so many people that this was the breakthrough, the approach that finally achieved something positive — including many who had sworn in advance that “It’ll never work with my dad” — that I have to think there’s something there. Several people have described step four as the turning point, the moment s/he is invited to share his or her belief with the kids. The road is not paved with daisies from that point forward, but at least it isn’t paved with IEDs anymore.

And this is why I believe it isn’t really all about hell — because without addressing hell one bit, enormous progress is made.

The bottom line in this is that there is an alternative to (1) saying nothing, or (2) spitting nails, or (3) giving away the farm. We can be the generous ones, the ones who understand where the other person is coming from, the ones who find a way forward, without giving up one bit of parental autonomy.

Reword it for your own situation, but have this conversation sooner rather than later — then come back here to tell us how it went.



This was written on Tuesday, 08. December 2009 at 08:41 and was filed under action, belief and believers, Can You Hear Me Now?, diversity, extended family, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, peace. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. step 4 is perfectly fine; however, how does one approach making it very clear to that person that proselytism and threats of hell are not acceptable ways of sharing their beliefs?

    Comment: lneely – 08. December 2009 @ 9:05 am

  2. @lneely: By saying so in those words. By making it a condition. They may not agree that it should be left out, but most will accept it if that means they can share their beliefs. Make it clear that the kids can and will encounter these ideas later on, but that you think it is important for them to think clearly without fear at this point.

    If they refuse to accept that reasonable limit, you’ve done your best. If my mother-in-law insisted on threatening my kids with hellfire, she would lose the privilege of talking to them about her faith. She knows this and has never abused it.

    Comment: Dale – 08. December 2009 @ 9:18 am

  3. After attending one of your seminars, the wife and I had realized we were not handling the situation very well. So over the past year we have corrected our own behavior; the kids occasionally go to church with Grandma; we go to church with them on the big holidays, and as you mentioned, the tenets of the belief system are expressed and personal and not as universal truths. And Grandma is not a hell-fire preacher; she’s quite liberal to begin with, so our idea of ‘protecting’ them from religion was misplaced to begin with!

    Thank you again for your books and your work – a world full of intolerant Atheists would be no better than a world full of intolerant Christians.

    Comment: BrianE – 08. December 2009 @ 9:58 am

  4. @Dale, why, that’s simple enough. thanks! 😉

    Comment: lneely – 08. December 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  5. This post reminds me of Robert Wright and his writings on “non zero summness”. Which also reminds me that I need to read his book “The Evolution of God”. I don’t recall you ever mentioning him here, Dale. Do you have any opinions or thoughts on Mr. Wrights work.

    Here’s a link to his talk at TED for anyone interested in what I’m talking about. http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_wright_on_optimism.html

    Comment: Ryan – 08. December 2009 @ 2:39 pm

  6. Dale,

    I am with you on philosophy, and probably humanism, whatever that is, but where I lose you is, what does it matter? I have three kids and a stepson of my own. I don’t go to church. But, my mom and stepdad do. They take my two sons (8) and (7) to church with them every Sunday. It’s the Salvation Army. It’s largely non-denominative, based on the methodist, from what I can tell. They learn about heaven and hell and all that hootenanny.

    Since I don’t believe it, it is occasionally awkward, but rarely. The question, for me, is again, if nothing matters, and if everything is random and by chance, then who cares if they are ultimately religious adults or not?

    Let me be clear, I am not saying I wouldn’t prefer that they believe the way they believe, but why should I even bother having the conversation with my mom and stepdad, removing that connection from them to my kids?

    When I read what you write, I want to take my son for a walk and try and explain to him how and why I feel what I feel, yet, then again, I don’t want to remove that comfort in God and relationship he has with my family away from him.

    I know this is a personal decision, but I feel like there is a contradiction in what you are writing and what ultimately matters (or doesn’t.)

    note: I am not decided on this, just thinking out loud to you.


    Comment: karlfrankjr – 09. December 2009 @ 12:28 am

  7. @karl: My ability to give the wrong impression is never-ending! Though it’s a common misconception, I don’t believe “nothing matters, everything is random.” I am completely open to my kids becoming religious adults, so long as the decision is their own. And through this conversation, I am trying to strengthen the connection between my kids and their relatives, not remove it. Preserving that is part of helping the kids think for themselves.

    The best I can suggest is to disregard this and any other advice if it seems not to work for you.

    Comment: Dale – 09. December 2009 @ 7:02 am

  8. Well wouldn’t you know that today I was brought right into The Conversation where I basically had to out myself as an atheist to my Jesus-loving inlaws. Thank you thank you thank you for making sure I was equipped with the proper tools ahead of time. It honestly helped.

    They want my youngest baptized as they are afraid for his immortal soul should he die without baptism. I know that churches don’t even follow this line of thinking anymore, nevertheless, it is my FIL fear and I can’t change his mind, despite gently telling him what the church told us during our first (pre-comfortable with atheism) son’s baptism. We were told its about joining a church and promising to raise our child with knowledge and instruction about Jesus. But my FIL dismisses the guidance of his own church and has his personal beliefs. I may concede to this just to make him comfortable. It’s not decided yet.

    The conversation went fairly well tonight, no one freaked out. My FIL wants to take my kids to Sunday school and I said no, I’m not going to allow that but if they want to take the kids to church sometimes (and they have already) that it’s ok. My husband is religious – though I think he’d be at least agnostic if it weren’t for his parents, and I said that with his help the kids would be aware of Christianity. And the kicker is that he doesn’t care what denomination we choose to raise our kids in – as long as it’s Christian! I said that I would like the kids to be exposed to different religions and that they could make up their mind when they’re older.

    I know there will be more conversations about baptism. I can’t help but wonder if my principles about not baptizing my son are or should be compromised. It won’t hurt anything but my principles and I don’t really have to participate. At the same time I would like to be able to tell my sons that I learned to live by a difficult decision. It’s a conflict.

    Anyways, thank you again. I really couldn’t have handled this evening as well as I did without your help and it was STILL extremely awkward for everyone!

    Comment: megmcg – 09. December 2009 @ 9:04 pm

  9. @megmcg: Thrilled to hear that it helped! As for baptism, whatever you decide will be fine, of course. My son was baptized (when my wife was still identifying as a Christian), but I failed to realize what I would be asked to PLEDGE, until in medias res the minister turned to me and said: “Do you pledge to raise him in the church to be a follower of Christ?” Not just “with knowledge and instruction,” but to be a follower. Why, oi nearly blew bangers out me bewdle. I said “Sure,” but would have preferred not to put myself in that sitch in the first place.

    We did not baptize the girls, and I think the ongoing idea that these sweet, thoughtful, wonderful girls would be damned forever because their parents didn’t do X introduces a powerful short circuit into the minds of believing relatives. Over the course of time, it can lead them to alter their conception of God just enough to fix that short circuit. In the end, they will tend to opt for comfort over consistency, which is the name of the game, after all.

    Comment: Dale – 10. December 2009 @ 7:44 am

  10. Hi,
    I think you’ve already moved off to another subject, but I wanted to put in my two cents worth regarding baptism… Twelve years ago, before I had firmly fixed in my mind that I was an atheist, my brother asked me to be godmother to his youngest son. I was on the fence, unsure what that would mean (I hadn’t gone to his first son’s baptism). I told my brother I wasn’t sure what I believed about it all, but he reassured me it was no big deal – just a pledge to be there for his son, etc. So I agreed, and like you, Dale, had a rather rude awakening at the ceremony, finding myself having to promise things I felt very uncomfortable about. To this day, I feel bad about accepting this role – as though I am letting down their son. I also occasionally find myself worrying that my very Christian sister-in-law will one day find out about my beliefs – and what a conversation that will be!!

    Comment: canuck – 10. December 2009 @ 9:50 am

  11. @Karl: “I am with you on philosophy, and probably humanism, whatever that is, but where I lose you is, what does it matter?”

    Karl, the question of meaning without, or after the loss of, religion, is one that often arises and is deeply misunderstood (along with morality sans religion). If you feel you identify with (secular) humanism, then the answer to your question is actually quite simple: WE matter — all that we have (ever so briefly) is our bodies, each other and our environment, so let’s cherish and look after them.

    There are many excellent resources in books and on the interwebs expanding on this, none more eloquently than the brilliant Ebon Musings: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/lifeofwonder.html

    Comment: Theo – 13. December 2009 @ 4:54 am

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