Family Members' Religious Beliefs

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  • Raising child in multi religious family

    (5 replies)

    Looking for advice and resources about raising a child where she will be exposed to multiple religious traditions and styles of relating to religion/spirituality. Between her two sets of grandparents and parents there are four different traditions/perspectives that are identified with, including atheism. There is huge variance in how central these beliefs and practices are to everyone’s life. I was raised in a very homogenous setting and am out of my depth here.

    You certainly may perceive yourself as having a challenging situation, but from my perspective you are lucky that different people in your extended family embrace spiritual traditions at all. In my small nuclear family (unfortunately all the grandparents are no longer with us), both my husband and daughter are very resistant to bringing spirituality into our home, to the extent that they make fun of even expressing gratitude at meals. So I wish I had your dilemma. I'm sure that your child will grow up with a very interesting take on spirituality. When he/she gets old enough, you can probably discuss different aspects of the different traditions so that your child can become more conscious of the different religious strands he/she has been exposed to. Perhaps he/she will get a Ph.D in comparative religions and write books on his/her crazy religious upbringing. I don't mean to sound glib and I'm sure it will be challenging, but I wanted to present a different perspective. Good luck!

    As someone who grew up in an interfaith household, my advice would be to pick one which is "hers", but teach her about the others as well. It was very confusing and distressing to me to grow up in a household where we were taught a little bit (but not a lot) about both religions, and I really wasn't given tools or a path to express my own spiritual needs. It was difficult and sometimes painful to learn from scratch as an adult.

    You can pick one tradition to be the child's, and still help other family members celebrate their traditions, and teach your child a bit about what other parents and grandparents and important people in her life believe and practice.

    Now, I will admit that while I found growing up between traditions very painful, my sister didn't have a lot of problem with it. But I understand there is starting to be research that a number of us children of interfaith households who are raised as "both" find it distressing.

    I wish you luck navigating this. It's not easy. In my own interfaith family, we've chosen one religious tradition to raise our children in, and will teach them academically about the others.

    If I were the atheist parent, I would try to approach it in a very academic way, call everything a myth, and teach the kids about all the beliefs and practices in a matter-of-fact way. And tell everyone else to back off. Christmas would just be another day to decorate and celebrate, like Halloween. If I were the Catholic parent I would teach my belief and practice system, but put it in context by explaining the history of many religions, including mine. 

    Check out a Unitarian universalist congregation close to you. It is a post-christian tradition (got kicked out of 19th century new England Protestant congregationalism) and became a tradition that intentionally explores multiple traditions (including atheism) from a liberal-humanistic perspective. A fair number of cross religious (many christian-jewish) couples and families. Most congregations are predominantly (though not entirely) filled with white liberals. Though most Unitarians do not identify as Christian or believe Christian dogmas, most congregations are culturally christian (biggest holidays tend to be Christian ones for example).

    We are doing this.  My kids are in elementary and middle school now.

    We decided to cheerfully celebrate all religious holidays with our extended family.  Many holidays can be celebrated as either deeply religious or as simply a fun tradition.  In our home, we celebrate most holidays as fun traditions, and skim over the deeply religious parts.

    The harder conversations come when my kids realize that not everyone believes the same things.  I have told my kids that everyone has the right to believe what they really feel is right.  When they ask what I believe, I usually flip the question and ask what they believe.  It leads to some fun conversations.

    The hardest situations involve family members that have religious beliefs that require conversion to the “one right way”.  These family members mean well, but I don’t leave them alone with my kids during holiday celebrations.  The holidays seem to be the time when well intentioned family feel the need to convert my kids, and they don’t seem to feel the need to convert them at other gatherings.

    We happily accept gifts that have religious themes.  We get a lot of religious gifts!  They all have a place in our home.  

    Somehow, our kids seem to navigate all the different religious beliefs coexisting in a way that seems effortless.  I was stressed about it when my kids were born, but looking back it wasn’t very hard at all.  I’m really proud that my kids are so accepting of everyone’s different beliefs.  

  • Hello, I would like some advice on how families with different religious backgrounds approach religion with their children. I grew up in a Buddhist family, and my husband was raised Catholic, though he is no longer Catholic in reality. We have two kids (one toddler and one infant), and neither one of us is raising our children under any religious backdrop. However, my mother-in-law, a devout Catholic (and ex-nun), has been staying with us and teaching our toddler prayers. She would also like to take him to church and has mentioned this to me on several occasions. I have thought of bringing up the conversation that we haven't decided what to do with our kids, and hence, she should not impress upon him her ideas. But actually, I don't think this the right way either because her religiosity and knowledge of Christianity is part of her identity and spirituality. I don't think she sees what she is doing as 'trying to convert' my son. It is normal for her to talk about Jesus and God in daily conversation. I believe that my kids should grow up being able to decide what is right for them, and by extension, I should not prevent exposure to a religion, should it come their way. My husband and I are pretty anti-proselytizing, yet we tolerate the religiosity of his mother in general; however, we are not sure about what to do when it involves our kids and their relationship with their grandmother. Thoughts are appreciated. Thanks!

     How long is she staying at your house? If it is only a month or two, I think letting her take him to church would be fine -- it could be something they do together. In a way you would be teaching your son that family members can have different values and beliefs. "Grandma believes in ..., I believe in ... People in families can have different beliefs, and appreciate each others' ideas. However, if she's living with you for the long-term, you probably need to research the church and the Sunday School, and work with her to find one that is more open.

    My family made a detour into toxic fundamentalism when I was a child, so I felt very hesitant about religion for my son (now age 10).  Have you thought about a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a form of spirituality that is very accepting of all religions?  The older children there learn about other religions and even go on educational visits to various churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.  I am a Christian and we found a wonderful open-minded congregation that suits us, which was a big relief.  If you take some time to explore spirituality yourself and as a couple, you will find peace of mind as well as confidence in what to tell your child.  For us, being respectful and learning about other religions will always be important as well.  

    This is a tough one, isn't it? My husband and I grew up with different religions, but in adulthood have both moved on to being more secular, while my parents have remained extremely religious and his parents aren't religious but would like us to raise the kids with the cultural traditions associated with their religion. Our kids (older than yours, but we started explaining it at a young age) understand, like you said, that religion is just a part of everyday life for their grandparents, and they sit politely through dinnertime prayers at grandma's house and mostly ignore the rest - if anything, I think their over-the-top religiousness has sort of turned the kids off to religion. Our line with the kids has always been that religion is a choice and they need to respect other people's choices but think for themselves. We do celebrate some religious holidays, but in a pretty low-key/secular way. Personally, I wouldn't let my parents take my kids to church because my beef is mostly with organized religion and how it gets misused, but that's just my opinion. The first step might be clarifying what you're comfortable with and what you personally like and dislike about the different religions involved, and then you can decide what to pass on to your kids - there are likely some values, traditions and stories worth sharing, and some things that should be discarded.

    I would encourage you to attend the Catholic church as a family at least once (so you can evaluate the church and priest for yourself) since it is such large part of your mother-in-law's life and conversations with your toddler.However, I hope you'll take him to other places of worship as well, and hopefully find somewhere that you and your husband feel comfortable so he has a religious "home". That will give him a religious foundation, even if later he decides to go a different direction (and you can make it clear to him that that is an option). I wouldn't leave a vacuum or just leave it up to your mother-in-law.  If the Catholic church is the only regular religious force in his life, it will be where he goes for the Big Questions and he needs your guidance. Personally, I wouldn't send a child to church or temple alone. 

    I have an 18 year old and a 6 year old. Like your family, my husband and I aren't practicing, and thought our kids could decide on what they want to do later. In case of our 18 year old, he ended up being just like us, not believing in anything, which is not an easy and arguably not a good way to live. I am prone to depression, and he's gone through a year long horrific depressive episode in his junior year when his classmate died in a fire. Drugs are rampant at all high schools and even some of the middle schools, and he was exposed to that.  I wish he had religion of any kind to turn to when he was feeling low or in doubt. In fact, my psychiatrist handed me the contact info for his rabbi along with a prescription for an anti depressant when I was going through my low point (I am Jewish by background but never practiced).  I wish I could turn to religion, and most importantly, to a religious community for support, but it's hard for me to start on that since I haven't been raised practicing any type of religion.  

    I say let you mom in law take your kids to church. She loves them, and is their grandma.  They'll learn some about it, and maybe meet some good friends while at it.  That won't necessarily turn them Catholic. They can decide if they want to become that later.  In the meantime, they'll be exposed to drugs and drinking that what they are bout to be exposed to here in the East Bay.  Again, I wish my teenage son had something other than his high school friends to rely on when it comes to making choices in that.

    My husband and I aren’t religious either and have generally not spoken about religion to our girls, who are 5 and 2. But, as our 5 yr old socializes more, the subject of god, worship, church, etc., has clearly come up. Our position is this - people believe in all kinds of things, some people believe in god, some believe in more than one god, some believe in no god. We’ve told her that it’s not important for her to decide what she believes right now but understand that god is really important to some people and  she might hear people talk about things like god and jesus. we told her about church and temples and praying and if she is interested when she is older we can take her to one. OP didnt say how old her son was but, if he is capable of understanding why his parents have different beliefs than his grandmother, it is definitely worth the explanation and that might help him not be confused. as for letting him go to church, that is a hard NO for me, but everybody is different. indoctrination is a real risk when people dont have the tools to question what they are being told. if he is being taught prayers without context, i would find that worrisome, even if MIL clearly means no harm. she could be laying a foundation that totally undermines your intent on allowing him to choose for himself at a later date. i say all of this as someone who had a deeply religious upbringing and took years to “unbelieve” all of what i taught and learn to think for myself. and im not suggesting abuse or coercion or anything, just tons of indoctrination by my family who genuinely meant no harm - it was simply their belief system. but no one told me that i didnt have to agree, i mean, why would they? but i think there is harm in being taught the tenets and practices of a religion, as a child, but with no overall context of what faith means, a singular framework, and little room for questions. 

    I come from a mixed religion family, back in the day when it was a big scandal. Both of my grandmothers would ask me if I was going to Sunday school and there was no way for me to please both of them. But I would go to church with my grandmother when she visited us and when we visited her. I liked it. I liked being with her and making her happy. Her friends were always so nice and so genuinely interested in seeing me and hearing about what I had been up to since my last visit. I have a very clear memory of how good the cookies were afterwards. I'm an atheist but I only have fond memories of being with my grandmother at church. I took my son to an Easter service and sat and thought about my grandmother who I still miss so much.

    In my opinion, kids should be able to make up their own minds about religion and exposing them to it isn't a bad thing at all. My son and I have big conversations about God and religion and I always encourage him to keep an open mind while at the same time making sure that he understands the problems that it causes. I try to teach him to think for himself, one of my biggest issues with really religious people is their gullibility and failure to see how they're being manipulated to line someone else's pockets. But a lot of people get a lot of good stuff from religion so I don't want him to think that it's all bad just because his parents aren't into it.

    I grew up Buddhist also.  As I understand it, following the Middle Way or Eightfold Path, you can also be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or another religion.  We took our kids to Buddhist church (my spouse being Christian) until we hit a wall when our older one was in middle school.  And then we stopped.  The only way in which I think you may be mistaken is relying on "should it come their way".  Because the religion that comes their way may be one that is truly objectionable, like some cults that I believe used to recruit around colleges.  I think it is helpful for a kid to have some belief system to hang their understanding of the world around, and that it can be purely secular, but in that case I would try to actively inject that shared experience into their childhoods.  I guess I think you could do worse than go to some mainstream Buddhist church or Protestant or Catholic church for a few years.  But obviously different strokes for different folks.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


In-laws, religion and kids - where do you draw the line?

March 2014

I'm sure others have been in a similar situation, so I'm hoping to tap into the collective wisdom of this board. How do you handle in-laws who share more about their religious beliefs with your kids than you feel comfortable with, and how do you decide where to draw the line?

Our situation is this - my in-laws, who are lovely and kind people, are evangelical Christian and also committed missionaries. Their life has been spent in missions work, it is important to them. My husband ''left the fold'' long ago and we are in the agnostic/questioning/seeking/embrace-the-mystery camp. We go to a Unitarian church, we like our kids to learn about other religions, Christianity included. When it comes to our specific relationship with my in-laws my husband and I have always tried to be respectful without engaging in discussions that would be difficult and awkward for everybody (there is some painful history there around his decision to leave their faith.) Bottom line, we just don't talk to them about religion.

My in-laws have always sent the kids religious books (kid bibles, etc) and cards with scriptural quotes and I've been perfectly fine with that. Our kids know that their grandparents are religious people, that certain kinds of prayers happen at their house, their grandfather may give a little impromptu sermon at dinner etc. Recently, though, my MIL has turned it up a notch. Without any discussion in advance with us she has begun sending my 11-year old daughter letters with some very specific religious content, intiating diaglogue that I can best describe as long-distance bible study group. My daughter loves her grandmother very much and is at a bit of a loss - not really wanting to engage on this stuff, not wanting to disappoint her grandmother, wondering how truthful she should be with her grandmother about her own beliefs. Grandma has also let my daughter know much she looks forward to talking to her in person about these issues.

So on the one hand I think it is a great thing to have grandparents who can teach them about their faith. On the other hand, the fact that my MIL initiated a whole new level of passing this on to my kids without talking to us about first feels like it crossed some sort of line that I hadn't even quite known was there. I know that when it comes to Christianity I can't pick and choose just the parts I like, but knowing what I know about their faith and their many decades of missionary work I am uncomfortable with not knowing what she is going to hear (e.g. how her soul might yet be saved).

I apologize in advance to anybody who may be offended by these questions, it is not my intention to speak poorly of any particular faith. But I think the specifics of how this faith's message is spread are relevant in this case. Would you leave it alone and check in with daughter periodically, talk to MIL directly? If so what would you say? Any thoughts or experiences most appreciated. anon

We also struggle with this issue, and it is really hard because we don't want to alienate our relatives. One book I have found to be exceptionally helpful is Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan. He gives brilliant advice about how to negotiate these relationships. I think he blogs too, but I can't remember where.

I would gently tell your mother in law that your daughter has indicated that this kind of conversation makes her uncomfortable. Let her know that if your daughter is interested, she will approach her when she's an adult, but right now it's hard for an 11-year-old to have to say to the grandma she loves that these are things she doesn't want to talk about. Keep it short, don't let it become a debate. If she wants to argue, just stick with the ''it's making 'Lisa' uncomfortable, Mom, so let's wait until she's an adult'' line and then change the subject or get off the phone. Emphasize your love for her and respect for her beliefs. Be gentle, but firm and brief. Brief! My dad used to drag me into angry debates and I did best when I picked one line, stuck with it repeatedly, and then exited. sorry for your tough spot

HI there! Oh yes, can I speak to this with experience:) I am the daughter of a Christian ''church planter''. He starts churches all over the East Coast. My mother, of course, is the perfect Preachers Wife (which makes me the preachers daughter, hehe)

I have three kids, and this was definitely an issue. My mom wrote letters to my oldest (why is it always only the oldest??) saying she feared for her soul, she didn't want her to go to Hell, etc. Way uncalled for. I am a lot like you, spiritual, but not religious. I teach my kids that, personally, i don't think there's any way humans can figure it out. That's it's a timeless search man has had, as long as we have documented ourselves. Thousands of years ago, they thought that God was the Sun. Now it's ''the Son''. Etc. At the very core of what I tell them is, they need to never believe anything that doesn't ring true to them. Including what I believe. They should believe it if it feels right to them, and don't believe it if it doesn't. A luxury your husband and I were not afforded.

As for my mom, I told her that until my kids asked her about her beliefs, I didn't want her to talk to them about it. It may have been easier because it was my own Mom and not my MIL, but I told her straight up that I thought trying to scare children into believing in a certain God is outright wrong, and I didn't allow her to do so. My oldest is a lot like yours, loves her Grandma and wants to please her. and also has a natural curiosity about religion/spirituality. When she turned 12, I sent her to stay with my parents for 2 weeks. I was nervous!!! She was going to go to their church twice! But I felt confident that I had prepared her for what she was going to encounter. I also made it clear that it's perfectly ok that those people believe that way! No one can judge who someone else's God is, as long as they are doing no harm.

One thing I made very clear, to all parties, was no one was going to ever tell her again that she was going to Hell. Period. I asked my moms promise in this, if she was to go out there. She's still a child and needs to be protected. My mom accepted it well, and I believe she even saw a little in herself and how she speaks to people. Maybe not, but my job, and yours, is to protect our kids. Even from scary stories from the Bible. If that's not what you believe, it's just like if they were racist or homophobic. No different. It's against what you believe, so protect your kids. And teach them to accept all types.

Honestly, I would say to your MIL, '''daughter' understands your beliefs, and has gotten a good idea of what Christianity is about. If she decides she wants to explore it more, we will let you know. Until then, I would like you to leave spiritual and religious teachings to us, her parents. Thank you!''

Tell Granny to back off!

As the mother of your kids, you are entitled to control the content that they are exposed to. We all think about how much time and what content will our children be exposed to on TV, Internet, etc. But in your case it looks like this may also include exposure to some religious content through those letters, especially if you feel that this make your children uncomfortable or even scared of 'what may happen to them if they didn't follow that particular faith'.

How to bring this up to your in-laws that is a different story. If they are reasonable people you may bring this up and say that you respect their views but would appreciate if they respect yours. And you may even be able to reach a compromise.. and agree on a content that is not so extreme. You could also open the letter before it is passed on to your daughter to make sure that there are no frightening messages in there. good luck

We have missionaries in our family as well (my sister's family), and we have a loving relationship with them, with the understanding that they should regard us as ''already saved'' (even though I am sure that our brand of religion would probably not pass muster if inspected closely by them).

Your in-laws know that you are Unitarians, and that definitely does not pass muster for most Evangelicals, but nevertheless you have the right to ask them to respect your beliefs (or lack of belief, as the case may be). It sounds as if your husband has deep issues around these questions with his parents, so it may be up to you to broach this. It sounds as if you are a loving and understanding person, and that you don't judge your in-laws (you know that in their universe, it is their duty to try to ''save'' people). So use your lovingkindness in approaching this issue directly with your MIL. ''I understand that you want the best for our daughter, but please respect our position as parents and do not interfere with her religious life. We respect you and your beliefs; please respect our right to raise our children to explore various traditions and think differently about religion. After she has turned eighteen, you can engage with her directly about religion, but until then, she is our child and needs to be under our rules. We feel that she is already 'saved' and is not in need of conversion. She knows about your faith and will make up her mind when she is an adult; don't try to convince her now.''

I find that appealing to the idea of parental authority is sometimes effective, and appealing to the idea of respect can also be good, as long as you express respect for them too. Good luck! progressive Christian

Don't keep backing away from treating this for what it is: two people are using their special positions to impose a personal doctrine on your kids. Yes, they are family, yes, there's all this love, yes, you want to be (and model) all this open-minded tolerance and niceness. But see it: evangelical Christians don't ''share their faith'' just because they love others. They see it as their right and their duty to infiltrate the soul of an unenlightened 'innocent' or 'unredeemed sinner' or whatever term seems likely to pass for kindness when they manipulate and colonize. Sorry to be blunt. To your in-laws your daughter is not simply ''our granddaughter,'' she is one more soul to collect and deliver to Jesus. Cross one more off the list, on to the next beloved innocent. Their loyalty is to Him, not to you and your kids.

They can of course be absolutely wonderful people and wonderful grandparents. Up to a point. They will never, never respect your daughter's freedom to make her own choices or follow her own heart, so long as that heart is not locked up for Jesus. They will never, never respect your principles of parenthood and responsibility for your children. That stuff is sweet but weak. You mean well, but you don't know The Truth. Your in-laws are trained (yes, believe it, churches equip their soldiers with the rhetorical Weapons of Light), trained to believe that YOU are not the parent of your kids, not at all. God is the only parent of your children, and he trumps any card you might try to play. Only God deserves freedom, respect, power. To evangelist Christians, in the end it is not personal, not even with grandchildren. Your daughter's soul is simply something they owe to Jesus. Cut and dried. Try seeing it in this cold light for a minute. And tell it like it is to your children. All the love can be enjoyed in both directions, but with such Christians there must be a tiny grain of salt. People who love them must accept the salt and keep it, as they give love outside the doctrine, outside The Way.
Lifelong Southern Baptist, three kids

I am Jewish and my husband was raised evangelical Christian although when we met and married he was not religious but has worked his way back toward Christianity since our children were born. His parents are very religious, have participated in mission trips and attend a mission supporting church. Our children are the only children on my husband's side who attended public school, all my nieces and nephews were home schooled due to religious reasons (I'm also the only working daughter or daughter in law as they believe the wives stay home to take care of the home and home school the kids).

His parents did send the kids religious books/gifts as children and we reviewed and chose what to give and not give them (ex: we did not give our son the dinosaur book that said dinosaurs lived 2000 years ago). We also made it very clear that we were in charge of our children's religious upbringing and that we would not tolerate any interference in this. I'm guessing your in-laws are now seeing your daughter as old enough to now engage in a discussion about their strong beliefs. I would strongly suggest that you lay down very strict guidelines for your in-laws on what you will and will not allow. At the same time you also need to educate your daughter on your views on religion and your views on your in-laws choices. You will likely have to ask them to not discuss religion with your children or it will unfortunately be necessary to limit their contact and exposure. It is extremely disrespectful for them to try to influence your children (or anyone - hence my bias against missionaries), religion is your responsibility. It will be an uncomfortable but necessary discussion. We have chosen to expose our children to both of our religious backgrounds, and part of that choice was they were not baptized. What that meant for us when we visited my in-laws was that we needed to monitor all contact and unfortunately never have the kids be alone with their grandparents (they once said they would take them to be baptized if the possibility arose). I also did not allow them to take our kids to church with them (fortunately I have friends in their city so I always made plans to visit them on Sundays). We did explain to the kids what was going on when they were old enough. My in laws were not happy but now religion is no longer a part of any of our conversations or visits. It is much easier on all of us and much more respectful. I wish you luck on this difficult journey. been there

I am a Christian, a Unitarian Universalist, and a minister, so I have a couple thoughts in answer to your post... I would definitely have a direct conversation with your daughter. I would reinforce to her that she has the right to come up with her own beliefs, no matter what grandma might tell her she has to believe. Let her know you will always support her in her spiritual search, wherever it leads (even to being an evangelical Christian . Be honest that this is different from what grandma believes, and that's okay. John Wesley (founder of the Methodist church) said, ''We need not think alike to love alike.'' I would also arrange for some time for your daughter to sit down and talk with the youth/family minister at your UU church. S/he is the perfect person to be an ally to your daughter as she navigates through this situation now and in the years to come. If you want to talk further, feel free to contact me directly. Happy to help if I can. Lisa

While your MIL is doing what she only knows is earning points to get into heaven, I believe she should leave it up to you to teach your children about religion. If I were you, I would talk to MIL and ask her to respect your religious teachings and for her to back off on that issue. Agnostic Mom

Speaking as a third-generation atheist, I'll admit that for years I was accepting of almost any brand of religion, in part because American society and media promote a knee-jerk response in so many people--i.e., if you are a devout whatever, you must automatically be a good person--that I later decided was nonsensical. Judging by your letter, you are respectful of other people's beliefs and are encouraging this fine trait in your children. And, having traveled in parts of the country where evangelical faith is rampant and met some very kind people of this persuasion, I can understand your reluctance to tell your in-laws to back the hell off.

Try this viewpoint: It's not about religion; it's about your in-laws' disrespect toward your and your husband's parental authority and toward the fact that it is your place, not theirs, to instruct (or not instruct) your children in spiritual matters.

I'd ask my husband to speak to his parents, lovingly but seriously, about their interference. And I'd discuss with my daughter the idea that her grandparents love her but, with every good intention in the world, are also behaving inappropriately. Let her know that she has the right to either listen politely, meanwhile thinking about something else, or to tell her grandparents that she is grateful for their advice and will consider it, but cannot promise to do what they ask. It will be good practice for her as she matures and needs to stand her ground against other pushy people. Good enough without god

Hi, this doesn't address your whole question, but you say with Christianity that you can't just pick and choose the parts you like. Why on earth not? I think picking and choosing pieces of different faiths is how many people seem to construct a satisfying spiritual life. A

I feel strongly about proselytizing and I would definitely set some ground rules with the in laws. Really this should come from your husband. He should thank them for the caring and love for your kids. He should make sure they know you both respect that they have deep christian beliefs but he should also state that it is your job as parents to educate your children regarding religion and spirituality. Ask them to please not have private religious discussions with the kids and let them know it puts the kids in an awkward position to disagree with them. Let them know how much your kids love them and don't want to disappoint them but they do not share their beliefs so its best to leave it alone. If they can't listen or hear this is could be a problem but letting them proselytize could be worse!
No proselytizing please!

This sounds like a good opportunity to coach your daughter on setting boundaries in relationships (with the primary benefit of improving her relationship with her beloved grandma). Since the religious content comes in letter form, it would be appropriate for your daughter to write back (vs. saying something face-to-face or by phone). You could prompt her/give her permission...''Sounds like you are uncomfortable with the religious content of the letters...maybe you should write grandma and tell her - If you need my help finding a way to say it with love, I'm happy to brainstorm with you'' and as other responders said, I think a straightforward message to her about your hope that she will make up her own mind is probably sufficient. CSH

Non-religious family hosting religious relatives

Jan 2010

HELP - I'm looking for advice on how to deal family members who are Christians with different Christian beliefs and our non-believing family? While the kids were younger our non-believing family out of respect would follow the Christian traditions of the family whose house we were at.

At our house the Christians would argue over whose traditions and prayers to use. With our kids a little older now they realize some of the things these kid were taught/believe in are not what they are taught in school or what we believe. At thanksgiving this turned into a debate between the kids over the age of the earth and if there was ever a time similar to what was depicted in the Flintstones cartoon.

At Thanksgiving this resulted in a battle of who was right between the kids. Has anyone had similar issues? If so how have you handled it?

At the adult level I'm realizing we setting a terrible example for our children. The only time we say grace at our house is out of politeness for our religious relatives. But as my daughter pointed out, when we are at our relatives house why aren't they as polite as we are and not say grace at all out. (She has a point.) I'm wondering would it be too rude of me to inform our guests that we do not say grace at our house before meals. I'm thinking maybe I should let them say grace together in a different room before we eat or maybe just not at the table before we eat? (I hope that's acceptable.)

I think this is easier with two religion families as you can both respect each others practices. But what about when it comes to religious/non-religious families, how do people handle it? Maybe this is me, but I feel wrong to live in a non- religious house and obligate my family to participate in a practice they don't believe in or understand.

I'd like to have my family feel comfortable with our beliefs in our own home while guest are over. If you are in a similar situation how are you dealing with it?

Thanks, ANON

I really sympathize with your concerns. We also find it challenging to hold our ground around our nonbeliefs when our culture can seem so overwhelmingly religious at times. I don't have a lot of advice for you, but I do want to recommend that you check out the website There is a man on there named Richard Wade that answers requests for advice like this all the time, and he is very thoughtful. I am sure he would have some wonderful advice for you.

Hi! I totally hear you. i was raised very Christian, and am not at all now. But, i have to say, i think it would be very rude to ask people (whom you love, i assume?) to go to a different room to say grace?! Why is it not good enough to let them do what they need, and simply tell your children we are all different, and to respect people's right to believe what they want? Debates at the holiday table can be deterred by simply saying ''we will not be discussing opposing views at the dinner table. Period.'' This should be done by the family hosting, it's your house.

Your daughter certainly DOES have a point. I see what she means, but I think it would be rude just the same. My family is not religious, but we are spiritual, as opposed to atheist. We say ''thanks'', not the same as grace, but still. We go around a say what we are thankful for, every one of us, even my 4 year old. Then, if my parents are there, they are welcome to add what they want. I want my kids to respect everyone's views, whether they agree or not. If you are solid in what you believe, there should be no reason to be uncomfortable with what others think. Now making them sit through my dad's sermon? Forget about it!! I'd say set boundaries, but let everyone speak!

lets all love eachother

My brothers and I were all raised Protestant Christian in what I would say was a fairly liberal church in the Central Valley. Now my younger brother is an Evangelical Christian and very devout to the Bible. My older brother married a woman who had converted to Judaism as an adult and he converted later. My husband and I joined a Lutheran church when we wanted to find a church home to raise our children in. I support all forms of worship and the decision not to worship and acceptance of all lifestyles.

So, when my family gets together, here is what we do: My Jewish nephew says a blessing in Hebrew, then his Christian cousin says a prayer. The cousins have had some discussions about differences in beliefs, but respect each other's religions. The Evangelical family does think in the long run that their way is the best way to worship, but they leave it to prayer instead of pushing it at gatherings. We just get along with mutual respect and courtesy. We all went to my nephew's Bar Mitzvah 4 years ago and my younger brother and I read a prayer during the service. They all sent gifts when my older daughter was Confirmed last year. Embrace your differences and have fun! JMK

Grace? Really? I grew up in a very Catholic family on the East Coast and we only said grace before Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve/Day meals. As an adult, I am no longer that religious and my husband not at all. Yet I love the concept of saying grace. Hippie friends from Vermont introduced me to a grace where everyone gives a personal thanks, then ''Peace in the valley'' (where he grew up). Since then, whenever I host a dinner party, I make it a point to have a pause, a moment of reflection, to be thankful. Some people make it religious and say Amen, others are funny, others are touching. I often end mine with ''Peace in Oakland'' for obvious reasons.

I can see telling your kids it's OK to sit and say nothing, but to ask your *host* family to go in another room? In *their house*? No way. Maybe you can suggest to your family that everyone who feels the urge should have a chance to say a short thanks at the table. That way your various Christian family members can do it their way, and you or your children can say your own version. But asking them to take their traditions to another room in their own house? That's rude and intolerant. Good Luck

I'm so sympathetic with your plight! With us, my home family is non-religious (though spiritual), my husband's side of the family is mostly Christian, and my side is mostly Jewish--but we are seen as the weirdos ''without beliefs.'' We have strong beliefs, they just aren't religious ones!

After being railroaded into listening to people say grace in our home and roped into all kinds of tense conversations outside our home, we've decided that our rule is to wait quietly in other people's homes while they pray but we will not pretend to pray as well--we'll take a hand on either side if hand-holding is their norm, but we won't close eyes and bow heads in imitation or pretense. This annoys some people, but doesn't make us feel false, just patient and kind.

In our own home, if asked, we say, ''We're happy to have a moment of silent reflection at the table before dinner, but we do not pray out loud here. Thank you for respecting our wishes.'' So far, no one's insisted on a prayer out loud, though some people do murmur in the silence. Again, we sit with our hands to ourselves and don't bow our own heads, but those who wish to do.

We are clear with the kids that we are modeling tolerance. No one is forced to give anything up in our home, but we won't allow others to force us into pretense either. After a couple of visits, most family have adjusted to our ''weirdness'' and my kids are able to talk calmly about our beliefs. My husband still gets himself into the occasional heated argument, but that's old news to his family anyway.

So I guess if I had any advice, it would be to examine your beliefs, see where tolerance fits in, and determine with your kids together how to find that balance between being true to your beliefs and modeling tolerance for others, whether they are able to appreciate it from you or not. The only people you ultimately need to answer to are yourselves. A Tolerant Nonbeliever

We have this same issue in our families. My family (mother and grown sister) are long-time Mormon converts. My husband's family is very Catholic.

To answer your specific questions about family dinners, here is what we do. Obviously, if we are at someone else's home, we do not impose any of our beliefs on them--if they want to pray, say grace, etc., they do so. However, we have taught our kids the golden rule of ''Be quiet and respectful.'' We don't bow our heads, fold our arms, mumble-mumble along with everyone else. We all just sit quietly and respectfully until everyone is done. Occasionally a smile or a wink will pass between us if it drags on.

At our home, we do not pray or say grace at our dinners. What works best for us is to have something to do instead to set an example. My daughters love to toast, so my husband or I will always offer a raised glass to the whole family and say something meaningful like we are glad to be with family, wish everyone a great new year, etc. Then we start eating and everyone generally takes the cue and follows (although once in while my father-in-law will charge in with a ''In the name of the...'' and all the Catholics join the drone.) I suppose if any of them ever asked us point blank could they say grace, I'd hopefully muster the temerity to simply ask that they respect the beliefs of the family home they are in.

Which brings me to the bigger picture which I'm sure you find yourself dealing with in your greater family--the fact that non-believers aren't necessarily nothing-believers just because we don't have an established doctrine and companion manual to go with our beliefs.

We talk about religion and specific concepts and beliefs with our daughters all the time so they understand what and why we believe what we do. Over Christmas, we had lots of discussions about how we can accept Christ as a good moral teacher versus the son of God and our Lord and Savior, why I like having an angel on the top of the tree (and even a tree) even though I don't buy the Christian story about angels, etc. We are big into Santa Claus and we are clear that his legend and the wonderful concept of the true spirit of giving is different (including historically) from the birth of Jesus Christ.

You sound like you are on the right track with your kids so I think it will be a smooth transition to letting your greater family understand and accept how you practice your beliefs. Good luck! Elizabeth

While you might wish to assert your atheism at certain times, you also need to train your children how to be less confrontational if they do not wish to make a scene or provoke a conflict on every occassion where grace is said.

Our pre-school coop had a nice little ritual before meals which, if you listened really closely, was not really a prayer, but was just kids putting their hands in their lap and assuming an attitude of gratitude. We don't say grace at home, but were very alarmed when our child did not know how to act appropriately when grace was said. (Shut up and bow your head, kid.) So maybe the pre-school training wasn't enough, but it gave me an idea that your family could write down and memorize for occasions when your kids are called upon to say grace, and you might like to say it in your own home. i.e., ''We are grateful that we can all be together for this lovely holiday meal, we are grateful for the food and the bounty we enjoy ... for Mom's culinary skill ... let's observe a moment of silence to remember those less fortunate ... before we drink a toast in rememberance of our beloved Grandpa Joe, who we miss very much. ... long pause ... to Joe''

The point is, your kids should have lots of choices as to how they want to handle things.

If you feel your relatives need to be taught a lesson in how it feels to be told where to pray and not to pray, and you want to be the ones to teach them a lesson, go ahead, but I generally find it better to try to change the minds of people in more disposable relationships. Like in politics, I say, don't talk to relatives, phone undecided strangers.

- hope this helps - sound like you are very thoughtful in all of your efforts to accommodate people of other faiths. But, please, on my account (Episcopalian), don't feel any need to go out of your way. We say grace in our home. If you were over for dinner, I wouldn't expect you to join in. My goal would not be to make you feel uncomfortable. But, it is something that we do in our home (in some homes, kids jump on the couches...on others they do some homes grace is others it is not...).

My own perspective -- I enjoy other families' traditions (religious or otherwise) and I am pleased that they will share them with me in their homes. But, I am not going to go overboard to include others traditions in my own home, beyond dietary ones...

-seder-loving Christian

I grew up like this- in a non-believing family with fundamentalist cousins. It can be interesting! In our family it worked out well for the most part. Addressing your someone else's home, if their family were to say grace, we inclined our heads and held hands but did not close our eyes or say amen. In our home, if guests wanted to say grace, we went along with it to be polite. I don't think, by the way, that your family would take well to being asked to say grace in another room. That's just my guess!

Among the kids, we worked our religious differences out among ourselves. When my cousins told me that scientists were hiding bones to trick people into believing in evolution it didn't really upset me- it was like a discussion about weather Santa was real or not. It was my first introduction to what it's like to be a non-believer in this society.

Among the adults, thankfully we stay away from the hot subjects, such as gay marriage. We try not to antagonize each other. Sometimes a well timed joke can help, such as, ''Surely we can agree on something - anyone up for dessert?'' Try to diffuse the situation. Your kids are going to come up against prejudice- that's just the truth. They need to learn to handle situations like this with grace. They will learn. Good luck!

Apparently Going to Hell

As an atheist, we find ourselves often accommodating other's beliefs, especially Christians who do not seem to think any other religion exists.

We play along; bow our heads, hold hands, do whatever is required; however, in our home, we do not say ''grace''. Why would we do that? When guests are over, we usually have a ''toast''. No one so far has been rude enough to impose their ritual at our table; however, if it happened, here's something I heard recently: ''2 rudes don't make a right''. I'd let it go.

Does that help? anon

When you're at your house, why don't you just sit down to eat and say ''Let's get started!'' They'll figure out you are not going to say a prayer. I don't think you should try to control the situation at either place, or over think it. If they are praying at their home, you can tell your children to just be quiet for a second and look down out of respect to the fact that they are praying if they don't want to join in the prayer. If they are at your home, they can quietly say a prayer with their childen or to themselves if they'd like after they notice you're not going to say one. I don't think you should say anything explicitly about your preferences or make a big stink about it. Just do what you're going to do and let them do what they want. This is what we've always done and there has never ever been an issue. It will be a lot easier on your relationships. anon

My elderly mom and MIL come every Sunday for dinner. One is Southern Baptist and the other is Catholic. They need to have a blessing said before we eat. My husband and I are non-believers and our family does not follow any religious or spiritual practices. But I just don't see how grace before the meal is a problem. Our kids know how to sit patiently with heads bowed. They will say a blessing themselves if they are asked and they are agreeable.

Most of my relatives are either fundamentalist Christians or Mormons. At times I have knelt on the ground next to my chair while they say a blessing because that is what they do at their house before meals. I draw the line at attending services - I politely decline. But I don't talk about our own beliefs, or lack thereof, unless they ask me directly, and even then I try to be respectful.

Let them say the blessing at your house if it is important to them. A lot of religious people feel really uncomfortable if they are prevented from practicing their beliefs, and I don't see how it hurts anyone. In fact, it's good for kids and adults to be exposed to views outside their comfort zone (as long as you don't come to blows, of course). I just read a NY Times article about keeping your brain active by exposing yourself to different ideas. Besides, when they grow up, I hope my kids have a diverse group of friends and I hope they are patient, respectful, and tolerant with them (and with me, for that matter!) even when they are not in 100% agreement. I see this as one of the main tenets of our family's own beliefs.

Friendly heathen

Wait, what? You say grace in your own home when you have Christian guests? WHY???!!!

There should not really be any reason for discussion about this. If you don't say grace in your own home, then you don't say grace in your own home. When you have guests, they may unobtrusively say their own prayers if they wish before they pick up their forks, but arguing with you about religious rituals would be unconscionably rude.

Likewise, if you are a guest in a home where grace is always said before meals (or you're invited to a Seder or any other celebration or ritual that involves things you don't normally do), you sit quietly and respectfully while the hosts do their thing and don't start eating until they're ready. There's no reason to talk about it.

Everyone's children should be taught the basic concept that you respect other people's household rules and rituals, whether it's got anything to do with religion or not. And while you do have to follow certain rules, like the one about not jumping on the couch, being respectful of others' religious rituals does not mean you have to participate!

And arguments about the Flintstones probably don't belong at the dinner table, although the experience of debating such things is actually a good one for the kids. They all need to learn that not everyone agrees on these things, and how to be respectful of and friendly with people whose worldview they believe to be just plain wrong. (Your kids may have something of an advantage on this score, actually. I was in junior high before I learned that there are people in the world today who believe in the literal truth of Genesis, and it came as quite a shock.) Holly


Perhaps this is still too much in the vein of catering to the rest of your family, but have you considered creating a 'grace' that you & your family would feel good about saying at mealtimes?

My family & I are also not particularly religious, but I still like to take a moment to say thanks at a meal: that we're all together, for our health, for the food we are about to eat... Nothing about God or the Lord

I simply believe there is value in being grateful & teaching my children the same. This is something you have to offer your (religious) family: that there are other ways to give thanks...

Just a thought

I read the replies with interest. I guess I find it funny how fearful of Grace a ''non-believer'' is. In this particular situation it may be too fire and brimstone and inappropriate but in general a small expression of gratitude before a meal doesn't have to be a religious commitment. I was raised California agnostic but have recently incorporated a small moment of gratitude ahead of eating and I think it is great for the kids. I just don't see how refusing to be grateful qualifies as a ''principle'' or a ''belief'' - just go with the flow and see what happens. anon

I don't have any particular advice for you, but you might get a kick out of the Christmas/Solstice Song ''The Christians and the Pagans'' by Dar Williams. Not exactly a fit for your situation in the particulars, but it definitely captures the awkwardness of families coming together who have different religious/social/political beliefs.

Actually, I have one piece of advice. You might try a compromise when the family is at your house of verbally expressing gratitude for what you have but not addressing it to a higher power. Your relatives can internally direct it however they wish; you and your family need not feel that you are compromising your beliefs. (Gratitude, after all, is not inherently religious). Carrie

I wanted to say thank you to everyone who replied. I read every response and was pleased to know many of you find yourself in a similar situation. I am so relieved to hear I am not alone your support is appreciated.

I have to say I like to idea of a having a toast rather than saying grace or a prayer before the meal. Seems to me that would be more up-beat and create a more positive environment then being forced into sitting through a prayer. ANON