One of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through was hearing my 11-year-old daughter Claire tell me she was worried about me going to Hell when I die. The worst part about it was knowing that I was the one who’d taught her about Hell in the first place. All through Claire’s life up to that point, my wife and I did our best to raise her the way we thought God desired. We took her to church, we prayed, we even led her to salvation by accepting Jesus as her lord and savior. By the time our second daughter Mae was born, the seeds of doubt had slowly planted themselves somewhere deep inside of me. By the time Helen came along a couple of years later, I was already on an irreversible course toward leaving my faith behind altogether. I eventually found myself in the unenviable position of telling my family I no longer believed in God, and in a series of difficult and uncomfortable conversations, that talk with Claire was the worst.
It’s difficult enough to be a secular parent in an overwhelmingly Christian nation, but that difficulty is amplified when you’re the only one in a family adhering to that point of view. My wife is still a practicing Christian. As you can imagine, this creates some tension when our opposing views clash with one another. On top of this, I find myself in an odd position as a secular parent with a religious child, when it usually seems to be the other way around. In many ways, Claire views her own morality as superior to my own. How can I possibly juggle so many conflicting interests? I have to deal with the parenting differences I now run into with my wife without driving a wedge through our relationship. I must try to correct all of the misguided teachings I’ve pushed on Claire for her entire life. Then there’s starting over with my younger girls as I approach parenting from an entirely different perspective. All of these issues and so many more add up to a seemingly overwhelming wall of obstacles standing in the way of raising them the best way I know how.
I certainly don’t have the answers, and probably never will, but navigating this maze I now find myself in has at least taught me a few lessons. So, with all that said, here are five things I’ve learned so far as a relatively new secular parent in a family of Christians.
1) You can’t change the past.
I’d give anything to reverse time and take back many of things I passed on to Claire as truth when she was younger, especially about the Bible. But what’s done is done, and I’ve reluctantly accepted that. The upside to this reality is that it has given me a chance to show her that adults aren’t perfect, and that we make mistakes too. She can see through my actions that it’s okay to make mistakes and own up to them, and that it’s actually the greater moral position than to pretend I’m infallible.
2) You are not responsible for their decisions.
This isn’t to say we as parents should let them do anything they want. It’s certainly our responsibility to guide them and help them in sound decision-making. However, the time will come when they’ll arrive at a crossroads and will have no other input than their own conscience. Sometimes, they’ll make the wrong choice. As a Christian parent, I would have seen that as a failure on my part, that I somehow didn’t prepare or get through to them correctly. Now though, it’s apparent that each person is unique, and every child brings their own genetic predispositions to the table. Prepare them the best way you know how, but don’t be surprised when they make a decision you don’t particularly care for.
3) They’re way smarter than you give them credit for.
Kids pick up on things we never expect, and they understand far more than we can imagine. I recently decided to try a tip from Anthony Magnabosco and attempted to use Street Epistemology on my 4-year-old, Mae. Generally this technique is used to challenge people who use faith as a way of knowing their beliefs are true, but as Anthony suggested, it can be used in much more diverse ways as well. When Mae told me one night she was afraid of monsters coming into her room during the night, I latched on to the opportunity, as it was the exact scenario Anthony mentioned. Would she even understand such a conversation though? Once upon a time, I would have simply prayed with her and told her God would protect her. Here though, I could see plainly that such a platitude was empty and not very reassuring to a 4-year-old.
Instead, I asked her, “Mae, have you ever seen a monster?”
“Yeah, in my bed,” she replied.
“You mean when you dream?”
“Have you ever seen one outside of your dreams?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think it’s possible that you only have bad dreams about them, and that they aren’t actually real?”
She thought about this for a long time, then asked me, “Are my dreams real?”
“What do you think, sweetie?”
“I don’t think so.”
”So are monsters real?”
“No,” she replied before launching into a new topic about a friend from school while trying to delay going to sleep.
Through simply questioning her assumptions, she figured it out on her own. Don’t just assume you always know better than they do. Give them a chance, and they might surprise you.
4) You can’t force them to see things the way you do.
They may be little versions of us, but sometimes they’re going to disagree with us, and there will be times when they are right (reference point number three). Since deconverting, I’ve tried multiple times to correct the scientific inaccuracies I once taught Claire. I found myself in the car one day trying to explain evolution to her, about how the line of random mutations over millions and millions of years was driven by natural selection, resulting in speciation and the incredible diversity we see in life today. She listened calmly, and when I stopped, she smiled and exclaimed that it all sounded good, but she didn’t believe any of it. She said it so matter of factly, it just made me want to throw my hands in the air and give up completely. I then realized in that same moment that I couldn’t suddenly change her mind for her. She’s like a little adult now, able to think and reason and figure things out on her own. The best I can do is to explain things to her the best way I know how, offer her my point of view, and let her run with it however she chooses. Indoctrination is what got us into this mess, and I refuse to repeat those same mistakes now that I’m on the other side of the fence. If she eventually comes to accept evolution, it will be because she followed the evidence and came to her own conclusion, not because I forced her.
5) Conditions are no longer necessary.
The bottom line is, regardless of how anything else pans out, whether my girls believe in faith or reason, whatever paths they choose in life, it will never change the way I feel about them. When you put God before your family, as the church teaches is the correct priority, you are constantly filtering your relationship with your children through the entirely subjective lens of what you believe God wants. After all, the Bible teaches that they are inherently sinful, created imperfectly, and your job above all else is to save their souls from eternal damnation. Frankly, that’s a load of horseshit, and even if it took me 30 years to realize it, I’m glad I no longer have to see them that way. My girls aren’t sinful, they aren’t broken. They are perfect they way they are, and no matter who they grow up to be or what choices they make in life, it will never change my love and support for them. It’s incredibly freeing to see how wrong I was before, and how easy it is now to simply love them unconditionally. Yes, even when it’s now my daughter worried about my soul and not the other way around.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Is Claire still concerned about where I’ll end up when I die? Maybe, maybe not. It’s impossible for me to know what goes on in her head, nor do I even think I want to. It was quite telling, though, when I later asked her not if she believed I was going to Hell, but if she believed I DESERVED to go to Hell. She answered without hesitation.
If nothing else, that tells me I must at least be doing something right.