Tears for Fears
What to do when your religious child thinks you're going to hell.
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I am the father of a 13-year-old daughter whose mother has been taking her to an evangelical Christian church her whole life. I'm not a Christian and think that organized religion is harmful to her development into a rational adult. Her mother and I split up right before she was born, but I've been a very active parent and have her every other weekend. As my daughter has gotten older, she has become fearful that because I'm not a Christian, I'm going to hell. When I try to explain my beliefs (that I don't believe in God or a higher power), she cries. I'm not trying to deny her mother the right to take her to church, but I don't want to cut my two weekends a month short to take her back to her mother's to attend church. When I even try to broach the subject of religion (mentioning my belief in evolution or that homosexuals are not sinners), it upsets her greatly. This isn't what I want, but I do want to be able to communicate to her what I believe. Her mom thinks I'm denying her freedom by not taking her to church when I have her, but I'm just trying to help her to see that other people believe other things, and that having an open mind is a good thing. What should I do? And how can I talk to my daughter about this without making her cry?
I get a disturbing number of letters from nonreligious relatives of religiously raised children saying that the kids have been warning them of eternal damnation, and even threatening to stop seeing them, unless the relatives repent their Godless ways. Isn't it rather devilish, however, to raise children to be rude, and cruel, to loving family members? Of course you should be able to freely express your beliefs to your daughter, but your larger goal right now has to be to maintain a healthy relationship with her. At 13, she's old enough to understand the concept of "agreeing to disagree." There are many things a father and teenage girl can discuss besides religion. Certainly you don't have to hide your views about science and homosexuality, but you're only alienating her if you use your time together to give her a crash course in the Enlightenment. When these issues come up naturally, you can talk about how your views are different from hers and her mother's, but emphasize how important it is for people to be courteous to those they disagree with. Consider trying some rationalist jujitsu with her. You want to demonstrate what it means to be open-minded, so occasionally offer to take her to church. Explain that since you know it's important to her, you respect her right to her beliefs, even if you don't share them.
Update: It is obviously the work of the devil that the letter from "Rationalist" also ran last week in Salon's advice column. You can compare the answers here.
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I am a 44-year-old adoptee who found her birth mother a little over a year ago. We e-mail, talk on the phone, and have visited each other's homes a couple of times. While my reunion with her was a welcome one, I still have an issue I need resolved. She was very happy to introduce me to her siblings (who were happily surprised) and best friend, but has yet to tell her children that I exist. Recently, my half sister—her daughter—was diagnosed with a brain tumor and has undergone surgery. My mother flew out to be with my half sister to help care for her and her children during the recovery. I was told that I would receive a phone call when she, my birth mother, returned home, but I haven't heard anything. I am extremely irritated about this whole situation. She also said she hadn't told my other siblings about me because they were dealing with problems of their own. While I understand my birth mother may have ambivalent feelings about telling her children about me, I really want to meet them. With the situation involving my half sister, I feel it's even more important that I meet them. Should I push the issue with my birth mother? I don't want to alienate or embarrass her, but at the same time, I feel after 44 years, what's the problem? I really want to meet them! What should I do?
Yes, you want to meet them, and after 44 years, it's easy to understand that you're tired of waiting. While you are an adult, as are all your half-siblings, and you can decide at any time to contact them, you also know your arrival is going to cause an upheaval in all of your lives. So why not handle it with as much poise as you can? The first part has gone very well—you've been welcomed by your birth mother and are developing a connection with her. Surely, since she has introduced you to her siblings and best friend, she doesn't intend for your existence to be kept a secret. Obviously, she should have told her children years ago that she had placed her first child for adoption. But she didn't. So while she has been trying to muster up the wherewithal to tell, this frightening medical news has sent her into deeper emotional turmoil. Since it has been 44 years, you know you have it in you to wait a while longer, and to be understanding and supportive of your mother as your half sister's condition becomes clearer. Keep in touch with your mother, but don't push her just yet. Backing off now will probably get you more of what you want in the long run.
My sister-in-law and I ride the same bus to work. It's a 30- to 40-minute ride, and we like to spend it catching up with each other. About half my time is spent traveling for work, so when I'm in town, we enjoy catching up on the latest family news and my travel adventures. Some mornings, people complain that we're talking on the bus. In fact, some people groan when they see us coming. We try to be pretty quiet when we talk and we don't use profanity or talk about things that could be offensive (sex, drugs, etc). However, the atmosphere on the bus is like someone died, complete silence! We have pretty tough skins but I would like some ideas on how to keep the peace on the bus.
Groaning at the sight of you two is rude, but it's understandable that people hoping for a bubble of silence between family life and the work day look on you happy in-laws with dread, knowing that for the next 40 minutes they'll get to hear about Aunt Edna's goiter and that great Thai place you found in Akron. I'm sure you two think you're being quiet, but animated conversations tend to be voluble. If the bus isn't full, could you both sit in the back and really make an effort to speak sotto voce? If that doesn't work, could you spend the first 10 minutes catching up, plan to meet for lunch during the week so you can talk, then spend the rest of your ride doing the crossword? It is public transportation, and you two are entitled to conduct a conversation, but my heart is with the commuters who prefer a moving sarcophagus to a family reunion.
My new mother-in-law is causing me a conundrum (the first of many, I'm sure). She's called my husband twice and e-mailed me once, asking for a list of the wedding gifts we received from her friends and family. She wants to know so she can "be equally generous when their children get married." This seems tacky to me. I don't want to think of gift-giving this way ("Uncle Joe gave us $150 but Aunt Lisa gave us only $50. He must love us more"), and I don't think it's any of her business who gave what. I'm thankful for everyone's kind words and gifts, and have been trying to express that in our thank-you cards. It feels like she's cheapening my enjoyment of this process. Frankly, I think she should give gifts based on what she can afford and wants to give, without worrying about whether it makes her even on some imaginary gift-giving scorecard. But I don't want to make a big deal out of it or create an issue I'll have to hear about for years. Should I just answer her because that would put the issue to rest, or should I tell her I think she's tacky for this tit-for-tat approach to gift-giving?
—Not Wanting To Sound Like a Scold
It's not a big deal that your mother-in-law is curious about your wedding gifts—at your shower, the highlight was opening the presents, after all. But it is disagreeable that she wants an accounting entry of everything you received. However, what would be tacky is for a newly minted daughter-in-law to straighten out her mother-in-law about her tackiness, and give her a lecture on how she should conduct her future gift-giving. If your mother-in-law lives in town, you could invite her over for dinner and offer to show her the loot. If she doesn't, just make a list, omitting cash value ("Your friend Bernice: 12 pickle forks"), and e-mail it to her. If she wants a dollar amount for all the checks and gift certificates, you can tell her you're uncomfortable talking about money. And if you've already gotten two calls and an e-mail about this very pressing matter, then you do have a lot of mother-in-law conundrums ahead of you.