Dear Carolyn: My husband, 3-year-old son and I happily spend time with my husband's family, including our 4- and 6-year-old nieces. Our little guy parrots everything they do, of course.
They're Catholic. I'm an atheist and my husband's agnostic, and religion is not part of our lives.
Recently our niece offered to teach our son grace. I broke the ensuing awkward silence by suggesting the girls go ahead and we shouldn't hold up dinner. Our son listened to his cousins recite grace and then repeated the prayer on his own. I kept my mouth shut and head down (I have no poker face).
We'll all be together again soon, and I'm trying to figure out how to prepare without making a big deal.
Do I ask my husband to ask his sister to let her girls know our son doesn't say grace but they should feel free to? Do we have a high-level talk with our son about what some people believe and what we believe?
I don't think the in-laws will be psyched when our son blurts out, "My dads don't believe in God," which he also absolutely will. Do I just let it all go until he's old enough to understand?
I don't mind his being exposed to religion (eventually), but I don't know how to balance the in-laws' traditions with my perspectives in an age-appropriate way.
— Angsty Atheist
Angsty Atheist: Don’t feel bad about not knowing what to do; you’re in the good company of the entirety of humankind, give or take. Clearly we don’t manage religious sensitivities well as a species.
But you already have so much in your favor: You don’t want your in-laws to change their beliefs, which is everything. You frame things in term of what you believe and what others believe vs. absolutes. You value the people in your life, your different beliefs notwithstanding. Yes, yes, yes.
So trust these loving, respectful, inclusive instincts to guide you.
And your in-laws’, which are obviously progressive on marriage, if nothing else.
Also trust that your son will come to his own beliefs. It’s not your job to indoctrinate him in your way of thinking, right? It’s to teach him to have manners, be considerate, value family, be a productive member of society and think critically — all of which will lead him to a decency-based value system and religious or spiritual affiliation that suits him.
That’s the only victory available here, because even if your deep-down-honest self admits wishing he’d follow your belief trail exactly, it’s hardly a proud achievement to churn out an unquestioning follower. Good ideas stand up to the challenge of conflicting information.
Forget “eventually,” too, because your son is already exposed to religion.
So: How do you handle being among believers, wanting neither to deceive nor offend? Do your manners and accommodations feel right? Then teach those to your son.
Just not through big talks. Kids invite our teachings through their questions. Respond with bite-size answers — using “some people believe ____” liberally, since it’s honest, respectful and promotes broader thinking. Any follow-up questions will be his way of telling you he’s ready for more complexity. Offer him one more bite, then wait, repeat.
As for blurt-management, just be ready with, “We love his curiosity, but his filter’s a work in progress.”