What Would a Humanist Do: Navigating Religious Grandparents The Humanist TheHumanist.com

Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on reader questions. Because while humanists are committed to being good without a god, sometimes we need a little advice on how to pull it off.

Q: My spouse and I both come from religious upbringings, but now are solidly rooted in a foundation of humanism. We’ve started our young family, and are currently raising two children to whom we want to impart humanist values as they start to find themselves in the world.

While my religious parents are hands-off and respect what we choose to teach our children, my spouse’s parents are pressuring us to impart a sense of religious morality onto them. They’ve made it quite clear that they are disturbed their grandchildren aren’t going to be baptized. And once I walked in on them talking to our children about Jesus and showing them a rosary.

How do I navigate the influence of these religious grandparents? I want to show my children that we can respect all beliefs, but I want to guide them away from the religious pressure that I found so damaging when I was their age.

—Bridging Generations



When my mother realized that I would be raising my children without religion, she would cry regularly because she was so worried about their future and salvation. She was genuinely terrified that they were going to be punished by god for the choices that their parents made. She raised me in her religion, so I understood what her beliefs were, and that helped me to understand how committed to those beliefs she was. While I of course had come to understand that these religious beliefs were not based on facts, what was difficult for me at the time was remembering how it felt to actually believe that the stuff in the Bible was true. Once I was able to separate her disapproval of my choice to raise my children without religion with the genuine concern for what she thought that meant for the souls of my kids, it became easier to manage.

When the question, “Where do you expect your kids to get their morals from without god?” came up, I asked her if she thought I was a bad person. She said, “No! Of course not!” I reminded her that I was able to lead a meaningful and good life despite leaving her church. We talked about how I was teaching my kids the importance of being a good person even without the incentive of a reward. The concept that people could be good even without a belief in god was completely new to her, even though she had been able to witness it firsthand with me. For many religious people, when they hear that people are non-believers, they are taught to equate non-belief with evil. This can be a very difficult idea to dislodge from their minds.

Something that helped ease her mind with regard to her concern about how my children would develop a good moral compass was explaining the 10 Commitments of Humanism, and how I was teaching my kids to put them into practice. This was helpful because it made her realize that I was trying to instill good values in my children, and I was working very hard to make sure that they grew up to be good people.

The trick for me was always being direct when the subject came up, and asking the questions that really made my mom stop and think. Do you think I am a bad person? Why or why not? Do you think it would be fair for your god to punish a good person, just because they didn’t worship him, especially if they never knew about him? Why or why not? Does that seem like something the loving god you worship would do? Why or why not? The “why or why not” parts of these questions lead to some interesting discussions. This is where I was really able to understand the root of my mom’s concerns, and hear her thought process in a more candid expression. This helped me find better ways to explain my position, and help her feel more empowered to come to the conclusion that it was possible that her grandkids were going to be just fine without god in their life. For me, it took an immeasurable amount of patience, and lots of short conversations that ended before we got heated or emotional, but my mom no longer feels the need to interfere and express disapproval. As a matter of fact, she has been very vocal about how proud she is of the lovely people her grandkids are turning out to be.

—Becca Ray, Program Assistant

I’m struck by the way you ended your question – that, in spite of the challenges you face with your spouse’s parents, you still want to show your children that all beliefs can be respected. You’ve already done a huge part of the work here: being ready to find a solution that’s not based in anger.

There are two equally important things you must tackle to move this situation forward. First, you must arm your children with equal parts knowledge and tolerance. While I completely understand why you don’t want your in-laws to proselytize to your kids, your children’s grandparents are certainly not the only avenues through which they will encounter religion out in the world. By explaining the humanist values that you and your spouse embody, teaching your children about various religious viewpoints, and allowing them to come to their own conclusions over the long term, you are setting them up for success. You certainly can monitor your children’s sense of morality and the way they practice it in the world, but you cannot and should not helicopter-parent their senses of spirituality – or lacks thereof.

When it comes to your in-laws, however, I think a calm-yet-stern approach is required. You must explain to them that the only people who will make any decisions about a minor’s baptism are the parents – not the grandparent. However, just as you’ve shared your humanist philosophies with your kids, allow their grandparents the (supervised!) opportunity to share their lifestances as well. You must stress, of course, that this is for the purposes of knowledge only – not religious conversion. You may never change your in-laws’ personal religious beliefs, but you can change the way they talk about it with your children.

I understand that the journey you and your spouse have made away from religion and into humanism may cause you to want to shield your children from any religious influence. But if it wasn’t their grandparents, they’d encounter religion elsewhere in the world. Arm them with knowledge and tolerance, and let them find their way.

—Peter Bjork, Managing Editor

Let’s divide your question into two parts: (a) providing your children with a humanist upbringing and (b) helping their religious grandparents accept that.

Raising Humanists: There are many great resources to help parents raise empathetic, respectful, and responsible children. Read books like Raising Freethinkers: a Practical Guide to Parenting Beyond Belief; Parenting Beyond Belief, on Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion; and Teaching Right from Wrong: Forty Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child. Explore online lessons like our Ten Commitments Children’s WorkbookHumanist Family Life Ceremonies, and Humanist Parenting (and more coming soon). There are also children’s materials that teach important values and interfaith opportunities like Spiritual Playdate. While it is ideal for parents to role model ethical behavior and guide children on their journeys, you don’t need to do it alone. Along with connecting with loved ones, check out local humanist groups, Ethical societies, Unitarian Universalist Humanist congregations, and Humanistic Judaism communities for support.

Reasoning with Grandparents: Try to have an open and honest discussion with your spouse’s parents about what religion means to each of you, your values, and your limitations. For some, religion is about traditions, so celebrations like baptisms and rituals like rosary are important to them to pass down so they feel connected to descendants. Consider organizing a humanistic child naming or coming of age where the grandparents can participate by offering a blessing. For some, religion is the only form of morality they know and they worry that no religion automatically means no ethics. Find common ground on your values and how they will be developed in your children. Explain that their connection to religion is different from yours (both you and your spouse) and they must respect your decision not to raise your children in a religion so all can enjoy time together. Set guidelines on how they can share practices (like attending an event or saying a prayer) and concepts (like difference between beliefs and facts) with your children. It’ll be a valuable lesson to your children on how to engage with people of other faiths and how to set one’s boundaries.

—Emily Newman, Senior Education Coordinator

For humanist advice from multiple perspectives on all manner of situations, please send your question to wwhd@americanhumanist.com.

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Religious grandparents are disrupting nonreligious parenting. What would a humanist do?
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