The Ethical Dilemma: Should We Let Grandma Take Our Kid to Church?

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Letting Grandma Take The Kids To Church: I married my wife, and she has a 5-year-old girl. I met my wife when her daughter was really young, so we have a great father/daughter relationship. My wife’s mother is super Christian, the church-every-Sunday type, so of course she’s asked that the 5-year-old go on Sundays with her. The 5-year-old has grown to like the church, so I don’t want to pull her out and take that experience away from her. But at the same time, I would rather she not go. We now have a son together as well. When he is of age he definitely won’t be going, until he understands it and wants to go with his sister.

My wife and I are both atheists, and I feel very strong about my beliefs and non-beliefs. How should I proceed forward to get the least religious damage done to my family? Should I let the 5-year-old continue to go to church and show no negative feelings about it? When the newborn starts showing interest, should I let him go even if he still doesn’t understand what it is? I’m lost!


Dear Conundrum,

It’s amazing how the same issues can come up in different situations and warrant completely different approaches. We get many questions about spouses and relatives wanting to subject young children to religious rituals, but here you are, an atheist couple, and one might think that would eliminate religious conflicts. But you have a twist: Grandma was allowed to get that precious early imprint with her granddaughter before you entered the picture, and now you want to be prepared as your son approaches indoctrination prime-time. Good for you for looking ahead to head off problems, and for being so willing to flex.

Speaking of flexing, I wonder why your wife allowed her mom to take your daughter to church in the first place. My guess is she may not yet have been so certain of her atheism, and that she welcomed the weekly childcare as well as the grandmother/granddaughter bonding time as much as Grandma does—and as much as the little girl has come to. But here you are with a new child who has a clean slate, and you don’t want anyone writing bible verses on it this time.

Since your daughter is five years older than your son—a huge difference developmentally—there’s no reason they have to be treated alike. You have a few years before your son will be old enough to have any opinion about attending church, when your daughter will be about eight. If you haven’t already, you and your wife can start explaining to your daughter that you and Mom don’t believe in god or church, but Grandma does. Let your daughter know it’s her choice—not Grandma’s, and not yours or Mom’s—what she believes and whether she wants to continue going to church. Let her understand that you and Mom would be fine if she opted out, but that Grandma might be disappointed—and no one wants to make Grandma feel sad, or rejected, or lonely.

Meanwhile, explain the same thing to Grandma. Tell her how much you value the bond she’s nurtured with your daughter and how much you want to support that, but you’d like to wean her from the church-going. Suggest other ways she can spend quality time with her granddaughter, but don’t impose anything. As long as Grandma and Granddaughter are happy with their weekly routine, you don’t want to be the meanie who outlaws it. Leave it alone and your daughter may soon find other things she’d rather do. Forcibly squelch it and you may inadvertently fan the religious ardor.

Let Grandma and your daughter know you don’t look forward to having your son join them in the pews when he’s older. If necessary, you, Dad, can be the heavy, explaining that the church routine predated your relationship with your wife and daughter, so you wouldn’t feel right intruding on it. But you also don’t want to involve your new son in it, and that is your prerogative.

As the little guy starts to ask why he isn’t joining his grandmother and sister, explain that church is a special thing between the two of them that began before he was born, and before you met his mother and sister. Make sure he has some engaging diversions while they’re in church, and special things to do with Grandma outside of church. If he really feels he’s missing out, allow him to join them once, or once in a while. At the same time, look for alternative Sunday morning activities for your daughter, with the goal of making church less and less a centerpiece of her routine.

If there’s a Unitarian Universalist Church or Sunday Assembly or other humanist group in your area, it would be ideal if you could get the whole family—including Grandma, if she’s amenable—to do that in lieu of church. If not, how about instituting a special Sunday morning family tradition, such as a lovely weekly brunch where you make special treats together and perhaps invite non-church-going friends to join you?

Whatever you do, try not to get too fixated on the church issue, even if it turns out your son, daughter and mother-in-law all insist on making it a holy trinity every week. Just as you don’t want your children subjected to religious fanaticism, you also don’t want to be guilty of inflicting atheist fascism on them. The important thing is the good relationship with Grandma, and the feeling of community and belonging that is the upside of organized religion. Your kids will understand that you don’t believe and you don’t go to church, and yet you are just fine.

Older people tend to be set in their ways, but kids change—often in unpredictable ways—no matter how others try to mold them. Your kids will grow up with an unusually rich understanding of both secular and religious worldviews, and ultimately they each will choose whatever perspective suits them best.