Ask Richard: Am I a bad parent if I don’t teach my children to pray? Am I a bad parent if I do?


For Humanist Network News
Aug. 18, 2010

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Dear Richard,

While growing up, I went to a Roman Catholic church. I am not a Catholic, though. I have tried many religions throughout my life, searching for something to believe in. I am big-time into science, but still want to believe that there is a "god." I have always felt envious of people who have had a strong belief of religion. I still haven't found a religion that can prove anything to me about a higher power.

I think because I was forced to go to church after I moved in with my mother at age 13, I finally understood that religion is whatever you want it to be. (Previous to that age, I was raised by a single father who happens to be gay. He left my mother when I was very young due to her poor parenting skills.)

I am now 29 and have three children as a single mother. I really do not want to force my children into going to church or believing in false hopes, but when I was younger such things were my way to feel as if I was not alone and someone was always there to talk to. I don't want my kids to feel like they have no one to turn to in a time of need, but at the same time I don't want to have them praying to nothing. Do you have any suggestions?


Dear Confused,

I think your kids are a lot better off than you were. They have you.

You had a difficult childhood with parents who struggled with their own issues and setbacks. They did what they could, but perhaps it was not all that you needed. It's understandable that you would be left with a lingering desire for a parent figure — a provider and protector who would always be there for you.

It's as if you once lived inside a dark cave where you believed the murky shadows were real. But something about you drew you out into the bright light of day. Now your eyes have adjusted and you cannot go back into the cave no matter how much you miss the comforting mirages. You are a permanent resident of the outside world. Rather than regret your lost confinement, celebrate how well you manage outside.

Give yourself well-deserved credit. Without the illusion of supernatural support, you still managed to establish your own adult life and raise your kids by yourself. You are not just a proven survivor, you are a provider and protector — far more reliable than the invisible one for whom you yearned. You are a good parent, as your wanting to be conscientious with your children clearly shows.

Believing in The Great Absentee would not give your children someone to talk to, nor someone to turn to in a time of need. It would only give them a cheap substitute for the real resources that they might not develop because they would be counting on the fantasy friend instead. An imaginary raincoat will not keep them dry. Instill in them that excellent trait you have of demanding big proof for a big claim. Your skeptical nature and your love of science is a great gift. It will help them to think clearly in many areas of life, not just in questions about religion.

You're in the position to offer them real skills instead of illusions. You can teach them to support each other and to really be there for each other. You're already doing this by serving as an example. They'll know that the four of you are a team, a force, a multitude. You can also teach them how to nurture strong friendships with people who like them just as they are and don't require them to conform to some group, fashion, attitude or belief.

They'll know the difference between deep friendships and shallow associations. They'll know the value of loyalty, mutuality, confidentiality, caring, respect, reliability, patience, courage and integrity. These qualities in our loved ones are what sustain us at a time of need, and these qualities in ourselves are what sustain us when our loved ones are unavailable.

As they grow, let your role as the provider and protector gradually shift towards letting them increasingly participate in the family's well being. Even if they are small, give them age-appropriate tasks and responsibilities, and frequently praise them for how their work benefits all of you. In this way, they will see themselves as capable providers and protectors, too, both as individuals and in their future relationships. The Pretend Parent will not be needed and will not be missed.

Your children will grow strong, confident and self-reliant, yet able to work with others. They will focus on fixing problems instead of fixing their feelings about problems. They will value themselves, each other and their friends over fleeting and empty "feel-betters."

And they will value you beyond measure.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.