Ask Richard: How Do I Handle My Six-Year-Old


July 07, 2010

You may send your questions for Richard to (Questions may be edited.) All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There are a large number of requests; please be patient.

Names are randomly changed for added anonymity.


Dear Richard,

I send my six-year-old daughter to the only private school in our small town. Naturally, it is a Catholic school. I love the people and the education she is getting; however, she goes to Mass every day and comes home with religion homework and wants me to read the Bible to her. I am very tolerant (obviously, since she goes to a Catholic school), but I am struggling with how to explain my own beliefs without pushing them on her. I will not read the Bible to her, but I will let her read it if she wants to. In addition, I don't chastise her for her beliefs, and when she asks me a question about heaven I usually answer, "That's what most people believe." How do I maintain my beliefs without forcing them on her?


Dear Jessica,

Your daughter does not have religious beliefs of her own. She is six years old.

Acquiring beliefs about religion and the Bible is not just happening spontaneously within her. She is being trained very carefully and intensely to have Catholic beliefs by the Catholic school to which you are sending her. If your concern is to not force your beliefs on her, you are still allowing the school to force their beliefs on her. So you are a willing participant in forcing a belief system onto her.

Six-year-olds are generally not yet adept at sifting through complex ideas and disagreeing with adults. They are extremely efficient at observing, imitating and deeply imprinting whatever ideas and attitudes that are presented to them. That is why you are hesitant to explain to her what your beliefs are, but that is also why you must tell her.

There is a difference between tolerance and abdicating all responsibility. If you don't mind her growing up with Catholic beliefs, then it is within your legal right to have her educated that way. But don't think that she is freely choosing her beliefs and that you are merely an uninvolved and tolerant bystander. No, you are the one who can make free choices, and you have freely chosen to send her to that private Catholic school because you like the people and the education she's getting. That is an understandable motive, but you have also freely decided to accept the religious indoctrination that she, without any choice of her own, is absorbing like a sponge.

If you continue in this manner, it seems inevitable that there will eventually be a conflict between what you believe and what you have allowed others to teach her to believe. This is because she is not being taught your kind of tolerance. She is being taught Catholicism.

She is also being taught that people who think like you are bad people.

Some freethinking parents try to respect the beliefs of their children, however they may develop. This may be admirable in principle, but there are some serious pragmatic problems with it. Young children look to their parents for guidance. They are naturally inclined to imitate their parents' attitudes and values. If the freethinking parents are too passive in how their children form their beliefs, the children will look for guidance from other adults who will not hesitate to indoctrinate. It is like a football game where one team has sworn to never cross the 50-yard line, while the other team is free to go anywhere on the field.

I think you need to stop being passive and start getting clear about where you stand with your daughter's upbringing, and then assertively take that stand. First, if you are going to keep her in that school, then take full responsibility for the fact that she is learning to believe what they believe. Then start being honest and frank with her (in an age-appropriate manner) that you don't share those beliefs. If you want her to become a person who makes thoughtful choices, then first you have to show her what those choices are. Saying only evasive things like "that's what most people believe" without explaining your own view and how you came to it is not giving her any guidance in how to make wise choices and it is not modeling honesty.

As she grows older, she will probably be able to make more thoughtful decisions about these things, but the outcome is not a certainty. Even if you show her that it is acceptable to think freely, she may be attracted to the unambiguous certainty offered by Catholicism. If that happens, how she feels toward you may become a source of conflict and confusion.

If you don't want to take a chance with all that, then perhaps you should reconsider the benefits versus the detriments of keeping her in that Catholic school. Either way, begin to actively instill in her your own values, such as respectful treatment of others who are different, questioning of assumptions, critical thinking, honesty and compassion.

Jessica, I have been a little tough on you, but I fully understand and sincerely empathize with your difficulties. I've been a parent and I have the scars to prove it. Parenting is a series of very thorny challenges and no one meets those challenges perfectly. How our kids turn out is owed to genetic factors, to environmental factors beyond our control, and to our own direct input.

That last part is where we must meet challenges with our most eager effort to be as responsible and conscientious as we can. Even with our limits, we must take ownership of our role as parents. It can be bewildering and exhausting and it can be very tempting to take shortcuts or to leave things to be decided by others.

We all need help with parenting, and you haven't mentioned her father. If you are raising your daughter on your own, find some friends who have similar challenges with whom you can consult and commiserate. If they are not available in your small town, find some online.

Don't be afraid to take a stand about your own beliefs and don't be afraid to discuss such things candidly with your daughter. With candor you will build a loving bond of mutual trust and respect.



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.