When Children Become Christians, Should They Proselytize to Their Parents? March 28, 2009

When Children Become Christians, Should They Proselytize to Their Parents?

Last week, I mentioned newly-atheist parents who have still-religious children.

Reader Jon informed me of a slightly different situation his girlfriend is experiencing:

She is 47 and has been an atheist her whole life. Her daughter is 26 and is a born again Christian. She constantly pressures her mother to convert. There is no chance of this happening, but the continuing efforts put a strain on their relationship at times.

The daughter has recently taken to involving the grandkids in this effort. Instead of asking her to go to church herself, she puts the oldest grandchild (who is seven, I think) on the phone to ask Grandma if she will go to church with them.

What’s the proper response from the atheist mother?

Assuming the daughter will never let up, is there a way for their relationship to be reconciled?

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  • “I’m older and wiser.” “It’s just a phase, honey, you’ll grow out of it.” “Because I’m the mommy, that’s why.”

    I guess those don’t really work in this situation but I would love to hear it anyway!

    I think the best thing to do is to use the child’s Christianity against her, so to speak. Doesn’t one of the Commandments instruct them to honor thy mother and father? The mother should explain that she understands how important this is to her daughter, but her proselytizing is offensive and harmful to their relationship, and disrespectful. To the grandchildren she should simply remind them that different people believe different things, and she does not believe the same things that their mother does. That could even help them later in life to realize they do not have to believe exactly as their mother does, either.

    And then should the daughter ignore her mothers’ wishes and continue to bring up religion in a converting manner, I guess the mother would have to treat her like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum and leave the room whenever she gets started, coming back only when she’s calmed down.

    No, I don’t think children should proselytize to their parents. But then I’m biased because I don’t think anyone should proselytize to anyone, ever, and Christianity tells its followers that they must “share the good news,” so I can understand why the daughter feels the need to do so -especially if she truly believes that by not doing so she is letting her mother risk her immortal soul.

    It’s tricky, but I think disrespect trumps religion. Your parents are yours forever and you have to respect their wishes on certain matters, including religion or un-religion.

  • Sabio

    30 years ago, I was one of those kids. Without trying to sound too pedantic, there are relationships based on common interests and relationships based on support and love.
    It is greatly rewarding to have both type of relationships with our children, but in this case, now the later relationship must be the focus of the parent. That relationship demands sacrifice, patience and all those other “Christian” virtues. Ironic, eh? One day, if the child ever deconverts she will remember her mother’s patience and support. Schizophrenics, when their confusion and pain are calmed, remember thankfully those that treated them well during their madness.

  • fatherdaddy

    When my father became born again, he tried to convert us. We all clearly and immediately told him there was no way we were going that path. He has mostly let up on us, but, the kids are where he started focusing his energies. He gives them the Veggie Tales videos, Christian kiddie music, kiddie bibles, and even chocolate crosses for Easter. I divert most of it, they ate the chocolate. It’s harder to deal with the group chant at meal times. I don’t publicly object at his home and I join the hand holding. I do it as a sign of respect for my hosts and I’ve encouraged my children to do the same. I’ve made very public objections at my home. When he tried to gather the entire family, I made it clear that I would not participate and that I didn’t appreciate his commandeering of the family gathering for his religious purposes. The next meal chant was a much less obtrusive, and more private, prayer amongst the few believers present. My last birthday card didn’t even have a religious theme for the first time since he converted.

    As hard as it may be, I recommend she take a clear and firm stance from the beginning. You must let them know the limits of your acceptance of their proselytizing. The longer she waits, the less accepting her daughter will be of her outlook. She will see any equivocation or hesitation as a crack she can pry open to cram a soul into her mother. It’s hard to make them give up when they believe a loved one’s soul is at stake. If you aren’t hard and firm enough from the beginning, they will keep driving you nuts because they think they still have a chance to win you over. It must be made clear that you will not convert, so you can get on with enjoying each others company.

  • mkb

    She could say to the grandchild, “Thank you for the invitation. I would love to see you, but let’s get together somewhere where we can talk and play.”

  • I’d go along. make a day of it. Breakfast, church, a walk in the country, that kind of thing. Then at the end ask the kids what the most fun part of the day was. Church is only a building and some silly rituals after all. It’s nothing to be be scared of.

  • I would answer in ways that would put the daughter (27) on the spot to answer questions, e.g., “Thanks for the invite, but I don’t believe that church tells the truth anymore than Synagogue or Mosque.”

    “What does that mean Grandma?”

    “You will have to ask your mother sweety”

  • Pamela

    What horrible manipulation. I would say no thanks, let’s do something else.

  • brad

    If we assume the daughter will never give up and we also assume that the mother wants the relationship to be reconciled, then the obvious thing to do would be to go to church with them.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The daughter has recently taken to involving the grandkids in this effort.

    Two can play at this game. As soon as the kids are old enough to read, they might be getting a copy of The God Delusion.

  • brad

    “Two can play at this game. As soon as the kids are old enough to read, they might be getting a copy of The God Delusion.”

    As far as I can tell, the grandmother’s goal is not to “play a game,” but to make the relationship better. Giving the grandkids Dawkins book is obviously not going to make any progress in that direction.

  • Alz

    It is abuse. It might be a good idea for them to seek counseling with someone who is non-biased.

  • Jon

    It’ll be a while before the kids are old enough for Dawkins. The oldest is just seven. His mother has already told him that Grandma doesn’t believe in God, and this worries him. He’s already well-indoctrinated, unfortunately. That’s probably why he goes along with it when asked to make the phone calls.

    One funny thing about this is that the daughter lives in Hemant’s school district, so the grandkids may actually run into him one day.

  • SImon

    So the mother is manipulating her own children and her mother’s feelings for them to manipulate her…

    The mother might convince herself that it is acceptable behaviour, because it is ‘all for Jesus’, but really, it is not.
    It is cold, manipulative and damaging and a shameful attitude.

    I think the grandmother should call the mother on it and explain clearly what she is doing.
    It’s probably not going to help, but at least it will be clear.

  • It probably won’t work, Christians can be extremely pig headed, but she could try to reason with her daughter and try to reach a compromise.

    “Honey I’ve respected your wishes to be a born again christian even though it breaks my heart. I wish you could respect my wishes to be an atheist.”

  • Julie

    “Church is only a building and some silly rituals after all. It’s nothing to be be scared of.”

    Really? REALLY??? Church has nothing to do with blind worship, illogical thought processing, misogyny, homophobia, and the death of millions of people??? I wouldn’t call that nothing to be scared of. Going to Church is participating in that culture, whether one agrees with it or not. To quote Bill Maher (unfortunately, but he’s right): “If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler – a mafia wife.”

    If your daughter wanted you to go to say, a white-power rally, or an abortion clinic protest, would you go along just to mend your relationship?

  • Sandra

    This is just me, and the mother will have to handle her daughter how she feels will be best:
    Personally I would (sigh loudly, and in a ‘defeated’ tone) say, “Fine I will go with you this ONE time, if you promise to NEVER yourself or through your children force this issue AGAIN (lying is a sin remember). You also have to promise to listen to my thoughts about the WHOLE thing AFTER the service is over. (Make mental notes for future reference.) Once at the church I would chortle at the ridiculous parts and whisper to my child “you actually BELIEVE this crap?”.

    –Granted this won’t help the ‘relationship’ part of it, but the daughter surely wouldn’t want that kind of embarrassment on a weekly basis.–

    At the end of the day I would say, *sweet smile* “Tell you what you leave me to my beliefs, and I will leave you to yours. I love you, honey.”.

    As mentioned before, that is me.
    BTW I am 42 with one son.

  • mvanstav

    I guess I’d try to offer this deal. Mom goes to church once (or twice or three times if that’s what the daughter will agree to) with an open mind. But she’s actually got to be open minded. If she converts, good for them all. If she doesn’t, then no more pressure to go to church. I don’t know if the daughter would respect the terms of the deal if the mom doesn’t convert, but it might be worth a try, and at least then she has a stronger argument for why the conversion attempts are insulting. (This isn’t a deal I’d over every person who tries to convert me, as it’d fill every Sunday for the rest of my life, but for someone that close to you, it might be worth it.)
    And always keep in mind that, as silly as it seems to us, the daughter probably actually means well. She most likely honestly believes that her mother is going to hell, and that she has a chance to save her mother. We might not believe that the daughter is right in this, but it doesn’t stop her from believing it, so it’s worth some understanding.

    I’d also try to figure out how to tell the daughter just how terribly manipulative it is to have the kids do her dirty work… that sort of behavior angers me.

  • Eliza

    It does depend on how much the grandmother-girlfriend is willing to compromise in order to maintain her relationship with her daughter & grandchildren – but, there’s not really a middle ground.

    If she goes to church w/ the Christian branch of her family, her daughter is going to think she is a potential convert. Seems like a mixed message from grandma-girlfriend; almost like she’d be teasing her daughter, stringing her along (no matter what she says about how she’s not going to convert).

    Here’s my 2 cents:

    Grandmother-girlfriend needs to draw a clear line in the sand, stand her ground, state her position and indicate that she does not want to hear the Christian crap. She might tell her daughter that the daughter can pray for her (soul, conversion, etc) as much as she wants, but she does NOT want to hear about it.

    Grandmother-girlfriend should NOT put the grandkids in the middle of this, or try to explicitly re-educate them out of their mom’s earshot. It’s horribly unfair to the kids to put them in the middle, unwittingly carrying messages back and forth. And, IMO it’s unfair to her daughter’s parenting to go behind her back to expose the kids to rationalism.

    Grandmother-girlfriend can certainly choose activities to do with the grandkids which might open their eyes, like taking them to the local science center or natural history museum, stargazing with them, and should honestly answer their questions about the natural world & about her own beliefs (if/when they ask).

  • Chas

    I would counter the offer to go to church with, “how about instead we go to a museum and get ice cream later?”

    But I’d have a talk with the daughter about the ineffectiveness of crass manipulation.

  • Kat

    I really get upset when people use manipulation to get what they want, in this case, the daughter using her own child to get the mother/grandmother to go to church with them.

    If the mother/grandmother goes because the grandchild asked, then the daughter wins and will never stop using the grandchild to achieve this every single week.

    I think that MKB has the best response for the grandchild, “Thank you for the invitation. I would love to see you, but let’s get together somewhere where we can talk and play.”
    That response lets the grandchild know that grandma still loves them and wants to see them, spend special time with them.

    I totally disagree with “playing the game back”.
    That should never be an option, ever.
    It will simply create a never ending battle of who can play the game best and the longest.

    The mother/grandmother MUST tell her daughter that they need to have a talk with no kids around, and then tell her something like the following;
    I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you, you are my daughter, always will be my daughter. My love for you is unconditional. No matter what you choose to do in your life, I will love you and be there for you, support you, lift you up. I feel (use “I statements” so the daughter doesn’t feel like she’s being attacked) that when my grandchild asks me to attend church with her, that she’s not asking me to go for her, but for you, because you ask me and I say no. I love my grandchildren and want to see them, but at a time and place where we can laugh, play, and share our love with one another. That cannot happen in a church setting.
    I feel so very hapy that you have chosen a path for you and your family that makes you happy, I have always raised you to find your own way, be who you want to be, and if going to church and believing in god makes you happy, then do that with your life. Going to church and believing does not make me happy, and I feel hurt that you do not understand or approve of the life I have chosen, and always lived.
    I will continue to always love and support you and your life choices, and I would be happy if you could love and support mine. If you can’t, if you continue to ask me to attend church with you, I will still say no. If the grandchildren continue to ask me to attend church, I will continue to say that I want to see them in a place where we can laugh and play, and talk. I would hope that eventually you will accept these answers and stop asking, and I would also hope that you will stop making the children ask me to go, and I would hope that my life choices will not be used to prevent me from seeing the grandchildren. If that happens, I will feel very hurt, sad, and upset to lose that relationship with them, but taking them away from me will not force me to believe what you believe, it will only destroy the relationship between you and I, between my grandchildren and I, and all of us will be hurt, sad, and feel a great loss. I hope that you understand all that I have said and feel, and we can all live our lives the way we see fit to live them, but remain an unconditional and loving family.

    This is what I had to say to my mother, sorta reversed. My parents believed, I didn’t/don’t, and they would ask me to attend, they would tell my sons when they babysat or visited them, to tell me that god loved me, that we should all go to church as a family etc etc.
    This is almost the identical conversation I had to have with my mother in order to make her stop.
    I told her I would never stop letting her see the kids, but to please stop telling them to tell me to go to church, it was confusing them, and they were far too young for me to explain (at the time) to them about god and why I wouldn’t go to church, why I didn’t believe etc.
    After this talk, my mother never did it again. She never asked me to go to church again, and she never said another word to my sons about church again.

    I hope that Jon’s girlfriend can find the right words to have with her daughter, but a serious but loving, talk is needed to have. Not game playing, not manipulation.
    Lots of “I statements” and unconditional love.

  • K

    Well, the daughter is doing it because she knows she holds control over her mother through the grandkids. Typical christian behavior.
    Sorry, Grandma, you need to spend more time with other kids, kids who will appreciate you for you. Volunteer and tell the grandkid, “Sorry. I’m spending Sunday with 5-year-old Jonny.” Once she realizes you can’t be manipulated, she’ll have to find a new con.
    And write your brat out of your will.

  • stephanie

    Live and let live. I’d offer to meet up AFTER they finish with their church services.

  • Skeptimal

    Oy. The daughter probably thinks she’s being cute, but this is abusive of the child.

    If she was my daughter, I’d acknowledge her good intentions but tell her it’s not fair to the kids to involve them in that kind of discussion.

    Either that, or I’d start telling the grandkids that all the cool people are going to hell, that Jesus goes there himself on the weekends, and that we mustn’t tell Mommy because she doesn’t know that Satan is her real daddy. I guess it depends on whether good skeptimal or evil skeptimal has control at the time.

  • Chakolate

    I think I’d say something like, “Oh, no, I don’t want to go to church – church is boring. Let’s do something fun instead.”

    As for the daughter, I think I’d just laugh whenever she started talking about her religion. Laughter is far more effective than anger.

  • DeafAtheist


    That’s really underhanded for the daughter to use her children like that to proselytize to her mother. I’m not even taking into consideration the psychological abuse of indoctrinating children with religious belief, but the act itself of using children to proselytize to her mother is even worse. It’s bad enough that the daughter constantly pesters her mother without bringing the children into the equation.

    I’d be willing to bet that a disrespectful daughter like that wouldn’t honor her mother’s wishes for a non-religious funeral as well.

    I think this mother and daughter really need to sit down and talk it out and for the mother to be clear that no amount of pestering or pleading or enlisting of her daughter’s children in the pleading will ever change her mind and that continuing to do so will be more likely to result in an estranged relationship. Hopefully the daughter will come to her senses on the issue.

  • Claudia

    Let’s not forget priorities here. The priority is NOT to make a point against religion or even against proselytizing, the point is to maintain a good mother-daughter (and grandma-grandkids) relationship while maintaining intellectual honesty.

    I think that the only way to handle it if it’s getting very intrusive is an intervention, so to speak. Since they seem to live close together, mother should ask daughter to lunch, no kids allowed (since their mother might be inclined to over-act the righteous Christian in front of her kids). Tell her that you love her dearly, and it’s not at all your intention to ask her to change her beliefs, but that her attitude is hurtful. Say on no uncertain terms that even though you understand that your daughter may feel that you are “missing out” or even in danger because of her atheism, you categorically do NOT share those beliefs. You are very happy as you are, are in no way lost or unhappy. That the only thing that does make you unhappy is that your own daughter would make her religion become a wedge between you. I would also say quite clearly that it’s especially hurtful to you to see your grandchildren being used as emotional projectiles and that such use makes you even less willing, not more, to consider your daughters position. Ask that she please refrain from the constant nagging and accept and respect your position, even if she cannot share it any more than you can share hers.

    I think tone is very important and making clear that you very much value your relationship to your daughter and your grandchildren. It’s part of the reason I feel it has to be done in person, since it’ll be much harder for the daughter to reject her own mother when she’s sitting right there pleading with her. Too many families have been torn apart by religion, I wouldn’t want this to be one of them but also know that the solution is not knuckling under.

  • Richard Wade

    This is emotional abuse and realtional extortion. The mother-daughter relationship has no chance of being reconciled as long as the basic boundaries are continually violated by the daughter.

    I agree with Eliza, Kat, DeafAtheist, Claudia and others here who recommend a mother-daughter discussion without the kids where the mother re-draws the boundaries, making clear and concise demands that the daughter stop this manipulative, exploitative behavior. This seems to have gone beyond the desire to share her religion and has become a power struggle. It does not reflect well on the daughter’s character nor on her religion, and she should be called on it.

    I wonder if the pastor of the daughter’s church would disapprove of this if he knew about it. A last resort might be to involve him in reigning in the daughter’s misguided and self-serving behavior.

  • Erp

    Or is the pastor encouraging his flock to gather more sheep no matter how? Some of the more cultlike might also encourage ties even with relatives be cut if they are non-believers.

    I would not go to the pastor directly but instead if necessary and if a one on one talk doesn’t work ask the daughter to ask her pastor whether what she is doing is appropriate.

  • Calvin

    “No thank you, sweetie. God is make-believe, and grandma is too old to play make-believe all the time.”

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