Ask Richard: Ten Year-old Girl Wants Her Parents to Pretend to be Christians January 19, 2010

Ask Richard: Ten Year-old Girl Wants Her Parents to Pretend to be Christians

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

I’ll try to keep it short. My 10-year old daughter has started complaining about her being picked on in school because she does not subscribe to the majority religious views. I cannot blame the school for this, since it’s coming from her peers, not staff. I could only advise her to go away from the topic once it arises and avoid making any comments when other kids talk about their personal communications with god. She, however, is not mature enough to restrain herself from that. She sees the solution to the problem is us (our family) becoming Christians. I think she doesn’t mean actually believe, but only social concepts – going to church, participating in religious groups meetings, praying before eating and so on. I find it hypocritical and a waste of our time. She, however, thinks this would solve the problem of her fitting in and getting along and making friends. Maybe I’m wrong and in reality she is willing to subscribe to religious views, but this is not how it seems at this point. We live in the south and atheists are largely underrepresented here, and while I can understand her wish to fit in, I cannot see how this can be done without her ridiculous proposal. We’ve always told her that she is free to choose her beliefs and it’s also ok to be atheist, but obviously, that’s not what she sees, so her conclusion is that parents are wrong. I am willing to start looking for some youth atheist organization around here, but I don’t think there are any at this time. This may become less of a problem when our two younger kids approach this age, but I’m really lost now with the oldest one. We want her to be happy and find friends she could feel comfortable with, but we also want her to be honest with herself and free to feel and think what she wants. Any suggestions for us?


Dear Belinda,

This problem is much more complicated than it might first appear on the surface, because a ten year-old is at a stage where some things need to be left for her to resolve on her own, while other things need parental intervention. It depends on the severity of the challenges that she’s facing. There are many variables, many “ifs” that are not clear in the letter that would effect the best response, and each response in turn has its own ifs.

But none of the best responses will include your pretending to be Christians.

First, there is the severity of the “picking on” that you mentioned:

If this ranges from a subtle, indignant cold shoulder up to a terse remark alluding that your daughter is not as good as or does not belong with the other kids, then I’d suggest that you continue what you’ve been trying, coaching your daughter to avoid the topic and to be discrete in her remarks, as well as simply looking for more open-hearted friends.

If the picking on is up to the nyah nyah nyah level of taunting and humiliation in front of bystanders, this can be very painful to the child, and then you might need to politely approach the parents of the little Christian tormenters, asking them to instruct their kids that this is not what Jesus would want. This intervention immediately opens up a host of possible complications because of the ifs around how tolerant or bigoted are the parents. Not all Christian parents, even in the South, would approve or defend their kids behaving unkindly in such a manner, but sadly, enough parents do to give this option its risks. There is also your own sense of confidence or risk about calling attention to your position on religion, and what social consequences, if any, you might be inviting.

If the picking on has reached the level of severe verbal abuse, threats, intimidation or physical acts, then the school administration and their resources would need to be involved. Again, the unknown variables complicate things, including the possibility of all the social consequences mentioned above, as well as teachers reacting negatively, and perhaps the most likely, an apathetic shrugging of the principal’s shoulders.

Secondly, there is the severity of your daughter’s remarks when her schoolmates talk about God, prayer or religion:

Is she only answering honestly when asked a direct question by her companions, or is she taking the initiative to contradict or challenge them? I’m not convinced that, as you say, she is not mature enough to restrain herself from making comments when other kids talk about their personal communications with God. I think an average ten year-old is very capable of learning when to keep her mouth shut. If she makes argumentative or antagonistic remarks, she’s going to have a conflict and lose friends, and she’s already witnessed that. Make it clear to her that how well she gets along with her friends is her responsibility, and it is not your responsibility to fix it unless the problem is getting severe, as described above.

Everyone has to find their own balance between speaking their mind and holding their tongue. There is no fixed, constant, inflexible position on that balance. A person’s age, resources, and the consequences inherent in each situation are just some of the factors that will tilt the balance one way or the other. Teach your daughter to be honest, and also teach her to be prudent. When we have to choose one over the other, we have to rely on our experience and judgment, rather than a prescribed formula. That’s tough for a ten year-old, so offer her your suggestions as you have been doing, but the choice still remains hers to make.

Explain to her in a ten year-old’s terms that she is experiencing one of the main ways that organized religion grows and reinforces its hegemony: social pressure to conform to at least the outward appearance of belief. Ask her if she would really want to be part of a group that forces her to lie and fake things in order to belong.

Then be prepared, because she might say “Yes.”

Your daughter is entering the stage where the herd instinct is very strong, a time when fitting in with a group is seen as more important than anything else. It’s a difficult time for kids who have differences that set them apart, and seeing their children’s distress, some parents can be very tempted to make all sorts of accommodations and concessions to help their child belong. Sometimes those concessions carry unfortunate lessons with them, such as:

  • A group’s approval defines your goodness as a person.
  • Giving in to a group’s expectations is more important than being true to your own principles.
  • Excluding others is a way to be included.
  • Faking things is a legitimate way to go through life.

Unfortunately, from many a child’s point of view, all that makes sense, but your daughter is very lucky to have parents who are not willing to teach her those lessons just for the expediency of reducing tension in the family.

While she is probably old enough to intellectually understand the difference between joining a religion for sincere belief and joining just to please others, she might not be mature enough yet to care about that difference. Nevertheless, make it clear to her that she cannot ask you to do the lying and faking, to do most of the outward conforming so that she will get the social acceptance she wants.

Looking for alternative social outlets for her that are more secular, even an atheist youth organization is a very good idea, but in your region that may be fruitless. In some parts of the country, religion permeates every social forum, like water seeping through solid rock.

Finally there is the stickiest of all the possible responses.
You said, “We’ve always told her that she is free to choose her beliefs and it’s also ok to be atheist.” She may want to start attending church, Sunday school or youth prayer meetings with other kids, under the supervision of one of her friend’s parents. That will involve some awkward meetings with those parents to see if you trust them, and to work out the understandings about you not accompanying her to these things.

Then you might have to face having a little Marjoe running around your home, spouting “Jesus this,” and “Jesus that,” and repeating who knows what she’ll be told about her atheist parents. You may be spending quite a lot of time sorting out how while she’s free to choose her beliefs, she’s not free to pester, badger or insult her parents with those beliefs. The division that is between you and her now may be tiny compared with how deep it could get. What a mess.

If you’re not willing to risk that, then you may have to just ride out the next few years, trying your best to reassure her that you love her and care about her even though you cannot perform this charade for her social standing. Reiterate that you’re on her side, and her schoolmates are the ones who are being divisive, intolerant and unloving.

Time is on your side.

Some kids by their nature are more compelled to do anything to fit in than other kids, and some groups by their nature are more demanding of conformity than other groups. Over time, with some drama and trauma along the way, the groups and the members sort each other out.

I wish you all the very best of good fortune and the best of outcomes over the next few challenging years.


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  • I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri and Jesus is very big around here. I have always believed that my mother handled our “religious” upbringing perfectly. I never knew she was an atheist until I was around 12 or so. Religion simply wasn’t brought up around the house. We celebrated Easter and Christmas, just without the religious overtones. When I wanted to go to Sunday School or church with my friends, she said “Have fun!” I went through a period of time when I “believed” (although I don’t think I ever thought very hard about it) and she remained as diplomatic as possible. In this way, I was completely able to choose for myself. When I was 19, I read a couple of books by Carl Sagan and did a lot of thinking and eventually I became the fully fledged atheist I am today. And now that I am a thirty-two year old adult, my mother and I talk about the silliness of religion openly.

    My point is, I think that Richard’s advice to let her explore her religious impulses is good advice. This is probably an area of her life that you will not be able to control while still letting her know that her religious beliefs will not color how you feel about her. Eventually, if you’ve taught her critical thinking skills and salf-confidence, there’s a good chance she’ll come around all on her own. I did.

  • I think this parent could definitely find an Atheist group close to home. We are everywhere, just not as apparent as Xians. He should try meetup, as well as even just googling it. He may be surprised. Also, there is always Atheist Nexus, with it’s many resources.

  • marco

    How awesome would it be, if because of a cool 10 year old Atheist the other kids would go home and question their parents superstitions?

  • Thegoodman

    I like this post a lot. It is a situation I feel like many of us may be in someday.

    Personally, I would simply take my daughter to church. Attending Church doesn’t mean you are a Christian and more often than not the sermons are interesting.

    I very seriously doubt this is an issue of faith or believing. It is a social issue and attending a social function with your child won’t hurt anyone, even if it is a religious function. Church Camp and a number of church functions were some of the most fun times of my childhood and I wouldn’t want any child to miss out on them. In hindsight, they usually had little to nothing to do with Christianity and more to do with simply having fun with other kids.

    That being said, choose a liberal or open minded church to attend. One that doesn’t pry into your personal life where you can just be an innocent bystander to the sham they are all participating in. I was raised/baptized Episcopalian and I couldn’t recommened this church more to a non-believer (if that makes sense?). From my experience with the Episcopal faith, it is accepting in general and encourages tough questions about God and faith.

    I don’t recommend taking your daughter to an Apostolic Pentecostal or similar hardcore jesus focused church. They are just insane and speaking in tongues is terrifying.

    Don’t be afraid to expose your daughter to religion, she will get that exposure weather you want her to or not.

  • Belinda,

    I have two sons (8 and 12) so that averages to 10 :). One option is to play the “patriotic card”. You could tell your daughter that one of the great things about this country is religious freedom where people have the freedom to believe (or not believe) as they see fit. Let her know that you are simply exercising one of your basic freedoms as an American citizen (and a human being). She can too. People fight in wars and stuff so future generations don’t have to pretend.

    In all probability things will tend to work themselves out over time. It sounds like there is a little group of kids (who all go to the same church or something) that are basically bullying her. She needs to learn how to deflect bullying behavior without it enraging the bullies.

    Eventually, she may migrate over and identify with a different group of kids. Just watch this carefully to make sure she ends up with a good peer group.

    Good luck, Jeff
    .-= Jeff P´s last blog ..Atheism described with Venn diagrams =-.

  • MercuryChaos

    I would also recommend the Unitarian Universalist church, if one exists in the letter-writer’s area. I was raised UU, and it’s non/denominational in the most literal sense of the word – UU’s are not required to believe anything written in a certain book (or in *any* book for that matter) and the UU “dogma” could be best summed up by “treat others with respect” and “don’t indoctrinate your children”. In my Sunday school classes as a kid I learned about many different topics – world religions, issues of social justice, a year-long comprehensive sex ed course called “Our Whole Lives”, and another year long- “coming of age” class where we focused on articulating our own individual beliefs.

    Again, my opinion may be biased, but as churches go I think that the Unitarian church is definitely not a bad choice, especially if you’re looking for the social aspect without the Jesus/preachy parts.

  • Can a trusted grandparent or relative help out here? If my children face this problem in the future and I am unwilling or unable to take them to church, I’d send them with my mother or sister. I do think children should have the right to choose their own beliefs, even if that means not agreeing with Mom and Dad and a division forms. Most atheists went through that, and no one suggests we should not have learned about atheism in order to avoid a division with our parents. It would be dishonest to force non-belief on a child when we were able to choose between belief and non belief.
    .-= purpletempest´s last blog ..Follow up =-.

  • MercuryChaos

    I totally second the advice about speaking with the parents, or the kid’s teacher. The worst that might happen is that the teacher will do nothing, but at best they might be willing to sit down with the bullies and the kid being bullied and have some words. My mom sent me to a Catholic school for three years, and in eighth grade I got teased quite a lot for not being Catholic (at the time I had Pagan-like beliefs.) My English teacher was a Catholic herself, but even so she stepped in and told the kid who was sort of the ringleader that there was absolutely nothing wrong or weird about believing something different (she actually told the kid that some people might find certain Catholic practices very strange, and specifically mentioned Communion.)

  • June

    Being an atheist doesn’t come with rituals or meetings the way Christianity does and at 10, interest in religion (or scouts or sports or secret clubs) has as much to do with limited membership, prescribed behavior, and uniforms as it does with the stated goals/beliefs of the group.

    Perhaps the concerned parents could come up with “atheist” versions of some of the child’s requests? Ex: instead of praying before meals, the family could make a ritual of stating things they’re appreciative of. (“food before us, friends around us, love between us.”) Then when asked, the child could honestly say she “gives thanks” at meals without getting specific about who exactly is being thanked.

    I don’t see any harm in signing the child up for church-sponsored social activities that don’t require membership, but perhaps the family could start their own club (kid newspaper, scouts/CQ, volunteer group, youth activities, etc), declare it open to all, and invite other parents to help organize “club-sponsored” social activities.

  • Steven

    This one hits close to home. Both of my daughters (4 and 7) have started asking questions about God. We never mention religion around the house but they are exposed to it at school and through my mother (a non church-going believer). With their friends talking about God and providing some very confusing information I’m left unsure how to deal with the situation. It really bothers me that my youngest told her grandma about being “scared of God” until she was reassured by her older sister and my mother that “God looks after little children”. A harmless lie perhaps, but one that wouldn’t be required if parents didn’t inculcate their children so thoroughly in religious beliefs.
    So far I’ve treaded lightly around the whole thing and it doesn’t seem to be causing any problems at school (Canadians tend to be less uptight about religion and our area is pretty multi-cultural).
    I wish the parents of the ten-year old girl who wants to fit in the best of luck. I suspect that a few Sundays spent at church or Sunday school could undermine her desire to be a faux Christian. Church services are widely renowned as an excellent cure for insomnia.

  • What about a Unitarian church?

    The parents could go once or twice. Then the daughter has a semi-honest answer to “what church do your parents attend?”

    This avoids the chance that the daughter might feel pressured to attend a church that will pressure her to accept particular dogmas.

    Plus, it doesn’t involve much deception. “Unitarian” doesn’t imply much about someone’s view about the existence of the divine.

  • If the daughter is being bullied at school because of her beliefs, then that is a school problem and they do indeed need to deal with the bullying. Say you were Jewish, and Christians at school ridiculed your beliefs or made fun of you because of that, it would be just the same.

    It doesn’t actually matter why the bullying occurs – it’s just got to be stopped and you don’t stop it by going to church.
    .-= PrimeNumbers´s last blog ..Simon Singh =-.

  • Dave

    I can remember something similar growing up in the South. Depending on how rural they are, it might not just be Christianity general but a specific church.

    Back then it was the sort of thing that all the locals went, well local. A church that was centralized to schools, families, etc. For my family we went “in and across town”. About 30 min, but it matched closer to what my folks believed. And even that effected social groups on all levels/ages. Even my folks were slowly… ostracized. They weren’t a cult or anything just excessively tight nit. … Thinking about it, there were 2 such churches. You didn’t go to either you were fairly much an outcast.

  • Sven

    @ all the “take her to church” advisers: Seriously, if she was being picked on by muslim kids, would you advice be to take her to a mosque?

  • Sven

    @ all the “take her to church” advisers: Seriously, if she was being picked on by muslim kids, would your advice be to take her to a mosque?

  • TheOnlyChristianOnThisThread

    Ok so I am neither Atheist, nor a parent, nor American, nor Evangelical Fundamentalist – but having been picked on very severely before – that is in what Richard describes as “severe verbal abuse, threats, intimidation or physical acts” I think that I have a valid view to offer.

    Firstly, it doesn’t sound very caring to say that doing something fr your child’s sake – even something that you don’t like – is “hypocritical and a waste of your time”. if I were the daughter and I read this letter on this website, the first thing that comes to my mind would be, “Mummy doesn’t care about me; all she cares about is her atheism.” (And this has nothing to do with me being a Christian; only with me having been picked on before really severely when I was 10!)

    It is quite hypocritical to talk about “Being free to choose her own beliefs” when in the previous sentence you have just called your daughter’s opinion “ridiculous”. When you are being bullied, the last thing you want to hear is the word “ridiculous”. Belinda’s daughter wants support, not her parents telling her that she is being “ridiculous”.

    Looking from the perspective of someone being bullied – that is, recalling my own experiences – this letter strikes me in showing that Belinda is more concerned for her atheism than her daughter’s welfare.

    On Richard’s response:-

    (3) Agreed.

    (4) I don’t think any Christians – from any part of the world – would condone such behaviour. But on the hand, being an atheist, it would be hard to convince your Fundamentalist neighbours that you know “what Jesus would want”. And given the vitriol that usually spews out from atheist websites, and mockery of Jesus (such as “Jeebus Crackers” – yes, I saw), you have already probably hardened their hearts against you.

    Maybe not Belinda alone, but all the other atheists around who fling potshots at religion, and Christianity in particular.

    Although if you would personally declare your dissociation from Christopher Hitchens, that might help your case…

    (5) I wonder … if there is really severe physical abuse and the school isn’t really doing anything, you can call the police, or at least threaten to. In my case, the school refused to respond until my mother threatened to call the police. (And I was being bullied in a secular school for secular reasons.)

    (6) What Richard has given is a very sensible response – the kind that a psychologist would give. But when you are being bullied for something extremely personal, you will react defensively. And kids being kids, and Fundamentalists being …. Fundamentalist, more likely than not, parents have been mentioned – that is, insulted – at least once. In fact, I would guess, several times, since the pressure must be quite severe to warrant the daughter asking her parents to at least pretend to be Christian. I remember that when I was being teased because – among other reasons – my parents used to bring packed lunches for me to school I always looked around for sign of my friends before meeting with my mother. Being bullied makes you feel extremely, extremely terrified and isolated. And that feeling does not completely evaporate, not even long after the bullying has stopped. I can testify to that – seriously.

    Even a rabbit will bite back if forced into a corner. (And literally too, if you have ever been so unfortunate.)

    But I have one (not necessarily Christian) caveat to add: The child getting along with peers is not just the child’s responsibility; it is also the parent’s responsibility. It is the parent’s responsibility – whatever your belief or unbelief – to help and teach the child the proper way to relate to others in society. Anyway, even for pure self-interest, leaving your daughter in what amounts to a social desert while she is being bullied because you care for her “independence” will certainly drive her to embrace the religion(s) you hate so much. (And no, Jeff P, I don’t agree with your over-softened characterization of atheism.)

    (7) Holding your tongue too much is not healthy; because it simply means that you are repressing your emotions. And emotions – whatever your intellectualist rhetoric against them – are a crucial part of yourself, and dealing with those emotions is something which is necessary as well.

    (Talking about which, atheists ranting about religions on their blogs or other “friendly” blogs isn’t a particularly constructive way of anger-management either. Nor are Fundamentalists ranting about atheism.)

    (8) Picture the situation: little maryjoe runs to mummy. She wants comfort, affirmation, support. And what does she get? Thanks to Mr Wade, a long sermon about the grand design of the hegemony of “Organized Religion” and how they corrupt young minds and so on and so forth. Not particularly warm, and just as preachy as Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson.

    Poor maryjoe feels unwanted and unloved by her preachy atheist mummy, and so runs to the local pastor. Rev, she asks, is it true that I will be forced to lie and fake myself if I join church. And Rev replies, do you know yourself? And maryjoe says, i think so. And Rev asks, do you feel lost? maryjoe nods. And Rev asks, do you feel lonely and confused? And maryjoe nods. And Rev says, well, the church is always open and we are one big family, we are all God’s children, and you are God’s child too. And maryjoe says, But mummy and daddy are always telling me that Christians hate atheists. And Rev says, well, Christians hate atheism but not atheists. And maryjoe says, mummy says that both are the same. And Rev says, well mummy doesn’t understand. And maryjoe says, but Tom, Harry and Jane are bullying me everyday at school, and they say that the Bible justifies it. And Rev says, they are wrong; don’t worry, I will talk to them about it. And maryjoe asks, really? and how about miss smith? Rev says, don’t worry, I will talk to her too, since I know her very well. And whatever you choose to do, maryjoe, remember God gives you a choice; the Church is always here for you.

    After that, maryjoe goes home, and thinks over what Rev has said. And next morning, she decides to convert. Why? because she has decided that Rev cares more for her than mummy. And next week, all the bullying stops, and suddenly Tom, Harry and so on are queuing up to say sorry, and mummy is trying to chase them away because they are Christians and she doesn’t want them “corrupting” her daughter. So, definitely mummy is the hypocrite.

    And so, the final result? Atheism – interrupted. (Now, that would be a great title for a Fundamentalist Movie.) And then she gets all the “crazy indoctrination” that you don’t like, as atheists.

    (10-12) I agree, although I have to comment that some atheists (e.g. those on do seem to subscribe to “excluding others is a way to feel included”.

    (13) Simply “making clear” will alienate maryjoe from Belinda, because it will indicate – to a ten-year-old – that Belinda cares more for the preservation of this strange thing called “atheism” than the happiness of maryjoe. (Contrast this with Rev’s “God loves everyone”, and the line of reasoning is quite obvious.)

    (14-15) This paragraph reveals more of Richard’s (and your) prejudices rather than practical advice on how to deal with a conversion in the family. I fail to see how this attitude is any different from that of a Muslim family towards an apostate member. Richard, care to comment?

    (16-18) I agree. But nonetheless, Belinda should do something active, if only to involve herself actively in maryjoe’s life and not just being a fair-weather bystander. If you being bullied, and someone stands beside you saying “I care for you, but I can’t get involved”, you are going to think that the person is a hypocrite. That is incidentally a primary reason why people join cults, or drug-injection rings, or gangs.

    And in Belinda’s case, hmm, the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan is very good ammunition for the fundies in your American Bible Belt, which is not representative of international Christianity.

    Just my two cents.

  • JB Tait

    Part of being a skeptic is understanding the issues. Taking the daughter to a church should be as much a part of her education as learning how science is supported by evidence. I would also recommend Bible study, along with readings from the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and the like. No need to include any indoctrination, of course, but it should be part of social studies to understand the people around her and what they consider important, even if they are misinformed or bigoted. Since it appears the religious kids are ill-mannered and mean, perhaps this would fall into the Know Your Enemy category.

  • When I attended Catholic elementary/middle school, I told my parents that I wanted to become Catholic because all my friends were Catholic. This way, I could participate in communion and reconciliation instead of sitting alone and waiting for everyone else…

    …I was in the 2nd grade. My parents said that I should wait until I’m older. If I still wanted to become Catholic after a few years, then that would be fine.

    Boy, am I glad that my parents did not give into the whims of a naive little girl. I starting leaning towards atheism when I was in the 7th grade, and haven’t looked back since. My parents did not rush to get me baptized, and they did not even encourage me to attend church more often. Instead, they let me develop my ideas on my own pace.

    Belinda, my advice would be to explain to your daughter that her friends should not be pushing her into something she doesn’t truly want. Avoiding “peer pressure” is important when it comes to drugs, sex, AND religion. If she really wanted to become Christian, then those feelings shouldn’t go away after a few years. Tell her to wait it out – emphasize how much of a commitment it would be to become Christian, and if she really wants to do so. I know the time commitment argument is what stopped me from persisting to my parents. My parents didn’t want to spend Sunday mornings in church, and neither did I.
    .-= Olivia´s last blog ..The Book of Eli =-.

  • Good post. I would also add, based on my experience as a kid raised by non-conformist parents:

    Teaching your kids that it’s okay to be different is really, really hard. Especially at this age and for the few years to come after it. But boy, does it pay off. I am a much happier, much more well-adjusted adult, having learned that conformity is a fool’s errand.

    It’s one of the great ironies of life that the skills that will make you a success in middle and high school — be like everyone else, do what everyone else does but first or better, pick on people lower down on the food chain from you — are so completely different from the skills that will make you happy as an adult — be who you are, find other people who share your interests and values, pay attention to the opinion of people you respect but otherwise don’t worry too much about what other people think of you.

    But it’s true. And to some extent, I think you can share that with your kids. During my bad adolescent years, one of the most important things my mom taught me was, “Hang in there — this sucks, but it gets better.”
    .-= Greta Christina´s last blog ..Atheist Meme of the Day: Asking Questions is Good =-.

  • Darlene

    I also live in the South, and we’ve had kids who stopped playing with mmy stepson because we “don’t believe in god” or go to church–although for a long time we just said we “home church” and everyone left us alone.

    For many reasons we are homeschooling, and although locally the homeschool groups require statements of faith and such, I found a city an hour away with a non-religious teen homeschool group and an atheist meetup group. I spend time driving, but it is so worth it!

    This is the time to teach pride in being different; to stress that, in this house, being like everyone else isn’t a good thing.

    Ten is a vunerable age, and it is easy to get brainwashed into a belief system mascarading as a social need.

    Is this a serious issue of bullies and shunning, or is this just a kid not wanting to be different? I ask because if it is the second, then stepping in now is critical, because wanting to be like everyone else can be problematic when everyone else is into sex or drugs or religion. I am lucky to not have a compliant child, and we stress the joys of being the one who stands out.

    So I guess my advice is to not give in. Just as you wouldn’t buy clothes just because the cool kids wear them, or stay out all night at a party because everyone else is, so to do you not attend church because everyone else’s parents do.

  • HP

    Sven said, “Seriously, if she was being picked on by muslim kids, would your advice be to take her to a mosque?”

    I don’t see why not. What do you think goes on at mosques, anyway? The muezzin sings, there’s lots of liturgical prayer with plenty of vigorous genuflection, and some kind of sermon. I suspect that to a 10 year old, a visit to a mosque would be harmless, and would probably turn her off because of the use of Arabic and the gender segregation (although she can find that at that some synagogues and churches, too).

    I think it would be good for her to read the Bible, and maybe the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and a few sutras. And she should attend houses of worship, but let her know that if she has to attend at least X different types of services.

    I was about 10 years old when my parents stopped going to church* and I very much wanted to continue. That’s when I started my “I’m going to read the whole Bible!” project. And we all know how those turn out.

    (* The didn’t stop believing; they just stopped going. Started up again when Dad retired. But it was too late for me.)

  • The Other Tom

    I agree that an important question is how badly she is failing to restrain herself in regard to expressing her family beliefs to her peers: if she’s just answering direct questions, or making plain statements such as “well, I’m an atheist,” that’s fine, but if it goes beyond that – making fun of her peers’ beliefs, or repeatedly bringing up the subject herself – then she needs to learn to knock it off. If I were the parent, I would tell her that she needs to not bring up the subject any more, and to be polite about it, before I’d be willing to help, because otherwise she’s causing her own problem and I’d have little sympathy. I would explain to her that it’s always okay to truthfully answer a direct question (“yes, I’m an atheist,”) and that it’s okay to directly answer with disagreement (“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe the things you do,”) but that it’s impolite to do so in a way that is hostile or mocking (“believing in god is stupid”). I think that it’s important to clear that up before doing anything else – she must be behaving herself reasonably before anyone else can be expected to come to her defense for anything short of actual violence against her – and even then she should be expected to behave herself and not instigate it.

    After that comes the question of the family going to church for social cover. If I were the parent, I would tell her directly and bluntly that what she is asking me to do is to lie to those around me about some very important beliefs just to improve her social life, and that such lying is not acceptable and that I am disappointed in her for even asking me to do so.

    I would try to use this opportunity to teach her an important lesson about people: these kids discriminating against her for not being christian are not her friends… and she shouldn’t want them to be, because they’re nasty people. Moreover, even if she went to church and they treated her well because of it, they would still not be her friends, they would be friends with the person she is pretending to be, not with the person she is. The only way to get someone to truly like you is to actually be yourself, so they can know and like the real you.

    Finally, I disagree very strongly with all the people saying that they want to let their kids choose what to believe. Of course I understand that belief isn’t a matter of orders – one can’t just say “believe the sky is always pink with orange polka dots” and expect that the kid will actually believe it – but I think it is wrong and unhealthy to just decide “well, my child will believe whatever they want to and that’s okay.”

    You want your kid to be sane, right? You want your kid to be healthy, right? Then, why would you say it’s okay if your kid wants to believe that the magical sky fairy will solve all their problems without them ever having to work for it if they just get down on their knees and beg hard enough every night before bed and make sure to discriminate against gay people and jews? Isn’t this an unhealthy belief system? Isn’t this believing in nonsense? Isn’t this, to put it in rude but accurate terms, a form of insanity? So why would you give it your apporval?

    I’m not saying you should be telling your child that all religious people are bad and evil and they’d better not ever be one, but I do believe you should be telling your child, in polite yet truthful terms, that god is a fantasy that many people have, that there is a rational explanation for everything even if we don’t know what that explanation is yet, and about our scientific understanding of the origins of the universe, the world, life in general, and of our and other species. And if the kid announces that they choose not to believe in these things, we should tell them that we are disappointed, that this will be bad for their science grades, and that they need to study harder. And if they decide they believe in a deity, I think a parent should, in a calm, non-hostile, not constant nagging, yet definite way, express disapproval of their irrational thinking, and from time to time try to get them to think their way around their irrational belief so that perhaps they might see its flaws and drop it.

    And I think that under no circumstances should an atheist parent take their child to church for anything beyond politeness to friends and family (attending funerals, bar mitzfahs, etc), and if the kid announces they’re a believer and demands it, it is rational and proper to tell them “no, I’m not taking you to church. I believe religion is irrational and I refuse to encourage it in you because I love you. You can go on your own when you’re 18, and I’ll still love you, but for now I want it to be very clear I don’t approve of religion.”

  • littlejohn

    It seems to me that we atheists – especially Dawkins – are always griping that parents indoctrinate their children into the parents’ religious views.
    That can work both ways. The girl may choose to become religious, and her parents should be willing to support her decision. Let the girl attend any religious services she wants, even if it’s only to fit in.
    She’ll decide for herself soon enough.

  • Darlene

    You know what, if my kid wanted to know about falling off a bridge I wouldn’t let him jump, even if all his friends were. I also won’t betray my ideals by going to a church –and this is the important bit –for the express purpose of letting her fit in.

    I can totally see attending a variety of services for educational purposes. I cannot see going to church in order to pass. I do not see how teaching a child to betray her self and to present a lie in lieu of herself is ever a good thing. Her life is not in danger here, only her need to belong. And, frankly, somethings a parent should protect their kid from, especially when the kid is only ten.

    Honest conversation about what belief is and isn’t and why our family is this way; plus some serious conversation and modeling of not needing to be a sheep in a flock, but rather being the sheep dog on the fringes, is probably better then pretending to believe in something one doesn’t.

  • muggle

    The Other Tom, I am applauding you. That is exactly how I raised my daughter and I caught one hell of a lot of grief for not giving her exposure to church (church, not temple or mosque was, of course, always assumed) up to and including being accused of brainwashing her. Um, no, I just — as I told those making accusations — had every bit as much right to raise theirs Atheist as they did to raise her Christian.

    To be fair, I’d also answer her questions about religion to the best of my ability to what people believed (not just Christian but anything else, one of my closest friends was Pagan, for instance) and I’d also honestly say well, this is what I was raised to believe or this religion believes that. She’d invariably wrinkle her brow and declare but that makes no sense. Why in hell would I argue with that in the name of “fairness”? She was born in ’83 and I’d just laugh and paraphrase a popular anti-drug ad that ran around the time she was 10 give or take and asking all these questions and say, “This is your brain on religion.” It’s still a running joke with us.

    And, yes, I made very clear that she would not be allowed to go to church, etc. To me, that was unacceptable. I was very firm with the when you grow up, you get to decide what you want to do but I think religion is harmful and I will not allow it now.

    To my knowledge, she never went to church. She has read the Bible, mostly because my grandson’s other grandmother (the only one of his relatives that is at all religious and she’s only nominally so) gave her one and urged her to. I didn’t like it but let it be because she was in her early 20’s and that was her choice. Besides, I thought it a good thing for her to experience the ignorance firsthand. When I first spotted it, she was a bit defensive and all ready to fight me on it but I just said, “I can’t tell you what to do. That’s your choice.” My daughter is like pulling teeth to get to read a book but she read this and gave it a good attempt but she’d been raised with critical thinking skills. It wasn’t long before she was saying in shock, “Do you know the story of…” I’d answer in amusement (she knew bloody well I knew the thing well and had read it several times myself) and she’d say, “That’s really sick.” So, in the end, like her mother before her, the Buybull turned her off but good.

    How awesome would it be, if because of a cool 10 year old Atheist the other kids would go home and question their parents superstitions

    LOL, not quite that but my daughter’s friends all knew she was Atheist and would tell her they didn’t believe either but went along with their parents rather than argue with them. Perhaps this is why I’m not really surprised at the rise of Atheism in the 20-something’s. They were also shocked and awed by what she felt free to discuss with me — literally anything — and expressed envy saying things like “I wish I could talk to my parents like that.”

  • No amount of teasing or picking on is acceptable, period. School should be a place where children feel safe so that they can learn. A kid who is worried about what the other kids will say or do is not able to focus on her lessons.

    Teasing, bullying, ostracization should never be tolerated or condoned by the school staff. To do so destroys any trust the child might have in her teacher.

    If the abuse is minor, pull the teacher aside and explain what is happening. Tell the teacher you want your daughter to feel safe and comfortable in class, and on the playground, so that she can learn.

    If the abuse continues, or if it is more serious, ask for a formal meeting with the teacher and, possibly, the principal. Let them know that you don’t want to cause a problem, but that your child needs a safe school. The school should have a zero-tolerance policy towards teasing anyway.

    If it still continues, work your way up the chain of command through the principal, superintendent, and so on.

    Of course, this all assumes it’s a public school, but even if not, the problem should be addressed.

    Note, this happened to my son — another child told him he wouldn’t play with him as much because he didn’t believe in god. My son told the teacher and the teacher jumped on it right away. (Of course, we live in San Francisco where the vast majority of our friends are atheists.)
    .-= Uncle Roger´s last blog ..The Babbling Has Begun =-.

  • If there’s a problem at school, I would approach her teacher to see if it would be possible to have a talk with the class about respecting diversity. There’s no harm in trying, and I would think any teacher would be amenable to discouraging unkind comments and affirming how it’s not right to bully others because they belong to a different race, have different religious beliefs, etc.

    For the little girl, even if there’s nothing local, you might look into Camp Quest for the summer. Dale McGowan’s books and blog might also have some ideas. And don’t discount the importance of books. There’s not much out there for children from atheist families, but one I can recommend is Laura Upside-Down by Doris Buchanan Smith. It’s about a young girl who feels worried and pressured because her family is not religious and her two best friends are from Christian and Jewish homes.

  • Tizzle

    I was teased as a child, not for un-belief, but for the wrong beliefs. I never carried them on my sleeve, or told the other children I was right and they were wrong. Being very shy (and silent when teased) didn’t stop the teasing. I didn’t tell my mother the severity of it. I probably thought it made sense I was persecuted, in a Christiany way.

    I lived through it. I agree that it contributes to an attitude of independence as an adult…although maybe not the best way to get that.

    It’s hard to know from the letter writer’s words how much the daughter is being teased. Getting the school to do something about it can be tough. Girls don’t hit each other when they are bullies, they shun. It’s much harder for a teacher to say “don’t not talk to her” than “don’t hit”. I really enjoyed a book called “Odd Girl Out” on the subject.

    There’s so many unknown variables that advice is hard to give, but 10 years old is old enough to be compromised with. My mom didn’t, and that was no good. 🙂

  • llewelly

    I cannot blame the school for this, since it’s coming from her peers, not staff.

    Nonsense. Staff who choose to do nothing while children are picked on abused by their peers are incompetent. Complain until they act.

  • TheOnlyChristianOnThisThread


  • TheOnlyChristianOnThisThread

    Hmm … I love the attitude of this post. On one hand, you are a supposed believer in “free thought” (using believer in the widest sense of the word), on the other hand you are trying to impose your ideals on your children. Yes, it hurts YOUR ideals, but since you believe in Freedom of thought so much, who is to say that YOUR ideals are identical to YOUR CHILD’s ideals?

    I see the way that this thread is going, it seems that the PARENT’s welfare (or the welfare of the PARENT’s atheism) is being privileged over the very-real emotional needs of the CHILD.

    A need to belong is fundamental to our existence. Even you people have it – otherwise why does this forum exist in the first place? Why do Skeptics form just as many societies as the Religious do? Trying to pretend that it isn’t is pure hypocrisy.

  • I may get some flak for this but I have two suggestions.

    1) Self defence classes. Good for physical fitness. Good for confidence. Good for self discipline. Depending on the kind of self defence it also exposes the student to other philosophies and expands their outlook on life. If the bullying is severe or threatens to escalate to physical bullying the knowing how to defend youself is a good idea. Actually it is a good idea anyway.

    2) The only thing that is important here is the welfare of the 10-year old daughter. I have three daughters aged 14, 12 and 11 who are all very different and react very differently to situations. There isn’t a stock answer to fixing her problems. Part of her problem is that she wants to fit in, that she wants to change to be better liked by her peers. Sometimes this is appropriate but most of the time the people you want to please aren’t worth the effort.

    She needs to decide for herself what her position is. Does she believe in gods? If not then why should she hide that. If so then she should expect some parental support for her view and should expect to have her assumptions challenged. This would be the same for a political view or a socio-economic view. We all need our assumptions challenged. Is she just isn’t sure what she believes then she needs to be exposed to different beliefs. At the moment she has a choice of a specific interpretation of Christianity common to her peers or nothing.

    If she is interested and you can then take her to a UU church, a Baptist church, a Fire and Brimstone church, a black church, a mega church, a Mosque, a Synagogue, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple,a Shinto temple, anything you can find. Expose her to ideas and differing view points and let her decide. One a weekend should keep the family busy till she retires. 🙂

    The important thing is that she be true to her own beliefs. She does not have to answer to her peers for her views and needs to learn the strength to be her own person. As a parent that is what I have to do for my own children. I have to give them the tools they need to live their own lives.
    .-= hoverFrog´s last blog ..Death List 2010 =-.

  • davis

    we live in Mt Airy NC doesn’t get more fundamental than that. children 6 and 3 boys. friends run the gamut of athiesm to belief. two things we do are expose our children to any idea they come home with. ie if they ask about the bible we research the area they ask about(noah etc) and explain about science and make believe. the worst thing is preaching either side of the issue. but the best is teaching to question authority,revelation and tradition. secondly we will never expose our children to a priest until they are able to reason and read sufficiently. about age 13 or 14. they will just have to get thru those school years when the little barbs and insults occur. I would also find physicians in your town who are athiest. there a lots but you just have to find them. there are lots of nonbelievers in the town even in the south. the website has access to groups with similar philosophies. so lots of access to like people. hope i wasn’t too wordy but we all struggle initially with these issues esp. when children are involved. home schooling is also a possibility if the school situation is difficult.

  • Joyfulbaby

    I’m in the same situation. My nine-year-old daughter found out the hard way that being outspoken about your atheism in the South is difficult. She asked me some time ago about whether I thought she should lie and say that she believed, but I left it up to her. Yes, she was given a hard time by the Christians in her class, but when SHE stopped talking about atheism, the abuse stopped. Kids have a short attention span.

  • Thegoodman


    If you happen to live in a predominantly Muslim area, yes, take her to a mosque.

    The catch about relgion is that people make it sound a lot more fun than it is. The daughter thinks church will be a fun party, in reality it is boring and you just sit there listening to a guy talk about stuff you don’t care about. As a kid, I hated church and didn’t want to go because it was boring, and no other reason.

  • Jenea

    I had never heard of Marjoe before reading this. For the curious, check out the Wikipedia article:

    Short version: he was a “child prodigy” preacher on the Bible Belt circuit, until his conscience got the better of him in his 20’s. He allowed documentary film makers to follow him on the circuit.

    Anyway, you could do worse than to have a Marjoe in the house (if you have the patience to wait for adulthood, that is!).

  • Demonhype

    Having also been the victim of bullying–to the extent that the years between 12 and 13 and a half were an active struggle against suicide (I actually had a knife to my wrists several times, though it would be years until anyone knew), I have one thing to stress:

    Make sure you know exactly what the situation is between your daughter and these kids. Don’t assume and don’t just take anyone’s word for it–not sure how, but find some way of knowing. When I finally told my mother about how I was being bullied (and the teachers knew and took advantage of it to use me as a scapegoat for their own purposes), she told me that it was my fault and those kids are always lovely to her when she goes on our field trips, and if they’re all horrible to me than I must have definitely done something to deserve it, and since there are more of them than me that makes them right about me. And the only time she seemed to see what was going on was in the few times I would stand up and defend myself in any way, at which point she would tell me that it’s obvious why I dont’ have friends, since I’m so “ugly to be around”. So I associated the act of standing up for myself with being “ugly to be around”, and became an even bigger doormat, which did nothing to hinder the bullying from either students or teachers.

    At the age of thirty, I am still struggling with social interaction, regarding myself as “ugly” both outwardly (as the kids told me) and inwardly (as dear old mom told me). I find it difficult to assert myself (in person, mostly), because I still think that makes me “ugly to be around”. I dont’ know if I’ll ever get romantically involved because I can’t believe that anyone would ever want to have anything to do with me. Even though I know why I feel this way and I know it’s not true, the deep scarring from how my mom so carelessly treated the situation is still incredibly hard to shake off and continues to plague my sense of who I am.

    FYI, I was a bit bouncy and outgoing at five, but by ten I was already going into a shell from this treatment. I did nothing to deserve the abuse and did nothing to encourage it besides existing and being different–in fact, when I started school in K through 1st grade, I used to give away my lunch when people asked me nicely and go hungry myself, though I’d pull their faces off as a souvenir if they tried to force it from me. My mother did nothing to really understand what was actually happening, and just assumed that I was “starting it”.

    This is the part that I believe led me to the suicidal behavior later. It’s one thing to be tormented by other kids or even the teachers, but to have your mother assume the worst about you in every situation without ever knowing what is really happening–well, I had a very high opinion of my mother when I was growing up, so when she said all that I became an even bigger doormat. I don’t believe I would have had such a severe psychological reaction if I hadn’t felt my mother was siding with my tormentors.

    On top of that, I think there has been some misunderstanding in the comments about this situation. The issue isn’t a desire to protect kids from religion or discourage one’s child from pursuing a religious conviction. The issue is in reinforcing the validity of peer pressure to a young girl who is in the process of forming her ideas about the world. If the daughter was expressing interest in religion, or curiosity or something, I’d say “great, take her to church! It won’t hurt her to be exposed to religion”! But that’s not what’s happening here–if the parents start taking her to church and making an outward show of faith, they will be reinforcing the idea that it’s okay to give in to peer pressure, that you need to give in when other people demand that you do something or be something, that other people should have the right to define you and decide how you live your life. My mother gave credence to the bullying I expreienced from the other children, and I’m still living with the results of that and fighting them every day.

    So yes, she definitely needs to get involved and show her daughter that she cares. She needs to figure out exactly what the situation is and either make it better or be there for her daughter in an active way, supposing the situation is something beyond her powers to “fix”. But taking her to church is not the way to do that and will only teach her daughter that bullies and their threats are to be complied with.

    And don’t just assume she’s being aggressive with her atheism and treat her accordingly, because if that’s not actually the case you could be doing a lot of harm. Don’t assume anything. Those kinds of parental mistakes can be pretty serious at that age.

  • Laura

    My husband and I were in an almost identical situation several years ago, with a daughter being bullied for being unchurched. She was a bit younger — just six at the time — and was bewildered by what was happening to her. So were we. The urban public school was pretty diverse socially, so we just couldn’t figure out why it was happening. We came to find out that the school was not at all diverse religiously. Probably 90% of the student body in grades K4-6 were Catholic, as were 75-80% of the teachers.

    When the bullying, which mostly took the form of severe verbal abuse, got really bad, we went to the teachers. We knew our daughter was not instigating it — she was extremely shy as a small child and barely said “Boo” to anyone but us. We asked the teachers to please intervene, but we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no religious bullying at that school. Shocked, we went to the principal…who told us the exact same thing. “This school has an anti-bias curriculum,” the principal said. “Bullying over differences is not tolerated.” But it was very definitely happening, as evidenced by a bright, sensitive child coming home in tears every night.

    A sympathetic friend suggested religious education classes at our local Unitarian fellowship. We gave them a try, and it worked. The classes are set up like mini comparative religion courses, with lessons coming from lots of different traditions. No assumption is made about belief and non-belief. In fact, about half of that fellowship (which numbers 800+) identifies as atheist or agnostic. So we felt right at home and became members. It honestly did help.

    What helped more, though, was moving to a different school district. We were fortunate to have that option, I know. The new school is just as diverse socially and economically, and is not religiously homogenous. Our daughter is now eleven years old and doing very well. I guess we were lucky in how things worked out. It could have been much worse.

  • Erica

    My husband was raised atheist. His parents told him as a youngster that if any of his school friends asked, just tell them he was Methodist. Honest? No. But it did spare him a lot of grief on the playground.

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