Ask Richard: What Do I Offer My Kids For Comfort and Assurance? August 9, 2010

Ask Richard: What Do I Offer My Kids For Comfort and Assurance?


I have so much I would love to say and don’t know where to begin. 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. 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 HUGE into science and love this website, 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, but when I found out all the bullshit that they believe I am very turned off to it. 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 once I moved in with my mother at age 13, I finally knew that religion is whatever you want it to be. I mean come on, a flying spaghetti monster. Anyway, 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 it was 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 have them praying to nothing. It is all just about making someone feel better. 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 is 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 is as if you once lived inside a dark cave, where you believed that 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 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.

Your are 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 your 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 to 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.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Little James

    An imaginary raincoat will not keep them dry.

    Wonderful response to “but religion provides comfort & hope!”

  • Parse

    Have you considered raising your children as devout Pastafarians?

    Jokes aside, some other ideas that Richard didn’t put forward:
    – Look into your local UU church. It hopefully will provide an environment that will be supportive of your kids, without the Big Brother god hanging over them. Personally, I got more comfort from the other people at church than I ever did from prayer. If the program has good youth group leaders, it can also help give them another (younger) set of ears to ask for advice, especially when the questions aren’t those they necessarily want to ask a parent about.
    – Suggest they keep a journal. It’ll always be there to talk to. I never had much luck with them, but that’s mainly because my mind went far faster than my hand did.

  • Jeff Dale

    Well said!

    I might add that even if god beliefs do provide feelings of comfort to the young in a scary world, this “gift” doesn’t tend to pay off in the end. All the time and energy they waste on The Great Absentee is time and energy not invested in the real people around them, and in themselves. The longer they put off an honest engagement with the world, the harder will be the reconciliation when it comes, and the less time they’ll have to make good use of it afterward. Let them face the world as it really is, sooner rather than later, and they’ll be better off for it.

  • Confused,

    You may be a good candidate to adopt a Deist outlook. Deists believe in some kind of creator but don’t believe this “creator” is remaining involved in His creation. He doesn’t answer prayers. He doesn’t manipulate events to favor or punish particular people. Nor does He eternally punish or reward people in some kind of afterlife. Just like writing in a journal can have some therapeutic value, saying prayers thoughts aloud may also have some therapeutic value. Just don’t expect them to be answered by any external agent. It is just a way for your conscious mind to communicate to your unconscious mind.

    Encourage your kids to have real relationships with you and true friends.

  • Introduce them to Carl Sagan and the pure wonder of how awesome this all is.

  • Claudia

    If you’re looking for comfort and assurance, I think seeking out flesh and blood people will be far more effective than an imaginary dad. You sound very much like a person who does not believe, but “believes in belief”. I highly recommend Breaking the Spell, by Dan Dennett, and also Letting go of God, by Julia Sweeney, both of which were practically written for people like you.

    As for your kids. Get them to a Humanist or Unitarian Universalist congregation. All the community, and (virtually) none of the unsupported nonsense and judgemental attitudes towards others (like their grandad, for instance). If you want them to have a strong supportive presence they feel they can count on other than you, enroll them in Big Brothers and Big Sisters when they are old enough.

    Your children are not alone, they have you. And through you (and hopefully through supportive grandparents?) they can have a strong community that will ensure they feel protected and loved. This will be inmeasurably stronger than an unseen, unheard presence, especially one that forces you to lie to your own children to maintain.

  • littlejohn

    I’m with Dave. Introduce them to science. Religion can be a non-issue. If they don’t have knack for science, there are other things like sports and music that can be pretty much secular.
    I think your kids will be fine. The only danger to them that I can see is their picking up on your anxiety. Keep yourself happy and calm, whatever that takes, and it will benefit your children.

  • confused

    I wrote this letter! My father left my mother due to HER poor parenting skill, drugs and much more, my father never forced anything upon me. He has supported me in my venture to explore the “truth”. The only reason religion is an issue is because of society. My children can not come home from a day of school(chicago public school) without a new story from the bible saying some kid said this is the truth. I correct them, but am not sure what to say. The only support I truly have is my atheist boyfriend and he is the only one who has not judged me or forced anything on me! I am a bisexual woman and strive for equality for EVERYONE no matter what religion or non religion.I just want peace for my children and the community that church provided for me as a child helped so much! but I don’t want my children believing in some bull s#!%.

  • Beijingrrl

    @confused – when you’re kids come home telling you about how some kid says the bible is the truth, you just explain to them that people have many different beliefs. Some people believe in Jesus, some people believe in Allah, some people believe in the tooth fairy.

    I tell my kids that they don’t have to tell anyone that they believe, or don’t believe for that matter, in a god and should never feel forced to. And for my older child, I explain that sometimes dealing with religious people is kind of like dealing with a kid who still believes in the tooth fairy. It can be a little mean to burst their bubble. If it’s not hurting you for them to believe it, and it’s making them happy, sometimes you just don’t make a point of pointing out how silly it is. And no matter how silly it is, people have a right to their own beliefs. So far it’s prevented them from calling out their grandmas on the absurdity of their faiths and yet my daughter, 9, has been quite comfortable expressing that she is an atheist to them.

  • Erp

    @confused – a UU or humanist group youth education might be good for the kids. UUs teach about (not indoctrinate in) different religions which could give the kids some grounding in what people believe. Congregations vary, some have more atheists/humanists than others but there seem to be about 12+ in the Chicago area so one should fit. An American Humanist group exists in Skokie and another is affiliated with DuPage UU church in Naperville. Most UU groups are LGTBI friendly (half of the Chicago ones including DuPage have gone through a UU program to ensure they are more welcoming)

  • ash

    @confused, have you considered looking into confidence training? It sounds like you’re just not comfortable with what you do believe, nor with admitting when you just don’t know. If you’re somewhere round Chicago, there’s bound to be somewhere/someone legitimate to access; maybe a US resident can offer some ideas?

    It’s great that you currently have a partner who’s supportive, but you really need (by the sounds of it) to develop the belief that not only are you worth supporting, but you can cope by yourself as and when you need to.

  • MaryLynne

    I really agree with the UU recommendations. As a parent, much less a single parent, a community to support your values, give you a sounding board and give the kids other role models is really important. My daughter, 13, recently lost faith/found reason and on her request I’m taking her to UU. She has found the junior high youth group to be a place to encourage thought and accept her in a way that her school and other communities don’t.

  • prospera

    Believing in The Great Absentee…would only give them a cheap substitute for real resources that they might not develop because they would be counting on the fantasy friend instead… You are in the position to offer them real skills instead of illusions.

    Great advice, Richard. This post made me think:

    Many children make up imaginary friends to help them deal with various issues while growing up and trying to make sense of the world around them. They make them up on their own, and they naturally mature out of this stage on their own. I just realized how confusing and potentially damaging it would be to a child when the imaginary friend is forced upon them by the adults they trust and then repeatedly told that it is real. It almost seems criminal. hmm…

    @Confused, you wrote:

    …but when I was younger it was 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…

    I think one of the many mistakes that parents make (myself included) is assuming that our children are just like us. They may or may not have the same set of emotional needs, and what helped you may or may not help them. When I was a child, I used to sneak outside and cuddle with our dog in his kennel (the dog was not allowed anywhere else) when I felt utterly alone and then sneak back inside before anyone noticed. I am not about to buy a large dog and build a kennel in the backyard to help my kids cope with growing up.

    The fact that you are taking the time to carefully consider their emotional health indicates that they probably already have loving support and understanding from you. I think a real person who is honest with them and available for them without judgment would be much more comforting to them than an invisible authority figure who constantly judges and inflicts shame and guilt.

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