Ask Richard: My Zealous Catholic Parents Are Indoctrinating My Kids December 27, 2010

Ask Richard: My Zealous Catholic Parents Are Indoctrinating My Kids

Hi Richard,

I just found your site recently, and am finding it very helpful. Having been raised a guilt-stricken Catholic, it took me a long time to tell my parents that I no longer ascribe to the faith. My husband actually broke the news, as they are very loud and demeaning to me when they think I am wrong. We left out that I don’t follow any faith, so they kind of think I believe in something, which I don’t.

All of this got them to stop inviting me to church, but now they push their faith on our kids, who they watch while we are at work. I feel like we are both lucky in this arrangement, as I have reliable and free childcare Monday through Friday, and they get to spend more time with their grandkids than anyone I know. The problem is that my kids are being indoctrinated with a faith that I abhor. They come home and pray at dinner, argue with me about whether Jesus really came back from the dead, and refer to my parents’ church as their own. My parents are real zealots, having traveled to foreign countries to see apparitions and whatnot, and I am not happy with my kids being taught these beliefs while I am at work.

Please, please, please help me address this before it destroys my relationship with my parents or leads me to quit work and be a stay at home mom. I don’t want to throw away my career and we can’t afford childcare, but I don’t want my children brainwashed!


Dear Torn,

You’re “torn” because you’re clinging to two diverging duties. One is now obsolete. Let go of that, and you won’t be torn any more.

If it was very important to you for your children to always have healthy food, and your parents were feeding unhealthy and even unsafe food all day, and your kids were showing alarming signs of diet-related illnesses, would you have any problem putting your foot down and making it crystal clear to your parents what foods they must and must not serve your kids?

Your children are being fed daily doses of something that you consider to be poisonous, and they’re showing symptoms that alarm you. Their indoctrination is already becoming a wedge between them and you, and if it continues, the split will only deepen. Their loyalties will be divided between you and their grandparents, and then they too will have their own experience of being torn. Yet you are hesitating to put a stop to it for fear of losing a “reliable and free” child care service, or losing your job.

Rethink your priorities, and review your resources.

Your parents are not villains. They think they’re doing the right thing with your kids, but it is not their place to do it. They won’t realize this until you explain it to them, but you’re intimidated. They have developed the habit of getting their way by bullying you. Shouting, demeaning, and guilt-tripping is how they intimidate you.

Sometimes the hardest part of growing up is the last part later in life, when parents such as yours have to acknowledge that their children have become adults. It is very difficult for some parents to stop parenting, and to start relating to their grown-up children as equal adults. Someday you’ll face the same transition with your grown-up children.

Even though you have built a life, a career, a marriage, and a family of your own, your relationship with your folks is still child-to-parents. When you have a difference of opinion, they browbeat you as a misbehaving child, and you respond as a guilty child. Your husband having to be the one to tell them the incomplete truth about your non-belief is one example.

It is time to assert your adulthood. See yourself as an adult with them, and expect respectful treatment from them. See yourself as a mother to your children, rather than a daughter to your parents. That is the obsolete duty that you can let go. You’re afraid that this conflict might destroy your relationship with your parents, but it must change to adult-to-adult, or it will be destroyed regardless of this conflict.

Question skeptically your assumption about not being able to afford some other source of childcare. Don’t just give in to the either/or choice of your parents continuing to do this to your kids, or you giving up your career. Find a creative third option.

Look at several things in your budget, and ask yourself if spending money on that stuff is really more important than proper childcare. You’ll probably find ways to save the money once you re-prioritize and see beyond your impossibility thinking.

Then you can choose to either use that other childcare solution, or to go to your parents armed with a backup resource and present some clear and concise conditions.

If you still want to try letting them watch your kids, have your husband stand by you, but not stand in for you. You and he are a team, but the relationship that must be transformed is between you and them. You must be the one who calmly tells them that the religious indoctrination in any manner must stop fully and immediately. They get to be the kids’ grandparents, not their godparents. Remember that you hold a powerful trump card in your hand: They want to see their grandchildren. They can, but only on condition of complying with your demands. It is not subject to negotiation.

They may refuse to comply, essentially calling your bluff. But you must not be bluffing. This is why you must have the alternative child care resource ready. Otherwise, you would have to possibly quit your job, a last resort that we’re trying to avoid.

If they raise their voices and start demeaning you, remember that’s just their old habit. Take deep, slow breaths and maintain your adult composure. Coolly describe what they’re doing, and tell them that that is no longer going to work. Briefly take on the role of parent, telling them to stop behaving like petulant children or playground bullies. Keeping your adult self-control while they regress to juvenile blustering can be very empowering for you. You’ll see who really is in charge. You are.

If they continue to try to intimidate or give you any other disrespectful treatment, then you and your husband quietly walk out the door, which you do not slam, and go home. Let them think about it for a few days without their grandkids. If they call back with some partial concession, don’t bargain. You wouldn’t compromise on your children’s well being with any other child care provider, so don’t compromise with them. They get to be grandparents, not preachers or Sunday school teachers.

Torn, I’m not saying that any of this will be easy, but its importance is what will help you accomplish it. It can very hard for someone who has been bullied and guilt-tripped her whole life to stand up and assert herself, but people do it. They stand up when someone precious to them, someone even more vulnerable is being harmed.

Your parents and your children can be wonderful gifts to each other, as long as you are in charge of what the kids are taught. You and your parents have gifts to share too, as long as there is mutual respectful treatment. Hopefully, when everyone knows their proper roles with each other, adults interacting as adults, and grandparents deferring to the childcare guidelines of the parents, then new positive, caring, and enriching relationships can be formed between everyone. I wish you and your entire family the best of outcomes.


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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  • Steve

    Your parents are not villains. They think they’re doing the right thing with your kids,

    Well written villains always think they do the right thing and have credible motivations. They just act from a different point of view.

    The mustache-twirling “muhaaaa I am eeeeevil” kind of villains are just bad writing.

  • Francesca

    Agreed. Your parents were lousy parents to you. They were, and still are, emotionally abusive. Now they are imposing the same treatment to your kids. You are abdicating your own duty as a parent if you allow this. Of course they do it because they think it’s right. That’s what every intolerant bigot in the world does, whether it’s forcing kids to go to mass or stoning presumed adulterers.

  • Shawnee

    When you allow other family members to raise your children they will teach them what they want. Pay for daycare. Problem solved.

  • fuzzybunnyslipperz

    Richard has given you wonderful advice, it is time for you to stand up for yourself and for your children. I only want to ask you what you are teaching your children at home? I have found that once I left the church and became an Atheist I still had to deal with my child who was still indoctoriated with beliefs I could no longer subscribe to. I dealt with it by teaching him about other religions and how they all think they are correct, yet they all can’t be. I discussed with him my reasons for no longer believing and talked about things logically.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, you also have a duty to your children to teach them your beliefs or lack of. Don’t just leave it up to your parents, you need to step up and be a teacher as well. When your children want to pray, talk to them about why you don’t. If they want to talk about Jesus rising for the dead, explain to them why you think its impossible. Talk to them about the simularities between the stories of Jesus and the story of the egyptian god Horus and how it pre-dates Jesus.

    Take the reins, you and your children deserve it.

  • Jeff

    Really, it’s sad that she even needs Richard to tell her this.

  • whatthedeuce

    I have a somewhat similiar issue with my in-laws. However they are not quite the fundamentalist type that is described in the letter. My arrangement with the in-laws is that so long as they are comfortable with me explaining to my children (in a respectful manner wherever possible) how wrong and dilluted I believe their grandparents are for believing such an unproven fairytale, then they are free to pray with the kids, talk about god with the kids, etc., and even take the kids to church should they agree to go.

    I’ve warned them that my kids will be encouraged to investigate all aspects of god belief. They will hopefully ask grandma and grandpa some pointed questions. And they will never be admonished by me or my wife should the answers that grandma and grandpa provide eventually lead to mockery and ridicule. They will always respect their grandparents as people and family…but my kids are not automatically required to respect their beliefs.

    I only draw the line at threatening my kids with the awful fear of hell and eternal fire. I liken that to child abuse…and will under no circumstances allow my kids to be threatened and tormented by such awfulness.

    I am fully certain, that a well rounded child that is not indoctrinated with this belief, and is alternately given the mental tools necessary to investigate, question, and form their own opinions, will NEVER choose myth over reality or fantasy over the facts.

  • Weber

    You can’t make a person grow a backbone over the internet. And that’s the problem right there.

  • Lynn

    To add to fuzzybunnyslipperz’s comment:

    Also talk to your kids about fear. Point out that the fear of hell is another way they get you to believe. Also point out that, though it’s difficult to not be afraid of something that adults tell you you should be afraid of, there is no evidence that it’s true and there is no reason to be afraid of something that isn’t true.

  • The short version:
    1. Grow up and demonstrate this to your parents.
    2. Demand that they stop the indoctrination.
    3. Deal with the fallout from steps 1-2.

    They are only villains if steps 1-2 fail to stop them.

  • Tooks

    I disagree @fuzzybunnyslipperz. Maybe it’s not a parent’s duty to teach children their own belief system. Surely there are many regulars that visit this website because their own parents did just that. It’s appropriate for a parent to offer to children a variety of knowledge. If children have questions, they can be answered in a diplomatic sort of way. Children do have questions, and whether a parent is atheist, agnostic, deist, hard core catholic, whatever, in an ideal world, children should have all kinds of information available to them – not to influence, but to help them learn. Otherwise, wouldn’t it just be creating the same situation that “Torn” is dealing with presently?

  • It’s very difficult for some of us (especially daughters) to just “grow up” and start dealing with our parents as adults because our parents never really modeled those good behaviors for us. Nonetheless, it is the right way to go. I’ve been practicing Richard’s advice with my mom for a few months now – mostly about little things – with astounding results. Where before I would just freeze like a deer in headlights when she started berating me, I now stay calm and talk to her like an adult. The effect was immediate and has brought some much needed peace to our relationship. My growing up has forced her to grow up too. I just have to continue working on my behavior so that she and I can have a healthy relationship.

  • Claudia

    please help me address this before it destroys my relationship with my parents or leads me to quit work and be a stay at home mom. I don’t want to throw away my career and we can’t afford childcare,

    This may sound harsh, but if you can consider the posibility of becoming a stay at home mom, then you can afford childcare. Unless your job is so terrible that it wouldn’t even cover the cost of a daycare center, it’s really that simple.

    Your children are old enough to pray and argue with you? Then they are at the very least close to school-age. Soon they’ll be in school and the cost of childcare will go down, since the hours requirement will go down.

    The current situation is totally unacceptable. Not only are your children being indoctrinated against your express will in a religion (do they go to Catholic church? Are they to take communion and cathecism? When does it end?) you dislike, they are being taught that the unfaithful go to hell (you know, people like you). Not only that, your authority as a parent is being undermined every time your parents do what they damn well please with YOUR children.

    These are your kids. Nothing is more valuable. I can appreciate not wanting to give up your career, but there are poor parents that both work and send their kids to daycare. You may not be able to go on vacation. You may have to buy less clothes, cancel cable, wait to buy a new care or a new computer. Aren’t they worth it?

  • Silent Service

    If you can afford to quit your job you can afford child care. Go over your finances and figure it out, then send your kids to day care and tell your parents that their help is not appreciated for what they ahve been doing. Be firm, and be strait up honest, but be polite and do not get into a shouting match or accept raised voices. Good luck Torn, I think you’re going to need it.

  • Sarah

    Giving a child an ability to participate in faith is not an evil thing. Most atheists I know, including myself, were raised in a faith setting, and ulitmately made decisions for themselves. Children are not Play-Doh, and you cannot mold them into what you wish them to be. If going to church and praying makes sense to these kids, then maybe that should be taken into account as well. When these kids are older, they will make their own decisions as to what makes sense. Give them choices and convey your beliefs as well as your parents. It is ridiculous to shield people from questions of belief or non-belief, even young children. It sounds as if they are good grandparents, sharing time and pieces of themselves with your children, don’t take that away. It also seems that they have respected your decisions by no longer inviting you to church. Perhaps you are villanizing them too much.

  • Robster, FCD

    Even if the parents do agree to limits, don’t expect them to actually follow the rules. They see this as the eternal fate of their grandkids, and this is their only chance to fix what they think they messed up with their own kids. They will lie, cheat, and get the kids to go along with the charade. To them, it will be a lesser sin than letting their grandkids go to hell..

  • JJ

    …why do YOU have to be the one facing the choice of being employed or being a stay-at-home parent?

    Make a deal with your husband: you work on your relationship with your parents and their relationship with your children while he tries to figure out a temporary (though perhaps permanent, worst case scenario) childcare arrangement.

    I have emotionally abusive parents, too, and I’m not going to berate you over the fact that it was your husband who spilled the beans over your beliefs to your parents because you likely did not have control over that disclosure in the situation. However, Richard is right about one thing: your parents, despite the fact that you are now a parent yourself, fail to see you as an adult and you need to exercise your right over your children NOW. Once your husband finds a suitable childcare arrangement, withdraw your children from staying with your grandparents IMMEDIATELY. They can still participate in the same activities (i.e., going to church with them) but they cannot stay with them.

  • Paul

    Richard, that is such great advice. Your head is screwed on straight with that one.

  • cortex

    I would disagree about Torn’s parents not being villains. She has already informed them that she is not Catholic, so they are actively undermining and disrespecting her by teaching these things to her children. Is that not villainous?

  • Fei

    Child-free atheist here… I just want to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Considering the situation from Torn’s perspective, the answers seem to be a black-and-white matter. Advising her to not let her parents interfere in the raising of her children through injecting disapproved beliefs seems like the obvious thing to do. But suppose that the grandparents were the atheists and the parents were the pious believers instead. Many/most of us here feel that religious indoctrination of children is a form of child abuse, especially if such indoctrination involves instilling a fear of hell. Out of the deepest, most sincere concern, we would want to side with the grandparents. But then we would be forced to suggest that which we are condemning now: interfering with the parents’ right to raise their children how they see fit.

    Not so black-and-white, is it? In Torn’s case, her parents feel the same sort of concern that the hypothetical atheist grandparents do. I think that good advice should take this into account and not be so disingenuous as to reveal a double standard. Is there a better way than simply reminding Torn to assert her maturity and her rights as a parent?

    Another hypothetical to consider, this time even more gut-wrenching to imagine… Occasionally, some people lose their faith within evangelical communities. Suppose that there’s an older married couple who become apostates in such a community, either as very liberal Christians or as atheists. Their children, who are very devout and overprotective, teach creationism to the grandchildren, just like everyone else does in this place. Furthermore, they would be outraged at the notion that the children should ever question their beliefs and be exposed to much information about other religions. The older couple is confident that, as a result of the indoctrination and reinforcement by the highly restrictive community, their grandchildren will most likely become part of the 40% of Americans who deny evolution and are woefully ignorant of and misinformed about the nature of science, truth, and epistemology, all the way deep into adulthood, despite any intellectual challenges later in life. In other words, what the children learn now would spell disaster for their future. What could be done about this?

  • I wonder if part of the reluctance to confront the parents has to do with her avoiding objectively confronting the reality her own childhood.

    By stating why the parents’ actions are harmful to her children, she is also confirming that they were harmful to her and went on for much, much longer.

    Lots of people can dismiss problems in their childhood as “mostly good, with a few bad things” but identifying her parents daily actions as harmful and dangerous to her kids recasts her childhood and relationship to her parents in a whole new light.

    If this is the case she may wish to discuss these ideas and her response to them with someone she trusts while taking the constructive steps Richard outlined.

  • Demonhype


    We’re not talking about being simply exposed to a faith–something some atheist parents do. We’re not talking about them being quietly taken to church–something that some atheists allow family members to do, provided they lay off the proselytizing. From the way this person describes her parents, they are most definitely indoctrinating her kids.

    Deliberate indoctrination is different from basic exposure to different points of view. And it’s always amazing to me when someone can’t figure this out. Very few atheists object to their kids knowing about different points of view or being exposed to the existence of various religions–it’s a part of life that people have diverse ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles and it is the duty of a parent to ready that child to deal with it in a mature and peaceful manner. What is being objected to here is the fact that this woman is essentially being undermined by her own parents, and what those grandparents are indoctrinating those kids with includes a necessary demonization of their own parents.

    And just because many if not most of us were raised in a faith setting–some of them particularly insidious and bullying–doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care if our kids get the same treatment. It’s difficult to escape faith-beliefs that were placed into your head at that malleable age, and it’s even more difficult when those beliefs were ground in through insistent and bullying indoctrination. And the beliefs are poisonous. I mean, you might as well say “well, why worry that someone’s going to give your kid malaria? you had malaria when you were a kid, and you survived, so it’s all cool!” Even with some people who have escaped religion as adults, the evil of that indoctrination still follows them around, including an ingrained fear of what they now know is an imaginary hell–the terror that was ground into their malleable little child-brains is so powerful that even the genuine knowledge that it is not true can’t totally take it away.

    So, you know, maybe some people don’t want their kids to have to suffer the same way they did, supposing they are lucky enough to escape. Maybe they want to protect their kids from the pain that still haunts them even after their escape. Maybe they want something better for their kids, such as the opportunity to decide for themselves without brainwashed feelings of guilt or fear clouding their choices, by protecting them from insidious indoctrination until they are old enough to weigh the evidence themselves. That doesn’t mean “no exposure”, but it does mean “no proselytizing, no indoctrination”.

    BTW, what kind of “good” grandparents have a kid who is so afraid of them that she has to have her husband incompletely explain her apostasy from their church? And given that relationship, what kind of logic says that these grandparents are just “exposing” the kids to a religion when they have a history of religious bullying–and the kids are coming home, at that tender age, and fighting with their parents about the Truth of Christ? Lots of atheists allow their kids to simply go to church with their relatives–having made it clear that indoctrination is not to be a part of it–and their kids don’t seem to have the same issues. I came out to my mother as an atheist–in fact, I came out as a general non-religious to her at fourteen–and not once did I feel like I had to be afraid to do so, even though she is and remains a Christian. And if I had kids, she would respect my wishes not to indoctrinate my kids and would be perfectly happy with the opportunity to just take them quietly to church or explain what she believes, knowing full-well that I will also be explaining my own views on those subjects. She knows we don’t agree, but she would never undermine my own parental authority like that. In fact, I do believe that if she wanted to take the kids to church at some point, she would ask me how I feel about it first. She’s not perfect, but she’s a good parent when you come down to it. That is how good parents act, and good parents translate into good grandparents. These are not good grandparents.

    No, I don’t think these are just a pair of poor persecuted Christians who are being unjustly villainized. They are actual villains. They have their own daughter terrified of them, and now they are demonizing her to her own kids behind her back and siccing them on her. You can’t get much more villain than that.

    Seriously, their own kid is afraid of them as an adult! That alone says a lot about their own parenting skills, and I don’t blame her for being concerned that they are directing those same skills onto her kids. Good parents do not have adult children who are terrified of them.

  • Richard Wade

    cortex and others,
    When we are dealing with an opponent in a conflict, it is very advantageous to accurately understand their motivation. Their greatest strength and/or weakness is in their motivation. If, in our anger we characterize or stereotype their motivation incorrectly, we will misjudge their strengths and weaknesses, and we will be far less capable of persuading them, or countering them, or manipulating them, or even defeating them if need be.

    People might do destructive things that we must oppose, but it’s their motivation that differentiates villains from just well-meaning pains in the ass. A villain wants to cause suffering and loss as well as to gain for himself. Torn’s parents don’t seem to want that, they just want their grandchildren to become good little Catholics and be saved. Even their bullying of Torn is probably not from sadism or the desire to be cruel. It is probably a ruthlessness rationalized from the same desires they had for Torn when she was a child. Very destructive, very self-defeating in the long run, yes, but not villainy.

    Correctly understanding their motivation can help Torn respond to their resistance in the most efficient, effective, and very importantly in her case, the most mature and adult ways.

  • It isn’t the parents role to provide the belief system of their children. It is the parents role to provide their children with options and the tools available to assess them. Teach them about Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism in its many forms, the Quakers, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaism, Sikhism, Humanism, Buddhism, Wicca, and atheism and any thing else that you can think of. There are plenty of religions in the world, plenty of beliefs, plenty of options.

    How do they know which of these is the “right” religion? Teach them scepticism, classical logic, evidence based thinking techniques, get them to reason out their arguments and deconstruct what they have been told. Teach them to make up their own minds. If they agree with the grandparents then they’d better be able to argue why they’ve adopted such beliefs.

    If they are going to have a religious faith then it can only be strengthened by questioning it honestly.

  • BlueRidgeLady


    I am an adult in my mid-20’s and I have been thinking “differently” and questioning for about 8-10 years now. I was raised Christian and I can certainly attest that even though it is illogical and I know realistically I am a good person and if there *were* a punishment system, I feel I am good enough to get in (even thought I don’t believe in it), the fear is still very real. It is something people not raised in the church just cannot understand. The fear starts from a very, very early age. I could recite Bible verses and understand the concept of eternal pain at a fairly young age. It is terrifying and I agree with you that children should be spared from it, regardless of how loving the intent is.

  • Zoe

    To all those that said it is ‘sad’ that Richard had to tell here this or that she has to grow a backbone and that jazz: it’s so easy to see what needs to be done when you’re on the outside of a situation. It’s much harder if you’re in the middle of it, it’s much harder if you have to live it.

    Torn: You chose to have children, you now have to do the best you can for them. And I understand it’s hard, I do as I’ve had to do my own growing up as an adult, so I wish you all the best.

  • Torn

    Richard, I appreciate your insight very much. You read a lot into my short email, and it was all spot on. After sending it I discussed the issue again with my husband, and suddenly felt very empowered, like writing to you crystallized for me the path I need to take. They don’t fully appreciate my position because I was not the one to deliver it, and I apparently needed to be more specific about how it related to my children. I realized that only I can fix this. Only I can prevent my children from coming home one day and telling me I am hell-bound, or from the torture that results from realizing something they have been brainwashed with is not true.

    I also appreciate all the comments from your readers. While some of the comments seem not to appreciate that I am just coming into my atheism from a 40 person family of Catholics that includes a nun, I do not feel the need to defend against every post. It should, however, be noted that not all conversions are so easy as others. And contrary to the comment that a backbone cannot be had over the internet, this first “public” announcement of my newfound beliefs and the supportive responses to your post, have given me considerable strength and “backbone” to do what is required of me as a parent.

    The kids have not been with my parents since the day I sent my email to you. They will not be going back for childcare, though I will not cut my parents out of their life. My husband has rescheduled his work and has been staying home with them for the last two weeks.

    Richard, you made excellent points and I intend to have this conversation with my parents before the new year. For months I have been actively seeking out ways to teach my kids to be free thinkers (currently I am reading “Parenting Beyond Belief” and “Raising Free Thinkers”), I and I would appreciate further recommendations from other readers.

    Thank you again. Your forum is so helpful!

  • Torn, I just read your letter, Richard’s advice, and the above comments, and it was great to read your response at the end. Good luck with coordinating childcare and communicating with your parents, and congratulations on the progress it sounds like you’ve already made.

    I’m glad you found Dale McGowan’s books! Be sure to check out his blog, too:, especially the “Can You Hear Me Now?” series of posts, about communicating with religious family members.

  • gsw

    You are soooo 100% right.
    Torn must learn to accept that they love their deity more than they love her.
    Remember this is a religion which praises a man’s willingness to kill his own child because his god asks it of him.
    Not all christians accept this (or even know about it!) but these parents sound as though they fall into this category.

    May I suggest you are also afraid to insist to your husband that the children must go to daycare because this would require that you admit the truth of your parent’s mistreatment?
    Will you be believed? What will others think of you? Will you be accused of being hysterical? What of the commandment to honour one’s parents? (I hate that one!)
    It takes courage to stop making excuses for bad parents. It takes the love of and for your children and husband to gain the strength needed to break through the fear of being a bad person because you exposed your parents.
    Do not let them undermine these strengths, they may try to get between you and your true family by claiming that you are exaggerating.
    Be prepared and be proud.

  • ihedenius

    The mustache-twirling “muhaaaa I am eeeeevil” kind of villains are just bad writing.

    Not to mention incredibly boring.

  • Thegoodman

    Since you have thrown your own parenting skills to the wolves, I will also toss in my own two cents.

    You are not being a good parent to your children. You are not demonstrating to them that you are a strong, independent woman. You are not putting their needs in front of your own (“can’t afford it” = “can’t conveniently afford it”).

    The good news is that your children are young and there is still plenty of time to rectify the situation. You asking for help is definitely the first step. Doing something about it is the 2nd, and most important, step.

    Which is more important to you? Be a child of your parents or a parent to your child? You have to choose and live with the consequences.

  • I only partially agree with Richard’s advice this time simply because we really don’t have enough information.

    What hours and how many are they asking the grandparents to babysit? Are these hours the grandparents would normally be attending mass? If so, it’s utterly unreasonable to ask them to give up that practice to watch the kids because you don’t want to give up the luxuries to pay for some other child care arrangement.

    Fei makes a good point too. It’s also utterly unreasonable to expect grandparents to be in the closet and not speak of their beliefs to their own grandchildren. Kids are bound to ask them what they think and they should certainly be allowed to answer honestly.

    I live with my grandchild and while, fortunately, my daughter is Agnostic and all his family except his other grandmother is irreligious and she only nominally, I’d draw the line at her asserting I couldn’t be myself with him. I do one hell of a lot of babysitting and she agrees with my position of telling him some people believe god’s real, some don’t and some aren’t sure and talking about those beliefs and how he should think about them to see if they make sense or not and decide for himself, were she to convert to any religion and suddenly expect me not to be honest with my own grandson, I’d say make other childcare arrangements. I am not going to lie to my grandchild. Point blank. You can either accept that or not.

    At this point too, if she were (hypothetically, I don’t ever see this happening; it is she and not his father who enables him to visit his father’s mother who is the one nominally religious; dad only seems to make sure he sees his grandfather and step-grandmother) to cut me off, I’d be down at family court in a heartbeat suing for visitation rights and I’d most likely get them too. He’s lived — except for two six month periods — with me his entire life and is attached to me. I have been more steady in his life than his parents — my daughter due to illness; his father, well, just for being less involved even when they lived together and a weekend dad mostly — and have contributed largely to his financial support.

    A second-rate, even a third rate, lawyer could easily get me visitation rights so don’t assume you can use the grandkids as a weapon to bludgeon your parents with. Mostly, they have to be largely involved to have as much rights to the grandkid as I do but they are not without any and Torn’s parents have been babysitting for we don’t know how long.

    Not to mention how disgusting I find it morally to use the grandparents for babysitting then to say that it’s perfectly okay to remove the grandkids from their life. That’s fucking horseshit!

    I agree Torn’s got to grow up and deal with her parents but, geesh, threatening her parents isn’t the way to do it. Yes, say if you can’t respect my wishes, I have to take a hard road but also concede that her parents also deserve respect for helping out as much as they have.

    They will not be going back for childcare, though I will not cut my parents out of their life.

    I am very glad to hear this, Torn. It sounds like you took the most mature route. Best of luck to you and your family. Keep working it out.

  • Richard Wade


    Actually I’ve answered several letters where the roles were reversed between the parents and grandparents being the believers and the atheists. Each of my responses is tailored to the complexities of that particular family’s dynamics. The difference in any one detail can make a complete difference to what I suggest, and my meager efforts to help are only a shot in the dark because of the limitations of a brief email. There are no formulas to follow, no neat, clean, simple, or guaranteed solutions to these problems. Reversing the roles does not automatically, mechanically warrant a perfectly reversed, mirror-image response.

    I’m always open, no, eager to hear better suggestions than the ones I offer, and I’ve often been pleased to read them in the readers’ comments. You ask challenging hypothetical questions. I think it’s only right that you present your own answers to them first. Whatever you challenge other people to do, be ready and willing to do yourself. I agree that black-or-white responses are not as helpful. What would you do with all the details hinted at in this case?

  • Vas

    This does not sound like “free” childcare to me. Someone is paying a heavy price for this “care”. Being indoctrinated into a cult seems a pretty high price to pay so that your parents are not inconvenienced, doubly so when you don’t even get to choose if you want to pay the price and your parents just toss you to the wolves because it is convenient for them. Kids don’t get a choice, you do, you are choosing yourself over your kids. Right now you are in a colossal fail mode as parents. America is sick with greed and you are infected, you have put your children’s well being behind your own greed. So you want to have a groovy career and let someone else raise your kids? Hey that’s your right, go for it, and may your life be filled with abundance and comfort, just remember who is paying the bill for your “free” childcare. You are people doing bad things, this doesn’t mean you are bad people, the fix is easy and you know what the fix is, raise your own children.

  • Thegoodman


    “Not to mention how disgusting I find it morally to use the grandparents for babysitting then to say that it’s perfectly okay to remove the grandkids from their life. That’s fucking horseshit!”

    What is the motivation for providing free childcare for your grandchildren? How much grandparent abuse should a parent put up with before removing the kids from the grandparents’ lives?

    If the grandparents are knowingly undermining the wishes of the parents, they have forfeited their ‘rights’ to visitation by playing a lying game. If the mother and father are of sound mind and body (and it sounds like they are), she can certainly use visitation with her children as a tool to control her parents.

    Are you saying that if you spend X amount of hours caring for the child, you deserve X amount of influence over the child’s upbringing?

    I had assumed that grandparent childcare was typically free because the grandparents gained something from it; time with their grandchild and helping their own child. Not so they could earn points for future situations and/or control their own child.

  • Angel

    My, we’re a judgemental lot this time…

    We don’t walk in Torn’s shoes. We have absolutely no idea what it must feel like, even if similarities are present in our lives, to wade through her days. But boy are we willing to tear her down for what we perceive as character flaws. To provide harsh criticism for assumed details.

    It is certainly one thing to provide some much needed kick in the pants, and I think Richard did that well, but it is another to kick a woman when she’s down. Perhaps we all need to sit in the corner and reflect on the way we choose to use our words? How many of our comments could have been useful if they had been worded in a slightly more positive manner?

  • JJ


    Glad to hear from you and to hear of your first steps in alleviating what surely must be a horrible situation all around. It’s not going to be easy by any means, so I sincerely wish you luck. Please keep us posted, if possible.


  • Torn,

    Although I never had your particular problem, I am a parent and have navigated the challenges of providing day-care for our kids. We have done the following at various times:

    1. entered into a reciprocal relationship with a neighbor where they watched our kids on certain days and we watched their kids on certain days.
    2. taken the kids to a day-care center
    3. hired nannies to come to our house to watch the kids.
    4. entered them in church pre-school.
    5. taken them over to a person who we paid to watch our kids.
    6. hired college students to watch our kids on certain days in our house

    The bottom line is there are lots of things you can do and providing day-care in a world where both parents need to work is quite common-place. Don’t be afraid to try something different than having your parents watch the kids.

    If your parents are a bit like Bill O’Reilly, then they are probably not going to change so you will just need to take matters in your own hands and make a change. Once you take charge of the situation, your parents will start to understand the new power-balance and may then agree to your terms of no proselytizing when they do spend time with them.

  • Carlie

    Torn, I’m glad you’re finding an alternate method of childcare, but not specifically for the absence of indoctrination. As long as your parents are still providing such a valuable service to you, you’re still in their debt, and the dynamic is heavily tilted to them still thinking of you in the “child who needs to be taken care of” mode. That will lead them to override your decisions simply on the basis of them “knowing better” and you staying in the role of their child. Separating that out not only takes you out from under your obligation to them, but might help them to see you as an independent adult who can make your own decisions.

  • Claudia

    @Torn, glad to hear an update and that you are breaking this destructive situation. It’s true that sometimes writing things down serves to establish order in a complex situation.

    I hope that now that you’ve taken control of the situation and asserted your parental authority, your parents will cut down on the bullshit, now that they realize that you will not merely sit passively by while they indoctrinate your children.

  • goodman, did you not read my whole comment? Look, I would not have ever agreed to babysitters bringing my daughter to mass but the fact here is they did because it was convenient to them and then only grumbled when the kiddies brought it home. As I said, were they asking the grandparents to sit at times they would have been going to mass.

    The motivations you mention are exactly why I babysit my grandson so much. They are my sole motivations. I babysit because I love him.

    However, it’s ridiculous to say grandparents don’t interact with kids at all and don’t share their worldview with their grandkids. To threaten them with alienation from their grandkids, especially when they have extended themselves by helping out when childcare was needed — we don’t know for how long their generosity was taken advantage of — is reprehensible and disgusting. And, as I pointed out, they may not be as without recourse as you think.

    As I also said, we don’t have full details here. We don’t know if they were going to mass as was their custom and would have had to stop or bring the kids along to babysit when needed. I’m assuming this to be the case or else mass wouldn’t have been occuring at the times they were babysitting and they wouldn’t have been able to bring them. She knew before asking that they were very religious and probably that they attended mass and she put them out anyway.

    How much of the stuff they were bringing home came from her parents and how much came from church, Torn knows better than me. I’m assuming that much came from her parents and that’s why she wrote and stopped using them as a daycare service. I’m very glad, however, since there is obvious some love there yet between her and them, and because her children do have a loving relationship with them, that the compromise was reached and she is not taking their grandchildren away from them after they helped out for we do not know how long.

    As for allowing abuse, well, my daughter was never even allowed to meet my fundie nut job mother who I disowned years before I even thought of having a baby. I can only assume Torn’s parents aren’t quite as bad as her because she probably would have done like me and left home and never looked back. It would have been over my dead body that my mother was ever allowed anywhere near my child and I’d have fault every court in the land, even skipped state or country to prevent it, but then my mother was never able to establish the necessary relationship to enforce grandparent rights as I, for example, would be able to do because she just is not that loving. I don’t think even the most Christian-loving, Atheist-hating judge in the world would have granted her visitation when they heard my stories of abuse and estrangement.

    I took flak from siblings for never letting my mother anywhere near my daughter until she hauled off and hit one grandkid and called her half-Vietnamese greatgranddaughter but I stood my ground and said I am not subjecting my daughter to that woman. If I had, yes, I’d be out of line to turn around and then say, no, you can never see her again for just exposing her to an opposing worldview. However, my sister and my niece were utterly right to no longer subject their kids to her after hitting and name-calling the kids themselves. I don’t see being honest about what they believe as amounting to the same thing. I just don’t.

    Where they do cross the line is telling the kids that mommy and daddy were going to hell instead of saying it’s up to god or something. For that reason, it’s right of Torn to pull them off babysitting duty and to be present when kids visit but these kids are old enough to voice such things to their parents so it’s likely that grandparents have been sitting for them for years. It’d be morally wrong to cut them out of their grandkids’ lives all together and, yes, morally wrong to even threaten to.

    Frankly, yes, I do find it disgusting to use kids as a weapon. Point blank. It disturbs me that it is promoted as something to do with a regular basis on here.

    Of course, I also think if you feel your parents were abusive, the thing to do as an adult is just walk away from them. Not try to be tit for tat and abuse them in turn as they age. Revenge is stupid and childish.

  • fought every court in the land not fault…

    Whoops. for some reason the edit won’t display.

    Also, yes, I have checked with a lawyer concerning my legal rights as pertains to my grandson a few years ago during a rough spot in my daughter’s life wherein she nearly died.

  • Fei

    Richard, thank you for replying to my comment. I don’t really have answers or ideas or solutions to the issues that I raised. I have never been in a position to offer any such advice, and I hope that I never have to be put in that difficult position. I’m sure that I haven’t lived enough to possess the wisdom to offer better suggestions.

    I simply wanted to raise awareness about a possible double standard, which may point to a troubling hypocrisy of which many unthinking but very well-intentioned nonbelievers are guilty. I see that in the comments of most people in this thread. There’s a distinction between an objective and a moral justification for that objective. In this case, the objective is to protect vulnerable children from the poison of religious indoctrination. The most common moral justification that I see here is that grandparents have no business undermining the authority of parents, but this is flawed because it doesn’t work when the tables are turned and the grandparents are the nonbelievers instead. A different justification should be used and a game plan devised out of it.

    I agree that what you and others have offered would be highly effective and makes sense, and as such the advice could be considered “right” in a limited sense. But my concern is not about what works but rather about what actually is “right.” And what’s “right” should be universal to a significant degree, not applicable only to certain people in specific situations. Otherwise, wouldn’t we be admitting that the moral justifications behind the advice are more or less arbitrary? I understand that rarely is any piece of advice “one size fits all,” and I’m not arguing that any advice should be. What I mean is that the basic principles should be universal, while the details and specifics can definitely be tailored for different people.

    You say that you’ve tried to help people in such situations as the hypothetical ones that I mentioned. Why not give us a sampling of some of the things that you’ve said to them? I do have a couple of thoughts. They may not be the most useful or effective, but they entail no problems with basic principles. First of all, in the case that the grandparents are not zealots and are willing to listen to reason, I think that a good argument would be that children should simply not be introduced to any belief systems before their minds are mature enough to rationally think through them. (This would include not only religion but politics as well.) Any reasonable person should agree that this is a fair policy.

    Believers who object could be answered in the following way: If they are confident in truth of their religion, then they should have no need to take advantage of young, impressionable minds; the children would come to accept the religion on its own merits once they’ve grown into adulthood. If they are concerned about making sure that the children are “saved” before something terrible happens, then they should just pray to and have faith in their god to make sure that the children are safe until they come to accept the religion. A loving and just god who wants people to worship him would surely be amenable to that and would surely not punish innocent children for not believing before they’re given the relevant information.

    Children should furthermore be taught to think critically, not just for the purpose of questioning religion but because it’s one of the most useful and important skills applicable to almost every aspect of life. And children would be allowed to ask questions about anything, including religion, and they would be answered appropriately, without any hints of persuasion. I think that this is something that Torn could use to help reassure her parents, who might be concerned that she’s telling her children, “There is no God.”

    All of that comes from the moral justification that children should not be exposed to things that they are not yet psychologically and intellectually equipped to handle. The vast majority of parents shield their children from violence and sex, so why not also include belief systems? However, this notion would almost certainly be rejected by the zealots, who would most likely be too deluded to accept reason. However, this is not a problem for the “basic principles” that I’ve been emphasizing, since the principles are still valid for all, whether they like it or not. In the more extreme hypothetical case that I described, perhaps the best advice is just to leave it alone; let the kids be indoctrinated. It may just be a hopeless situation until the kids are grown and step out into the world, and trying to fight it will probably cause too much trouble. Unlike the proselytizing zealots, we atheists are not obsessed with scoring points (i.e., the tally of people “saved”), are we?

  • Torn

    I’d like to share an update.

    I’ve spoken with my parents, shared that we are a non-religious agnositic family (the absolute truth), and that they can no longer teach our children to believe as they do. My mother honestly did not believe that she was indoctrinating them, but I told her that she was and it was driving a wedge between me and my daughter. I told her she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone she is not, but she cannot teach any religion to my kids. She was shocked, began to cry, argue and guilt-trip, but I did not cave. She asked if I really didn’t believe in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, and that it is just a myth, to which I replied that was correct, though I do not want to argue religious points. The subject of the conversation is that she does not have permission to teach our children any form of religion. She stormed out of my house. My father followed. They did not say one word to my husband. I suspect this is not the end of it, but I am prepared for the next step.

    Thank you Richard and others. It feels so good to be out of the closet!

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Fei,

    Thank you for elaborating on your thoughts. I understand what you mean about having consistent principles, and that reciprocity should be one of them. Certainly if every single detail in a pair of cases is identical except for the atheist/theist roles, then reciprocity would be easy to follow, but I haven’t found that match yet. Still, if none of the differences are pertinent to the action I suggest, then as in your hypothetical cases, the theist parents should have the same rights, leeway, and consideration as the atheist parents would.

    I also understand about the problem of doing what is right versus doing what works. In my posts I often overtly articulate that conflict, and call it “principles vs. pragmatics.” Because life problems are hardly ever simple and black/white, I try to recommend finding a balance of those two. The fulcrum of that teeter-totter is never in the same place twice, often shifting over time.

    I tend to be a real stickler for following ethical principles when it comes to my own behavior even if it causes me hardship, but I try hard to not cause someone else suffering by my following a principle too rigidly. That would seem to me to be vain and ego-based more than being genuinely principled. It’s tough sometimes to find the balance. I have to use my own judgment and accept the consequences, good or bad.

    You’ll see in my responses to the letters a frequent tendency for me to suggest something that will hopefully bring about the best outcome for everyone involved, and especially something that keeps the relationships open to future interaction, negotiation and reconciliation. People can change over time, and their hard and fast positions can soften; their black or white views can gain shades and colors. I consider that maturing, and I have seen it happen at all stages of life.

    Here are two previous Ask Richard posts, one with an atheist grandfather struggling with a poor relationship with his fundamentalist son, and concerned about his grandchildren, and the other is about an aunt or uncle wanting to intervene in the religious indoctrination of his/her nephew. In both cases the fact that legally they are very limited overshadows the scene, but I try to suggest what will heal and benefit the relationships first, so that their benign influence on the children toward free thinking can still be available, and even if not, and much more importantly, their love is still available.

  • Richard Wade

    Excellently done! You stated your demands and stuck to your position without unnecessary harshness. They tried the tactics that have become habitual for them, but you didn’t get sucked into that, which would have undermined your adult role. You briefly answered her question about your beliefs about Jesus, but you didn’t get into a tangential and futile quarrel about religion.

    Getting no child-like response from their parental stance, they resorted to playing the child role, with tears, tantrums, and storming out. Your purpose was not to humiliate them but to emancipate yourself, and you did it.

    I’m genuinely impressed! How empowering it must be for you.

    Hopefully, if you continue to be nothing but an adult with them, neither child nor parent, they will slowly begin to respond as adults back to you.

    We teach others how to treat us.

    Never completely write off the relationship, even if it is distant or tense for a while. People soften, especially when love is always offered.

    Please keep me informed of further developments, even months from now. I always get notifications of new comments on my posts.

    Happy New Year! Great way to start.

  • chris

    This is the “help” of an atheist? “Think of a creative 3rd option”???? Wow, so we would solve world hunger with “think of a better way to feed everyone”. There, that’s done. If ever there was a more clear example of how wrong atheism is, this is it!! Poor advice, that a bunch of wannabes agree with, and no real answer to the question “what happens to you after you die?” The trouble with atheism is that AFTER you die, you can do nothing to correct your error. Being Christian, I have already moved away from error and toward where I need to be. Are all Christians perfect? No, but neither are atheists. Please, as is typical, you atheists can start your namecalling and other juvenile behavior. What might be better is for you to honestly take a look at what atheism has “given” you. Yes, you are correct – nothing.

  • oh dear, hello christian person, please try to represnt your fellows better.

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