Ask Richard: Should My 11-Year-Old Come Out to My Ex-Husband? April 23, 2012

Ask Richard: Should My 11-Year-Old Come Out to My Ex-Husband?

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.


My 11-year-old son, Max, has asked me for advice, and I’m turning to you because I don’t know what to tell him. First a little background – I was raised in a very religious home and married his father when I was 18. We divorced a year after my son was born, and we have both since remarried. My ex and I still get along quite well and are on friendly terms. Even the fact that he is still very religious and I am very much not hasn’t been a major issue, although I feel that may not always be the case, especially after the conversation I had with Max this past weekend.

Max informed me that he doesn’t see any reason to believe in a god, as he doesn’t see any proof for one. This is, obviously, contrary to what his father believes, and that’s where he wanted the advice. Now, normally he’s with me on the weekends, but the few he spends with his father they go to church. Also, Max’s dad will ask him to pray at meal and bedtimes, and Max wants to know what he should do about that. He flat out told me that he’s scared to tell his dad what he thinks, as he’s afraid his father will be mad and/or sad about it. I’m at a total loss as to what to tell my son.

On the one hand I would like for my son to be able to be totally honest with his father. I don’t like the idea that he would try to keep something like this a secret, or that he would feel like he has to hide what he believes. At the same time, I worry that my ex-husband (along with my ex father-in-law), would attack my son’s beliefs. I fear that anything they would try to do to “save” him could be damaging. Max is very sensitive, and I don’t like thinking of him going through the things I went through when I came out as an atheist to my family – and I was an adult and no longer under their control at the time, so I know it was easier for me than it would be for Max.

I don’t know what to do. Do I encourage my son to remain closeted with his beliefs until he’s a little older and better able to deal with his father’s disappointment? Do I encourage him to talk it over with his dad, to get everything out in the open? Is this something I should try to get involved with as well, perhaps trying to set up a time for the 3 of us to meet on some sort of neutral grounds, in an attempt to be some sort of advocate for my son? I want to protect him the best I can, but I don’t know what will ultimately be best for him in the end.

Any advice you could give would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Dear Jessica,

Parents cannot have all the answers for their children, and when they don’t have an answer, it’s okay to honestly tell them so.

Eleven years old is pretty young to have to deal with this issue, but it happens when it happens, and it seems to be happening earlier with succeeding generations. Max has brought his dilemma to you because he doesn’t see an obvious easy solution. The difficulty he’s facing is painfully familiar to you, and you don’t see an obvious easy solution either. So you have in turn brought the dilemma to me.

I’m afraid that I don’t see an obvious easy solution either.

So I’m going to bring the dilemma back to Max. In terms he can understand, talk with him about all the things I’ll describe here. Most importantly, listen to him carefully, and do your best to make it easy for him to talk to you. It sounds like you’re already good at that. When you don’t know what to suggest, honestly say that. The two of you putting your heads together for a shared challenge will build a stronger bond, even if neither of you are coming up with immediate solutions. In the end, it’s that bond of caring and acceptance that he will need the most, rather than any particular strategy.

Children of divorced parents walk a narrow line, trying to follow their natural loyalties for both of their parents. When disagreements or conflicts arise between the ex-spouses, the children can sometimes become a rope in a tug-of-war between them, or worse, the children can be used as a weapon by one or both parents against the other. If the kids cannot freely talk to at least one parent about this bind they are in, they are forced to hedge, evade, and pretend. They can secretly feel guilty for being disloyal in some degree to both parents. They often learn to conceal their feelings from others in general, which can later make it tough to have close relationships. Eventually they conceal their feelings from themselves, which is not healthy.

Fortunately for Max, you and your ex-husband are on friendly terms so far, but nothing is as deeply divisive and unpredictably contentious as religion. It might be resolved amicably, or it might not.

Max needs to be able to openly express to at least one of you his conflicting loyalties, and know that he is still loved and accepted by the parent whom he tells. He already has that foundation with you. Whether or not his father is capable of that level of wisdom and maturity remains to be seen. The test will be when the truth comes out about Max’s belief, and it will come out sooner or later. Exactly how that happens might not be as important as when it happens.

Both you and Max are torn between the desire to be truthful and what both of you anticipate might be the consequences for telling the truth. Max is worried about his father’s anger at him, but he’s also worried about his father’s sadness. For many kids, having a parent be disappointed in them is worse than having a parent be angry at them.

Truthfulness is very important, but people should not follow the principle of truthfulness mechanically, without regard to other principles, including their right to protect themselves. Telling the truth exists within the context of the relationship between the teller and the listener. If the listener is not capable of responding to the truth in a way that honors the teller and the telling, then it may be better to withhold the truth until the relationship changes. The teller might need to become less vulnerable, and the listener might need to become more receptive.

Describe for Max what your experience of your own coming out to your family has taught you, and what your experience of your ex-husband has taught you. Let him know that you will love him and support him in whatever decision he makes about how to handle the situation. Let him know that he can take is time; there is no need to rush into a decision.

You are not being derelict in your moral teaching by letting him make the decision and letting him make it in his own time. You’re helping him to see that in life there are often no easy, clean solutions, and sometimes he must choose the least messy solution for the time being. By your example, you’re also teaching him to have compassion for others who are facing difficult dilemmas.

Whatever you do for Max should be with his agreement. He might want to leave it alone for now, and put up with praying and going to church. He might want you to be present at a three-way discussion with his father about these issues, as you suggested. He might prefer that you speak privately with his father about it first, and then let them talk it out.

Hopefully, whenever the time comes, his father will show himself to be mature, compassionate, patient, and above all, loving. But regardless of his father’s response, Max will have learned those qualities by working with you.


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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  • Jessica,

    I concur with Richard’s advice. It sounds like Max is a pretty smart 11 year old. I would agree to talk it over with him without really telling or advising him what to do. Let him know that you will be there for him no matter how it plays out. Let him know that there is no obligation to tell people your beliefs or non-beliefs and no real timetable that such things should be done. Many meal-time prayers are just family traditions and sometimes you just have to play along when you are in someone else’s house. You might let him know that if does tell his father, that his father might try to pray more with him and try to take him to church more… Just to be prepared for that possibility.

    Try to keep the big picture in mind, though. Good relations with all parties.

  • indeed. Risking alienation with your parents when you have a close relationship with them is hard at 18 or 30 even. Doing so at eleven? that’s rough, and it’s rough on both. Both the kid, and for the father, and the feelings of both matter. 

  • I think there is massive potential for the ex-husband to disbelieve Max’s autonomy in this decision and blame her for manipulating and brainwashing their child.  This is a huge minefield.  I hope for the best for Max…

  • Jeanne

    Jessica, does Max want your help explaining this to his dad, or is he just exploring these ideas with you before he says something about it? Richard’s answer is fantastic. I would let Max decide when to tell his dad and let him take charge of how much involvement you have. All you can do, really, is support him in his decision. You sound like a great mom! 

    I’m in a similar position: my ex is Christian, I’m an atheist, and our 14 y/o son identifies himself as an atheist. He was going to church, Sunday school and bible study with his dad, but, when my ex found out they were evolution deniers, he dumped them. I’m so proud of my ex. :o)  I don’t think my son would face pressure from his dad or dad’s family, but he definitely gets pressure from my family. He recognizes when my family tries to manipulate or bribe him (yes! bribe!) into going to church, cutting his hair, etc.  He handles it with so much more grace and tact than I do! 

  • Cassmuldrow42

    Having lost my faith at 10, I can say that battling your parents at a young age regarding religion is very difficult.  My mom would cry when I brought it up.  She was so sad for my soul and thought I was going to hell.  It hurt me so much to hurt her.  She loved me and wanted the best for me, she just had her own ideas of what that was.  I would personally encourage Max to not tell his father for the moment, and encourage him to listen and learn what he can from his father and his father’s religion.  There are still beautiful things in religion, and some terrifying things.  Both of these things are important to understand as a good Atheist.  It gives the strength of knowledge to defend your lack of beliefs, and it also provides you valuable clues to why people believe the things they do, and hopefully will provide more tolerance and patience towards the religious people in his future.

  • “Jessica”

     This is my biggest worry, too.  In fact, when Max and I had this conversation, one of my first questions was whether this was what he had truly worked out for himself, or if he was just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.  We’ve discussed religion so many times, and I almost always preface the conversation by reminding him that it’s easy to just go along with what someone else tells you is right, but it’s most important for him to really think about these things for himself.  At most, he can only agree with one parent, and possibly with neither, but what I really want is for him to come by that decision on his own.

    Of course, my ex might still claim that I’m manipulating Max, but at least I’ll know I’ve done what I could to keep that from happening.

  • anon no 3

    Usually I would recommend to read

    going through the motions of a god night prayer without believing is
    a tough one.

  • I agree with Richard that for Max, knowing that one parent at least loves him unconditionally is the most important thing.
    However, I would suggest another possible solution to the original question: for Max to slowly ease his father in to the reality of Max’s atheism. He could do that by asking questions about faith and discussing the answers with his father. If his father is open to being questioned about such things, it will help Max and his father understand each other better. It will let his father know that Max has doubts without just presenting him with a fact one day. Also, it might prevent the feeling that Jessica has ‘brainwashed’ Max, as the father will also have had a chance to present his case on religion.

  • Renshia

    Wow, I commend Richard on his answer. What a hard dilemma.

    After reading this the only thing I can think to say, is something that I learned, from a hard taught lesson.

    Don’t do, what you can’t undo, until you know, what you will not be able to do, once you have done it.

    Good luck,

  • “… but nothing is as deeply divisive and unpredictably contentious as religion.”
    Oh, you said it Richard! The understatement of the  millennium. In my experience, it even trumps money. 🙂

  • Sailor

    I agree with Anique – no sudden coming out – it may just get every one’s nickers in a twist unnecessarily and possibly start a rift between father and mother unnecessarily. Also while 11 year old’s can and should have opinions, it is an age at which you want to be open and still absorbing data. (Hell I’m still doing that at 70). So if he wants to be able to discuss things like this with his father, start slow, examine doubts, rather than starting off with a flat out “I’m an atheist” 
    People that have strong beliefs they are unpredictable. Someone I know had a gay offspring. They were born again, tongue-speaking, flip the bible open for advise, parents. I certainly was not going to get into the act. Eventually the child broke it to them and they were fine – maybe their heart was more powerful than their belief….

  • Ndonnan

    More like their belief was more powerful than their feelings.A lot of good advice here everyone,we dont know the cercumstances but it sounds to me like the father dosent have the child very regularly,so wouldnt be having a lot of input anyway and if he knows his ex is an atheist he would be half expecting this to be a likley outcome anyway.His reaction maybe matter of fact but you never can tell.

  • John

    I’m surprised Richard did not bring up custody issues. Haven’t atheist parents been stripped of their custody based on their atheism?  And that is just under the assumption that they might have a negative affect their child’s belief in the supernatural.  Max would be giving his father evidence.

  • Difiantnonbeliever

    His age struck me as 11 is the age one is becomes eligible to join the boy scouts.  Having been in cub scouts, boy scouts was the natural next step for me and much more exciting as could now do ‘serious’ camping.  Having long been accustomed to hearing crazy religion in school and tv, I was used to just mouthing the words and keeping my own inner translation of what they meant to me.  I was unaware at the time that the scouts was in the process of being taken over by extremists and didn’t even notice the historical lies in the handbook.  These days I would approach it differently but then I’m no longer 11 or eligible to be a scout or adult scout leader. Anyway my point is that it may be time for him to come out or learn to lie, like it or not, costs or not.

  • JMQuinn

    “He flat out told me that he’s scared to tell his dad what he thinks, as he’s afraid his father will be mad and/or sad about it. “This is the most important point to this issue.  Children should not be in fear of their parents.  Max should be reassured that this is not something he has to do “right now” and can take his time.  My mother still doesn’t know that I’m an atheist !I like the suggestion that he begin asking his Dad questions about religion.  Since his grandfather is also religious, his Dad may be having a similar problem and may be going along to get along or also feeling pressured to remain “in the fold.”Parental custody issues are very real and atheists are often not viewed as the “fit” parent.   I have suggested the Unitarian Society to parents as their “coming of age” classes for children Max’s age includes studying all the world religions which I think is a good thing.  By the time they are done studying, many kids decide that they are atheists.  Having a “formal” religious group to fall back on, may help fill the divide between religious dad and atheist mom.  Max can also meet some other non-believing kids his own age where he can feel free to talk about his own non-belief.  My experience with the UU’s, and I’m not one, is they are accepting of atheists/non-believers.

  • Hi John,
    They have been divorced for ten years, since one year after Max was born. Jessica says of her ex, “Even the fact that he is still very religious and I am very much not hasn’t been a major issue,…” So he has known she is an atheist, and apparently that is not a serious issue between them regarding the boy so far. Such an objection in the custody arrangement might have had some weight with a judge if it were brought up at the time of the divorce, but if it were to be used ten years later, the question that would be asked is why did he wait so long. Both parents have remarried, and I think that would lend more credence that the present custody arrangement is stable and beneficial for the child.

    This issue of a parent being determined unsuitable for custody solely because of their atheism seems to vary somewhat between regions, the Midwest and South being the worst, but it seems to be mainly idiosyncratic from judge to judge. A few anti-atheist custody decisions have been successfully challenged on appeal, but we still have a way to go to eliminate this unconstitutional outrage.,0,6033619.story

  • Before Max comes out, try to get his father to sign a legally binding commitment to  help Max pay for college, and to include him in his father’s will.  It’s hard enough getting divorced fathers to pay their child support, and you can bet the new wife will be glad to suggest all sorts of reasons why godless Max doesn’t merit assistance.

  • MadSeamstress2000

    The Mom might suggest that the boy just view the church services as a kind of theater or a sociology project (though in simpler language, maybe). At least until he’s comfortable standing up for his right not to go.
    As a kid in public school back when prayers were accepted there, I would just stand silent, even though I had no idea what an atheist even was!

  • Deanna

    This comment really doesnt have anything to do with the article above…but not usually one to post, I wasn’t sure where to put this, so I’m putting it here. Anyway, a little over a year ago I spent some time reading this site and even had a few discussions with some very friendly atheists. Being a believer myself, I was curious about atheism and why atheists were attacking christians so harshly. The response I got was that atheists feel attacked and judged by Christians. I was shocked by that. I spoke to a friend of mine about it and she, also shocked, said “Well, then we are not doing a good job as Christians.” I agreed with her. I’ve thought about that a lot over the past year and it has bothered me. So, let me just say that if you find yourself being judged by a Christian for your lack of belief, remind them that when judgment trumps compassion the Gospel has been lost and that Jesus said of Himself that He did not come to condemn the world but to save it. If HE was not sent to condemn others then certainly NONE of us were either. It is simply NOT our place to judge another. Our ONLY mission as Christians IS to love one another regardless of belief. If someone calls themselves a follower of Christ then love should be their ONLY goal in ALL circumstances. It was certainly His only goal. Whether you believe in God or not, Love is still on your side. It has never left you. Non believers are as worthy of Love as believers. I believe that that is God’s promise to us all. I wish all of you on this site and around the world the love and peace that my belief in God offers me. I hope that the spread of your message, whatever you intend it to be, has only love behind it. If it does, then you will reach the listening ears and compassionate hearts you seek.

  • Guest

    Cool story, sis. So original and insightful too! You’re so different from all those others!

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