Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m an atheist living in Oklahoma, and I’ve always tried to be open with my children, yet responsible in how we discuss religion, etc. Their mother (we are divorced) is a Christian and told my 10 year old daughter that I was going to “go to hell”, because I didn’t believe in God. My daughter came to me in tears a few days later terrified that this was true. I was very upset about the matter and stumbled in my words. I think I did convince her that I wasn’t going to any such place, and that she ended up feeling better.
But I feel I didn’t respond very well to her fear. Could you give me some advice on how to handle such situations in the future?
This is revolting, outrageous, and harmful. It has to stop.
Divorced parents sometimes fall into a pattern that family therapists call “triangulation.” This is where one parent will use a child to communicate something indirectly to the other parent because he or she doesn’t want to communicate directly.
Sometimes what they communicate is their hatred.
She’s warning your daughter to not be like you, but to be like her, and she’s using fear to enforce that. The implication is just under the surface that if the girl thinks like you, then she will join you in hell. If your daughter hasn’t realized that implied threat yet, she will soon. Your ex-wife is putting your daughter into a bind, where her natural love and loyalty for you must conflict with her natural love and loyalty for her mother. This will pull the girl in two directions, and can cause serious emotional harm.
Your ex-wife is also telling you that she disapproves of your atheism, but she’s using your daughter to deliver the message. The girl’s terror from the prospect of her daddy being tormented in hell assures that the message comes wrapped up in a big black ribbon of loathing. She’s using your daughter as a weapon against you, and she seems to be either unaware of the damage she is doing to her child, or she doesn’t care. I hope it’s the former.
You should do two things; communicate directly with your ex-wife to put a stop to this, and begin to build a rational dialogue with your 10-year-old daughter.
Set up a meeting with your ex-wife that will be free of interruptions or distractions, and will not be overheard by any children. You must remain calm and collected, regardless of the feelings that come up for either of you. You can describe your feelings, but you must remain in control of them. You will discredit yourself if you lose your temper. Describe to her what your daughter was going through when she came to you in tears. Tell her that this is destructive and unacceptable. She should not teach a little girl things that terrify her about the people she loves the most, her parents. If your ex-wife has thoughts or feelings about you, she should express them clearly and directly to you, and not use your daughter as a messenger. If she refuses to reconsider, then tell her that if she persists with this emotional abuse, it is grounds for a re-evaluation of the custody arrangements.
If you don’t think you can get all that communicated without either of you shouting or ending it prematurely, then write it all down in a calm, cool letter and deliver it to your ex-wife. Assume that she will keep it and perhaps show it to others, so make certain it is rational, factual, and civil.
During this whole process, document everything. Dates, times, places, and what your daughter, your ex-wife, and you have said and done. Hopefully you won’t need it, but documentation is important to have just in case this has to go before a judge. I realize that in Oklahoma, depending on the judge, an atheist father can face an uphill battle against a Christian mother, but if she continues to do such dreadful things, it’s a battle that you owe your daughter. Behave as if you’re always on camera. Your conduct must be that of an excellent parent, and a fair and reasonable ex-husband.
When you and your daughter are talking about your ex wife, take the high road. Don’t do any triangulating in return. That would only tear her in half all the more. Tell her that you know she loves her mommy and you know she loves you, and that is all okay. You will never try to make her choose between who she must love. You’re glad that she’s such a loving, caring child.
Tell her that her mother and other people believe those things about God, but you and other people don’t, and she can make up her own mind about it. She can think one way for a while, and change her mind if she wishes, and think about it some more over a long time. Whenever she has questions, she can ask you and you’ll always be honest with her. Tell her that the most important thing to remember is that you will always love her and care for her no matter what she decides.
You must live up to that. A love that is without condition is far more attractive and far more nurturing than a love that requires adherence to a set of beliefs.
Ten years old is about the age when simple rational thought processes can take a stronger hold. You can begin a rational dialogue with her. If she is still worried about you going to hell, ask her things like these, perhaps just two questions at a time: “Do you think I’m a good person? Does it make sense to terribly punish a good person? Would you punish a good person? Does it make sense that a god who’s supposed to be loving would punish a good person?” Keep these brief, and let her answers be whatever they are.
In this way, you’re introducing the idea of comparing the beliefs she has been taught to what “makes sense.” You’re giving her permission to examine beliefs in the light of sensibleness. That permission is the beginning of rational thinking.
Ten years old is also about the age when children can understand adults’ emotions when they’re shared honestly but in a gentle manner. For instance, if she tells you something that floors you as much as when she came to you in anguish about hell, you don’t have to keep up a perfectly composed façade. You can gently say that wow, you’re knocked over by it, and you’ll have to stumble around for a moment to respond to her. That honesty, that willingness to candidly share your vulnerability will tell her that “Daddy is honest with me about feelings, not just about facts. He’s real with me. I don’t need him to be perfect. I need him to be real.” I think she will increasingly turn to you to learn what’s real both in the world around us, and in the world within.
When one parent pushes a version of religion that is so ugly, so full of extortion and fear, while the other parent teaches rationality by example and gives permission to decide for herself, then the rational path will become the far more attractive of the two.
Hopefully without a legal fight your ex-wife will stop this very negative and harmful approach to teaching her religion, and she will be more direct in her communications with you. I wish more peace and harmony for all three of you.