Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandparents Take Grandchildren to Church Against Parents’ Wishes

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My husband, Ron, and I have a son and a daughter, Marge, who is four, and Brett, who is six. Ron’s parents, my in-laws, are wonderful grandparents and love spending time with Marge and Brett, often having them for sleepovers.

When my in-laws were raising Ron, there wasn’t much emphasis on religion. His parents belonged to a local church, but they attended only at Easter and Christmas. About two years ago they joined an evangelic Christian group in their town, and they now zealously adhere to its fundamentalist doctrines.

Our problem is that even though we have asked them not to take Marge and Brett to their church services, they continue to do so anyway. We found this out when Marge told us she is scared and doesn’t want to be a bad girl and upset the big man in the sky who is always watching her.

When we told them how upset we were about this, they told us that we were being disrespectful of their religion and that it was their duty to teach their grandchildren the gospel. They see nothing wrong with what they did. My husband and I are both very upset and are thinking about not letting them see our children anymore.

Let me begin by summarizing what I think is your in-laws’ position. From their perspective, they are doing their religious duty by sharing their religion with others and trying to expand their community of followers. When their efforts to do this are challenged or thwarted, it is understandable that they feel that they and their religion are being disrespected. They probably contend that they are doing holy and blessed work, and this must take precedent over other considerations.

That said, I understand your initial reaction of thinking about cutting off your children’s interactions with their grandparents, but before doing anything so extreme, I want to make some other suggestions.

First and foremost, I think it important that you and your husband talk together with the grandparents, beginning with the topic of respect. You can empathize with them by saying that you know their religion is important to them and that you can see how they might conclude that you are being disrespectful of their religion by not embracing it for yourselves and your children.

However, you need to point out how respect is a two-way street. That is, explain how you feel disrespected when they disregard your wishes regarding your children, especially when it comes to something as important as your parental decisions about your children’s religious exposure and education.

If you are comfortable doing so, I suggest you share with the grandparents your reasons for you not wanting your children to go to church with them. You were not explicit when you asked for my advice, but your reasons might include:

  • You have decided to wait until your kids are older to introduce formal religion in their lives;
  • You have decided not to expose them to any formal religion during their formative years;
  • You are still in the process of deciding what role, if any at all, you want religion to play in your children’s lives;
  • You want your children to pursue religion on their own as young adults when they are able to assess its potential value and role for themselves.

Do not be surprised if the grandparents have a “yeah, but . . .” for any explanation you give as to why you do not want them taking your children to their church. It is “conventional wisdom,” especially among many people of faith, that children not raised with a formal religion will be morally deficient. If this comes up, you can simply point to yourselves as an example of non-religious people who have, and live by, high moral standards.

This is all by way of saying I urge you to have discussions with the grandparents regarding your children and religion that focus on mutual respect – you respect their right to practice their religion, and in return, you are asking that they respect your parental prerogative to address, or not address, religion in your children’s lives as you see fit. If you and the grandparents can agree to this basic framework, then your intergenerational relationships are secure.

However, if the grandparents are not able to refrain from talking about and/or practicing their religion with your children, then you have the option of making sure you’re always present when the grandparents and grandchildren are together. In this way you can shut down or re-channel any conversations that are not in your comfort zone. Of course, this means no more the sleepovers, but everyone at least gets to spend time together – and you did say they are wonderful grandparents.

I am hopeful you and your husband can come to some mutually agreed-upon ways to resolve this issue. Of course you always have the option of severing ties with the grandparents, but I think that doing so would be drastic and unnecessary with the above-suggested options open to you.

In closing, you may find it helpful to read one of my earlier columns, “Nonreligious Parents Face Problems Raising Their Children”, in which I emphasize that many parents take the position with their children that religion is personal and private and that they, their children, will have to figure out for themselves how religion fits or doesn’t fit in their lives. These parents point out how it may be different in other families, but this is how it is in their family. When your children are older you can have conversations with them (and perhaps include their grandparents) about how family members can have different views and ideas about religion, but because of mutual respect, continue to love and honor each other. This helps teach realistic and basic lessons about tolerance and acceptance.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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