New Neighbors Are Proselytizing

My husband, my two sons (ages seven and nine) and I live next door to my sister, her husband and their seven-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son. We intentionally live near each other; we all get along really well and there is a lot of back and forth between our two houses.

A few weeks ago a new family moved into the house on the other side of my sister; we’ll call them the Smiths. The Smiths have four children, ranging in age from six to 12. They seem like a nice family, but here is the situation. Religion is very important to the Smiths. The problem is that everyone in the Smith family, even the younger kids, is constantly asking us why we don’t go to church and why don’t we join them in the weekly religious get-togethers they have in their home. One of the Smith kids has started telling our kids that all of us are going to hell, the devil will get us, and that they, the Smith family, is praying for us.

My sister says we should ignore them when they start in and just thank them for praying for all of us. I disagree with my sister. I am finding the situation getting progressively more annoying and think we should say something to them. What do you think?

You have a couple of options. One is to stifle your annoyance for a period of time and go your sister’s route of just ignoring, or minimally acknowledging, the Smith’s religious palaver, as you may find over time that the Smith family is drawn more to other families who share their religion. They may just naturally drift away from your family and that of your sister’s. After all, they are new to the neighborhood, and are understandably trying to get themselves established and build a sense of community.

If this option is not right for you, as close as you and your sister are, you may want to part company with her on how you deal with the Smith family. It sounds like your sister is okay with the Smiths proselytizing to her family, whereas you are not. If you decide you do not want the Smith family to discuss their religion when you and your family are around, I suggest you approach the Smith parents and say something along these lines: “You have expressed to us on several occasions that your religion is very important to you. However, you need to know that we consider religion to be a private and personal choice, and as such, we would appreciate it if you would not discuss your religion with us any more as it feels like pressure to become involved with your religion. That is not something we choose to do.”

If any of the Smith family continues to bring up their religion, you, your husband and your children can simply repeat, “Your religion is a private and personal choice, so please do not discuss it any further with us.” If you say this enough times, they should get the message. If they are unable or unwilling to respect your family’s request, you would certainly be justified in curtailing or ending your interactions.

Whatever you decide to do, it is important that your children clearly understand the choices you and your husband have made regarding your own faith and religion, or lack thereof, e.g., staying with the faith your parents practiced when you were growing up, choosing a faith different from what your parents practiced, or not practicing any religion. Most important is that you address any of the Smiths’ beliefs they’ve expressed that are not part of your belief system and are causing your children to feel threatened, frightened or confused.

A closing thought: there is a difference between someone who is genuinely and intellectually interested in understanding choices you’ve made and someone who has taken you on as a project, needing you to accept choices they’ve made. In the former situation interactive and satisfying discussion can result. In the latter situation, there is little room for dialogue. There are times it is appropriate to make certain topics off limits for relationships to continue, and based on the feelings you’ve expressed, the Smiths proselytizing to you and your family is an example. Respect, tolerance and acceptance need to be a two-way street.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Thursday through Labor Day.

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