I’m not quite ready to post about the saga of my relationship with my children. I have four children, ages eleven through eighteen, and have been divorced for about two and a half years. For one thing, the story still has no ending. For another, I’m not sure that I can convey all of the essential nuances of the story without exceeding the patience of my nascent readers. Probably sooner, rather than later though, you’ll find a first installment of this epic, which plays such a central role in my life.
But as I’ve been reading and writing here, I’m increasingly aware that others also share the dilemma of how and when, if ever, to tell children of our religious doubts or disbelief. For me, as I’m sure I’ll get around to writing, the choice was made by my ex wife, rather than by me. So I claim no privilege of being a shining example of proactive honesty and consistency.
As I can personally attest, parents changing their beliefs can be extremely traumatic to children. In addition, there are some very real consequences which children must deal with when this happens, and all of us have strong responsibilities and instincts to protect our children. Also, each situation, indeed each child, is very different and has its own nuances and specifics, so I am certainly not presuming to have advice which is relevant or appropriate for all.
Having said all of that, I would like to point out a few issues which may be less obvious to those who have not ‘gone public’ with their families.
First, if you have the goal of a long term relationship with your children that is based on mutual love, respect and understanding, you must at least give them the tools to respect and understand you. The religious community tends to view those who become non-religious as having made an immoral choice. The common view is that people leave because they are drawn by the earthly pleasures of the world, because they do not want the hassle of being observant, or because they have some other ulterior motive. Sure, they may tell themselves that their choice is based on rational thought or on a search for truth, but this is merely a rational, they have been seduced by their evil inclination. At the very least, they are considered to be morally inferior. After all, they were not drawn by some lofty moral ideal, they simply rejected a religion which, at the very least, is highly moral.
It is very possible that you will be the only voice in the lives of your children who will offer a different picture. It is only you who will be able to tell them that your choices are legitimate, moral and honest. Whatever your motivations are, you are the only one who can convey their legitimacy. You don’t have to debate beliefs with you children, but you will have to be willing to be comfortable telling them, when appropriate, what your beliefs are. The longer that you avoid this, the longer that you pretend to believe what you do not, the more you reinforce to your children that not being religious is a shameful, immoral position. You are one of the strongest forces in your children’s lives and they have a very strong motivation to connect with you. In the end, they will still love you, but it will be much harder to respect your actions and understand you if you do not give them some context with which to do so.
Second, be aware of the role which age plays in the ability of children to accept and integrate drastic changes. As a rule, the younger your children are when you let them know, the easier it will be for them. Younger children accept the new situation simply as the reality of their life. Religion does not have all of the same meanings to them as it does to you. This does not mean that they will be immune from any confusion or pain, and as they grow up and mature, they will have to re-experience and re-integrate, but it will still be far easier. The older children are, the deeper is the sense of betrayal. They have more of a sense that you, and they, have been living a lie. The full implications, both practically and religiously, of your position will be more meaningful and more traumatic.
Lastly, consider the legacy which you are passing to your children. If they know that you are not religious, or that you are skeptical, despite how difficult that may be now, it inherently gives them a choice and empowers them. One of my motivators in how I ultimately dealt with my situation was to decide which message I wanted to pass to my children. That they had to adhere to orthodox practices at all costs, even if they did not believe, and that they had to stay in a marriage at all costs, even if the relationship had failed beyond repair. Or, that they had the choice, the authority, and the responsibility to believe what they believe, to act in a manner consistent with those beliefs, and to ultimately stay or not stay in a relationship.
Ask yourself this question. If you were the child, what would you prefer that your parent did, pretend to believe in something that they did not, or be honest with you and consistent with themselves?