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If you’re a nonreligious parent getting serious pressure or interference from a religious family member about your parenting choices, you’ve got to sit down and have a talk.

Last time I suggested a way of rethinking both the problem and the solution. It isn’t about changing the other person’s mind—it’s about reducing the dissonance that results from your differences. It’s not victory you’re after, but a relaxation of tension and building of mutual confidence. It’s détente.

Note 1: This conversation isn’t always necessary just because your religious perspective differs from your parents, in-laws, etc. Some religious grandparents are entirely respectful of their children’s rights to approach religion any way they wish with their own kids. Others offer nothing more challenging than the occasional grumble, whine, or plea. If you have one of these, be grateful. This post is about a stickier wicket—the grandparent or other relative who threatens, harasses, argues, pressures, and/or actively interferes with your right to raise your kids as you think best when it comes to religion.

Note 2: This is also not about your right to confront an antagonistic relative. For all I know, said relative has earned a merit badge in Self-Righteous Scumbaggery with you as the final project, and your right to retribution is enshrined in six different UN charters. But this post isn’t about us and our personal rights. It’s about creating the best possible family situation for our kids.

Note 3: There are countless variations on the nonreligious parent/religious grandparent dyad, but certain basic principles apply across the board. Be flexible and adapt as needed.

And off we go…

gma31990This approach is related to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a powerful and effective concept developed by Marshall Rosenberg and others. It starts with empathy—making an effort to grasp and feel what the other person feels, to hear things as s/he hears them, and to frame what you have to say accordingly. It can leave people feeling heard, understood, and honored – even if they continue to disagree. It can lead to amazing breakthroughs by recognizing that win and lose are not the only meaningful terms in dialogue.

When a secular parent tells me about locking horns with Grandma, I ask what Grandma is concerned about. The answer is almost always the same—the familiar goulash of hell, morality and discipline.

These concerns may be part of the mix, but I don’t think they are usually at the heart of things. The relative may even be convinced that hell-avoidance really is their main concern and may say exactly that, but I have reason to believe otherwise. (I’ll get to the reason by the end.)

Consider this: Most deeply religious people have their religion woven into their personal identity. It’s not just Grandma’s explanatory system or a moral code—it’s often who she is. She’s likely even to see it as the best of who she is. When her first grandchild was born, her visions of herself as a grandmother centered on sharing the best of herself, the deepest and most meaningful part of her life, with her grandchildren, and of proudly sharing her God-fearing descendants with her admiring friends.

The news that said descendants would be raised without religion would have hit her first and foremost as the end of that vision. Worse still, she would often feel personally dishonored and shut out. Finally, she would feel embarrassed by the judgments of her churchgoing friends.

So then: Hell, morality, discipline, identity, self-image, honor/dishonor, exclusion, family pride, and the judgment of others. A pretty potent mix. We can’t solve them all. But we can do some pretty impressive healing with just a few words. And in the process, we will give nothing away and tell nothing but the truth sur cette page.

There are four important elements:

HONOR the person. You can continue to think whatever you wish about the person’s beliefs. But people deserve respect as people. Refuse to grant that and you have no basis for discourse. If nothing else, honor their intentions, which (however misguided you think they are) are usually good.

EMPATHIZE. Make a real effort to see things as s/he sees them.

REASSURE. Some of his or her concerns can’t be helped. Some can. Reduce the concerns by addressing those you can.

INCLUDE. This is huge. A clear gesture of inclusion can repair an immense amount of damage and bring down walls. Most people will respond to that generous gesture with a desire to not abuse it. For the rest, some reasonable limits can be placed.

Here’s the idea:

(Honor)
I wanted to sit down and talk this over with you because you are important to us. I know you want what’s best for the kids, and I appreciate that.

(Empathize)
I know your religious faith is a big part of your life. If I were in your position, I’d feel just the way you do—worried that this big part of who I am wouldn’t be shared with my grandchildren.

(Reassure)
I want you to know that it will be shared. Even though we’re not going to church, it’s important to us that the kids learn about religion so they can make a choice for themselves.

(Include)
We want you to help us teach the kids by telling them what you believe. Let’s set up a time for you and me and Amanda to have a cup of hot chocolate so you can talk to her about your faith. How does that sound?

Details are hammered out next, so you should be prepared with a sense of what is OK and what is not. But ONCE THE CONVERSATION HAS HAPPENED, s/he will be infinitely more receptive to a few simple ground rules. For me there were two: no thoughtstoppers (no reference to hell or the idea that doubt is bad), and present all beliefs as your own (“I believe that…”), not as givens.

Sometimes it won’t work. But I’ve heard from so many people that this was the breakthrough, the approach that finally achieved something positive — including many who had sworn in advance that “It’ll never work with my dad” — that I have to think there’s something there. Several people have described step four as the turning point, the moment s/he is invited to share his or her belief with the kids. The road is not paved with daisies from that point forward, but at least it isn’t paved with IEDs anymore.

And this is why I believe it isn’t really all about hell — because without addressing hell one bit, enormous progress is made.

The bottom line in this is that there is an alternative to (1) saying nothing, or (2) spitting nails, or (3) giving away the farm. We can be the generous ones, the ones who understand where the other person is coming from, the ones who find a way forward, without giving up one bit of parental autonomy.

Reword it for your own situation, but have this conversation sooner rather than later — then come back here to tell us how it went.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.