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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

Ask Mommy: My 3 Year Old Is Praying, What Do I Do?

Another atheist parent send me a question this week,

I’m atheist born into a Catholic family. I was raised Catholic. I have a daughter now, who I am raising without religion. Lately, she’s taken to thanking god for things which she has either learnt from school or from my family who are not staunch catholic but who think she needs to know about god. What do I say to her when she says she wants to thank god? I tried saying I prefer thanking the universe. She insisted she wants to thank god. The other day, we passed a church and she stopped in front of it and joined her hands in prayer. This makes me livid but I don’t want to react in a negative manner that would make her stick to her guns even more. How would you react?
Child prayer atheist

This is a difficult situation, but I firmly believe that if you’re actively promoting critical thought at home, your child will grow out of this. You’re right in assuming that getting mad about it, or insisting on arguing about it could cause her to dig her heels in more, but there are ways to poke holes in these ideas without arguing.

For instance, the next time your daughter thanks god for “mommy”, you can say, “That’s so sweet, honey. You know, though, some people might not think that’s not very nice. I am the way I am because my mom and dad worked hard to raise me to be a good person. By thanking god for that, you’re forgetting all the hard work grandma and grandpa did.”

Whenever your daughter brings up god, find a gentle way to ask questions about it. Don’t tell her what she is saying is wrong or that she can’t pray or go to church or thank god, just gently poke little holes in it instead while praising her thoughtfulness.

Your family disregarding your wishes is a whole other thing, though. You said that they think she needs to know about god, but my question immediately is, “Who are they to decide what your daughter needs?”. As I have said before in previous posts, you have to remember that you are the parent here, and though you have spent your life revering the authority of your own parents, they no longer have any. You are an adult raising your own child now and what you say goes, absolutely regardless of what they think. Raising your daughter is a team effort between you and her other parent. It is not a team effort between her parents, your parents, her other grandparents, her aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. It’s just you. So, you need to stand your ground and tell your family this.

You need to tell your family that you don’t want them to teach her about god. Tell them that it’s your job to teach her about god, in any way you like. Remind them she is your child and not theirs. Of course, be nice and ask gently but be clear and firm.

They have a choice now. They can either comply with your wishes, or they can continue to do what they have been doing. If they continue, you need to talk to them again, this time telling them there will be consequences for not complying with your parenting choices. Make those consequences something that will motivate them, such as eliminating their time with your daughter altogether. Again, be clear so there is absolutely no way to misinterpret what you’re saying.

If they continue to teach your child about god at this point, it’s time to follow through with the consequences. You must remember in this situation that they have made this choice, not you. They were given your wishes clearly on two separate occasions, and they knew, beyond any doubt, what the consequences were, and yet, they continued to defy your wishes as a parent. They chose it, not you.

If you do not follow through with the consequences, the situation could get even worse and you could be faced with a lifetime of being undermined by your family on everything from god to too much ice cream. Stand your ground even though it hurts.

With that said, though, I would reserve this approach for grandparents who are really putting in a good effort to indoctrinate your child. If they’re just mentioning god from time to time, I wouldn’t worry too much if you’re actively promoting critical thought at home. According to your email, she’s just three. Three-year-olds aren’t necessarily the best rational thinkers yet, but kids are naturally curious. Follow her where her curiosity leads without shutting it down, even if it’s about god. One way you can show that you support her interest in god is by teaching her about all the gods people believe in and all the different religions there are across the globe. David G. McAfee has some great kids' books to help you do this. When she realizes that millions of kids believe in other gods from hers just as strongly as she believes in hers, it could open her mind to more questions and more exploration.

It’s important to find out what she’s being told, and what she’s being taught as well, so you can counter those specific ideas – just casually, in passing conversation, offer questions that counter those ideas. Do it under the guise of fun with mommy. “Hey, I wanted to show you something!” or “Hey, do you ever think about…?”

Rest assured, though, a daughter’s biggest influence is her mother, so tell her without mincing words what you believe. If she mentions god, tell her, every time, “Oh, mommy doesn’t believe that stuff anymore.” Often, this alone is enough to keep your kids from being indoctrinated.

I asked my Twitter audience what they would do in this situation and they had a few things to say:

From Instagram, some of the answers were:

Next time she needs something, I’d tell her to pray for it – @interstellar_bovardrive
Remind them that it’s nice to pray but better to do. Prayer is just a form of meditation but if they want to see real changes it has to come from their own actions. Kids are a lot brighter and inquisitive than we give them credit for. – @hanasus
Must be a phase. 3 year olds are silly. – @jessica.israel
You shouldn’t even speak to kids about religion or atheism till they’re old enough to comprehend and think for themselves. At 3 years old, they just follow what they see. – @el_num3ro_23
Let him grow out of it. Just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. – @scathing.internet.asshole
Enrich their knowledge of many other religions. Show them the Beautiful parts and the grotesque parts, along with the complete ridiculousness of them. Raise them to know about other religions and they’ll probably not choose the one with the imaginary friend that wants you to fear it. – @troyhencely

More or less, it seems to be a consensus: 1. Don’t worry too much at three, she’ll likely grow out of it 2. Speak with the source of the information she’s receiving and express your wishes 3. Promote critical thought at home.

For those of you who are interested, I put together a list of ways to promote critical thinking in kids. Read it: 11 Ways To Make Sure You’re Raising Critical Thinkers

How would you deal with this situation? Let me know in the comments!


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