Modeling the tolerance and respect you want from your parents or in-laws.
The Winter Holiday season is looming upon us, and with it often comes thoughts of traveling and spending time with extended family. Sometimes, the members of our extended families can be accepting of theological differences. Other times, not so much, because when a grown child rejects the faith of their parents, some parents will interpret this as a rejection of their very morals, ethics, and parenting values. In short, they may perceive this as a rejection of themselves.
In some families, the arrival of precious grandchildren raises the stakes even higher. Grandparents who had dreams of attending a christening with the baby wearing the same beaded and lace gown you wore as an infant, or who had been looking forward to sharing Passover dinners with the children of their children, are forced to face the harsh reality that their dreams may go realized. Because these realities can cause acute feelings of loss in our parents, we need to expect that there will be some disappointment and hesitation in accepting that there will be no baptisms, bar mitzvahs, or First Communions in their grandchildren’s future.
Accepting our parents’ feelings about this may be hard to do, especially if their feelings are offered with hostility or if we have unresolved issues with feeling accepted as adults by the people who raised us. However, when we recognize that these grandparents are indeed experiencing a loss, then perhaps we can understand that, as with any other loss, it takes time to work through the grief and to accept the reality of the new life situation.
Even people who were raised with no religious affiliation may be surprised at their own parents’ reaction when they decide to raise a child with particular spiritual practices. If your parents never particularly valued religion or have even been openly hostile to it, there may be just as much disgust or sneers expressed when you state your beliefs. There may even be accusations of your inability to accept logic or reason and charges that all their efforts to raise a freethinking child were in vain.
In most cases, presenting aspects of your theological beliefs and spiritual practices which have some similarity to theirs will generate more positive results than focusing upon the differences that exist. Focusing upon the similarities is also more non-threatening, which can allay any fears they have of an unknown religious culture and any unfamiliar spiritual practices.
Even if you are unable to articulate any parallels between your beliefs and theirs, it is crucial to avoid being defensive and to refrain from criticizing the beliefs of your parents. Being defensive places you in an inferior position that perpetuates the parent/child dynamic and makes it harder for your parents to accept you as a mature adult with your own positions and opinions. And criticizing their beliefs can make them defensive, which does nothing to help them accept and understand your position, and may provoke them to argue back that their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are superior to yours.
Instead, modeling tolerance and acceptance while calmly insisting that your beliefs are as important to you and your new family as theirs are to them will force them to accept—even if over time—your sincerity of belief. Furthermore, when you are able to emphasize the loving, life-affirming aspects of your spiritual path, and even use the language of your traditional religious past, you create bridges rather than divisions between different religious paths.
Inviting the grandparents to share in the rituals and ceremonies of your chosen faith can also help bridge that gap. When my own parents attended the Naming and Dedication ceremony of my daughter Shannon and we shared a meal together afterward, they felt a great deal of joy at being part of the service (even though it wasn’t actually a baptism). Inviting both my mother and stepmother to have special roles in the Maiden Ceremony, which marked my daughter’s passage into adolescence, made it difficult for them to feel disappointed over not attending a Catholic Confirmation.
For while they may never really understand my Unitarian Universalist beliefs and my decision to raise my children this way, they have been invited to share the important rituals of their grandchildren’s life. Sometimes, this is enough.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).