Lingering religious indoctrination in step-kids
January 4, 2021 2:23 PM   Subscribe

How should my wife and I address religious issues with our children resulting from years of indoctrination by a narcissistic grandparent?

Sorry in advance for the length on this, but I feel the background is very important in understanding what we are trying to address.

My wife and I got married approximately one year ago after living together for about a year before that. We have both been married previously, and we each have two kids from our previous marriages. My kids don't really factor into this - the concern is with my wife's bio children.

After her divorce (the traumatic abusive leave-everything-behind kind), she went back to live with her parents while she got back on her feet. It was not a happy situation - my wife's mother has a lot of animosity towards her and this became a stick to hit her with. Her mother is a textbook narcissist and spent a lot of her energy trying to turn the children (at that time, 5 and 7 y.o.) against my wife and turn them into her children. Part of her narcissism is that she has a huge need for people to be dependent upon her, to the point of crippling them so they can't live without her. When I met my wife, her mother was charging her $900 rent for a single room in the basement that was also the room where the 3 cats had their litter boxes. Two other adult children lived at home at the time, one with kids, and they didn't pay rent - and my wife was castigated constantly for "leeching" off of the mother. During this time, my wife was working more than full-time and the kids spent a lot of time with the grandparents, especially my wife's mother. She had what I consider to be pretty inappropriate relationships with the kids - for example, she'd climb up on the bunk bed of the 5 year old boy and physically dress him (take off his pajamas, put on his clothes) every day before school. She used a baby-talk voice with them up until they moved out. She told both of the kids that their mother didn't really love them and that she was the closest thing to a mother they'd ever have. Whenever my wife called her out on it, the mother would threaten to kick them out then call CPS and report the kids didn't have a safe place to live so they could come back to her.

One of the things they required as part of living in the house was that the grandkids went to church with grandma and grandpa every Sunday. This went on for about a year, and also included weekday youth group activities (which grandma would attend as the parent). Grandma talked constantly about religion with the kids, including baptism and their mother's lack of belief. She convinced them that they would get baptized and go to heaven but their mother would not because she turned her back on the church. My wife asked her not to talk to them about it but she basically said like it or leave it.

She did end up leaving it, and moved in with me and my children. We are not a religious household - I have never been, my kids have never been, and my wife hasn't been active since she left home at 18. She has some trauma from the church and has been in counseling for it, so we are very not interested in what they have to offer. We are a house of science and human morality, and we try to raise our kids accordingly. After moving in with me, my wife still allowed the kids to see grandma and grandpa occasionally - never for church or church activities, but things like camping or sleepovers. Things began to come to a head when grandma started planning the eldest child's baptism. She said that they would do it if we wouldn't, and was making plans with the child to do it behind my wife's back. We found this out and had a text exchange with them about how this was crossing a boundary. We laid our expectations out very, very clearly - no religious talk, ever. No religious texts, pamphlets, imagery, or ANYTHING related to that church. We told them that if this boundary could not be honored, they wouldn't be allowed around the kids. They agreed, and things seemed to be fine.

Fast forward another month to eldest child's birthday. Grandma asked if we could come over for a family get-together with cake and ice cream and presents. We agreed, and got completely ambushed by her. She gave the now 8 year old child a set of religious texts, and had church leaders there at the "party" to talk about baptism. My wife was enraged, and we left the party (and the gift) and went home. Grandma called my wife no less than 10 times and left VMs - they started as "we know you disagree but we believe it's the truth and it's important" and turned into "you are sending your kids to hell" by the end of it. We asked the kids if the grandparents had sent anything else home and they produced piles of postcards, tracts, booklets, etc. that grandma had snuck home with them - they said she'd put them in her pillow case or bag so we wouldn't know about it.

We did not see the grandparents for a few weeks after that, and decided that we needed to have an adult (no kids involved) discussion in person to lay everything out and resolve it. My wife and I agreed to go over to talk with them, as long as the kids could stay out of the house in the front yard and play while we talked. My wife has anxiety in dealing with her mother after years of this kind of BS so her counselor advised her to make a list of things she wanted to talk about before the meeting. She did so, and it was pretty simple - no religious talk or sending paraphernalia home, no disparaging either of us, and please follow any other guidelines we have (limits on sugar and screen time, for example). We figured these were reasonable things to expect as the parents of the children and that they should be respectful of these expectations. Instead, we got yelled out of the house. My wife was told by her mother that she never loved her kids, and that she was infected by the devil for not allowing them to be baptized. She said that she was always disappointed in her as a child (my wife is the only one of the five kids in the family with a career, education, and healthy relationship) and that they never would have adopted her if they knew this is how she'd repay them. We had agreed ahead of time that if this kind of thing happened, we would just walk out - so we did. We told them that it was clear how she felt and we had to do what is right for our family, and that we would leave without a scene. We walked out, and grandma followed us onto the front porch screaming all those things she had said earlier, now in front of the kids. Grandpa had to hold her back from striking my wife. We got in the car and left, and had to explain to the kids why grandma was saying those things about their mother and why we couldn't see her anymore.

Things were tough at first as they adapted to not having grandma around, but it was for the best - the kids became physically healthier, more active, better performance in school, wider circle of friends. They would occasionally ask about her, but more disturbingly they asked even more frequently about going to church and why we don't go. We have had multiple conversations about it, focusing on the idea that we don't have to go to church to be good people and do the right thing, and that living your best life and treating others with respect is what is important to us. The church that grandma was pushing is the majority around here, and the kids are exposed to it through neighborhood friends and kids at school, but overall where we are now is much more diverse - the school they go to has a very wide range of kids from different backgrounds and they are exposed to more points of view than they were before. Despite this, they continued to ask and ask about it until we had to tell them point blank that we would never be going to that church.

About a month ago, there was an incident in our home that set off the concerns we're trying to sort out now. The younger child (now 7) told his older sibling (now 9) that she was going to hell since she wasn't baptized, and that grandma was right. He said that because she was a girl she didn't have the "extra powers" he had as a boy and that she was going to be punished because she didn't believe in Jesus. At the time, the older child defended herself and told him that she was a good person and that what he was saying wasn't true. We found out about this conversation (we have nanny cams in the hallways and overheard it through the open door) and confronted the 7 year old - he doubled down and said he knows the church is true and told my wife "You just don't understand. You are wrong and I'm sad you are going to hell." We had to put our foot down and tell him that this was inappropriate in many ways and that it needed to stop. He stopped talking about it and we assumed this was resolved.

Last night, we put the kids to bed at their normal time and went downstairs to watch TV. I thought I could hear them talking in their room and we went to their door to listen. We overheard both kids saying prayers they learned in church with grandma, as well as the 9 year old girl telling the 7 year old boy, "You should do the prayer since you have the extra powers". We stepped back a bit from the door and reminded them it was time to sleep, and they stopped talking, but we could hear murmuring for another hour before they fell asleep.

As you might expect, my wife is beside herself with this. Her experience with the church was traumatizing and dehumanizing and created a lot of issues she is still working through. The church itself is sexist in many ways, and up until the 1970s, POC weren't even allowed to be involved - we've explained this to the kids and expected that to have some gravity (as the eldest is a female POC), but apparently it hasn't. We're not really sure what to do at this point - this type of thing brings up every major negative trigger in my wife (the church and her mother) and we are both just super disappointed that the kids are still thinking this way. I realize they are kids and that grandma and the church are comforting to them, but it's becoming very distressing for their mother. She has explained this to them - that the church and grandma hurt her very deeply and that she had to remove it from her life to heal. Despite this, it's apparent to us that they are still putting a lot of stock in what grandma indoctrinated into them and the truth of the church, and they clearly think we are wrong. We've told the kids they can do whatever they want with regards to this once they are adults, but it's still present in our household and we can't seem to get past it.

How do we navigate this? My wife wants to go nuclear, but I'm not sure if that is the best option. How do you address heavily imprinted religious doctrine that is clearly harmful to our family? Any resources or advice would be greatly appreciated - I have no idea how to handle something like this and my natural inclinations (anger/frustration at the kids for hurting their mother knowingly) are probably not helpful.

Thanks mefi.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (55 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're not going to like this answer, but I would recommend the Bible. What has Grandma and her church fed them over time and what does Christ say in the Gospel? Showing them there is a difference between what they've been taught and what their Lord and Savior actually teaches may be enough to break Grandma's hold on their minds.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:44 PM on January 4 [15 favorites]

I can't specifically answer the religious aspect of this but I can tell you, this?

We figured these were reasonable things to expect as the parents of the children and that they should be respectful of these expectations.

Nope. This is never, ever, EVER going to be a workable mindset to deal with the woman you're describing. She does not believe you or your wife have legitimate rights as parents that are allowed to contradict her own. She thinks these kids are hers to do with as she pleases and she is not going to change her mind about that, no matter how "reasonably" you explain things to her.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:48 PM on January 4 [26 favorites]

I think you should address the sexism head on. “Kids, here’s what I’ve been hearing and it is not okay. Boys have no special powers. Girls are not extra bad. That is sexism and it’s not right and it’s not allowed in this house.” Then listen to them and agree to have open and honest conversations about any questions they have about anything they want to know. Obviously religion has become a hot wire here so make sure you two are a safe space for the kids to talk about it.

Also, sexism+religion is a powerful combination. It’s time-honored! I think you should address that with the grandparents directly, too. “Boy says that he has special religious powers and both kids think girls are dirty (or whatever has been said or implied), can you tell me how this factors into your belief system or why they think this?”

Please don’t let either of your kids have exposure to the exact kind of noxious bullshit which has led us to this dark moment in our time. I’m guessing the grandparents are shit for racism, too?
posted by amanda at 2:52 PM on January 4 [23 favorites]

Channeling the "what to do when loved ones have gone deep on Trump/QAnon/etc." advice I've read would suggest not running directly at these beliefs and behaviors but rather to show people that a coherent, useful, alternative view on the world works well. Feeling under attack can make beliefs feel more powerful/important than they really are.

They're young and impressionable but also don't have infinite memories. If you control their access to media (by cutting out the grandparents completely since they've violated their agreements with you repeatedly) I suspect their commitment will fade slowly. Perhaps strategically add some other secular rituals before bedtime to displace prayer or whatever other expressions of indoctrination you see. Maybe the sexism is a thing to work on proactively through discussion about gender or exposure to alternate perspectives to what they've seen.
posted by heresiarch at 2:54 PM on January 4 [21 favorites]

Going nuclear, to address the question precisely, is not the answer. You need to be a safe space for your children. Nuclear only works if it happens once and you plan to cut them out of your life.

These kids are too young to be indoctrinated. My kiddo has come up with some weird thoughts. The indoctrination happens at the cultural level. We are swimming in it! But these grandparents sound noxious. But you have the greatest influence on your children. They will listen to you and talk to you if you don’t go nuclear.
posted by amanda at 2:56 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]

I was abused in a religious context by my grandfather, and my parents went to a bunch of churches and I also spent two years as a Jehovah's Witness. I don't practice any religion now. I've done quite a bit of therapy about it, also married a former Catholic monk.

From all that experience I would suggest that the most important thing is a) your children's well-being and b) your wife's well-being.

Children first: Regardless of where their beliefs came from and whether or not you agree with them, their current religious beliefs are important to them. I was that child, where a grandparent was talking to me about damnation and hell and demons and I really implore you to take their beliefs seriously - not as a universal truth but that you need to heal this religious wound with honouring their connection to spirituality and their concern for what they perceive as their immortal souls and yours. Otherwise you put them in a really tough spot.

I am certain that with a humanitarian and scientific education it will all come out rationally. It did for me. But in the meantime if you ignore that this question of hell is 100% real for them, and it's supported by the culture at large, you will do them harm.

Now, your wife also has this traumatic wound which needs to be respected.

So you're not going to like this but I think you personally need to take them to a church.

Think about finding a kind, gentle, open, respectful church community (I would recommend Universal Unitarian, but there are others) and bring your kids there and get them involved with "normal" religious people at least for a while. They need kind of religious authority figures who truly believe in a loving and inclusive higher power, because they truly do believe that, and they know that you and your wife don't, and they have already been introduced to the concept of the non-believer and they probably believe it's their job to bring you into a faith. And that is truly painful.

And they need caring, ethical people who share that belief system to give them an alternate view.

And then as they can start to come out of it, of course you asset your values around sexism, racism, etc. You can taper off your church involvement. You present them with all kinds of stories and movies and other ways that humans express themselves and function as a community.

But I think if you don't start where they are, you really risk that they will be living in fear of hell.

And of course, you cut contact with grandma and you're done there.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:58 PM on January 4 [72 favorites]

I am gonna post one more time, have you also considered family therapy? This is a lot of changes for everyone and I think 2021 with a steady guide would be an excellent gift for your family and your partnership. Hugs to you and your spouse and hugs to those kids.
posted by amanda at 2:59 PM on January 4 [12 favorites]

To really narrow in on a small part of this, kids are kids and special powers are REALLY COOL. If that particular language comes up again, talk about the special powers you all have. Mom has the special power of being kind to her friends! Dad has the special power of reaching tall shelves! Sister has the special power of telling funny jokes! Brother has the special power of imagination! Etc etc etc. Flip it around and use that language they're already obsessed with to draw out the unique and GOOD things about the people in your immediate family. Distract and dazzle, don't punish.
posted by phunniemee at 3:01 PM on January 4 [13 favorites]

I’m afraid that if you make religion seem forbidden, they will feel that they just need to be more secretive about their beliefs. I’d say to let them have their prayers and talk about a higher power freely in front of you. Of course don’t let them go to that toxic church. But they are old enough to understand that one can believe in God/a god without participating in ceremonies. And also that some people use God to control others, and that it’s not right to do that.
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:01 PM on January 4 [13 favorites]

Yeah I think you should replace the aspects of religion that are lingering for them rather that trying to stamp them out.

Most innocuous, furthest from organized religion would be starting a new Sunday morning ritual, something like hiking or visiting museums. A little more familiar would be a new church or spiritual group-- Unitarians, visiting a Zen center, or Quaker meeting house (if that doesn't run up against your distaste of religion too badly).
posted by supercres at 3:03 PM on January 4 [6 favorites]

I'm shocked that the kids are still being regularly exposed to an abusive, narcissistic, disrespectful grandparent given how damaging time with her can be. It's long-past time to go no contact. Nothing good can come of the kids spending time with someone who actively undermines parental relationships, introduces very toxic ideas and beliefs, and will not adhere to your family's rules and values. When damaging ideas that Grandma has taught them come up, be sure to address it directly as something that's not true (explaining that some people choose to believe things that aren't true) and redirect them to your own family's values. It's fine to tell them that Grandma has a problem with telling the truth and that they can always ask you if they have questions about what is true or not.
posted by quince at 3:05 PM on January 4 [37 favorites]

The good(?) news is that a lot of the actual Bible is pretty useful here. Jesus wasn't a white dude. Jesus preached over and over specifically that being rich meant you would go to hell. Both Marys have huge roles in Christian theology. I bet you could find a way to go to 1. A much much calmer church and/or 2. Find pieces of the Bible that support your views and pitch that to the kids.

Also, they might be young, but it might help to throw in some history. Like, the Bible was cobbled together from a lot of texts chosen by the Council of Nicea. It's not the literal word of God like other religious texts are supposed to be. You could talk about how people are always trying to interpret God, and there are lots of different views on Him, but you think if God existed He wouldn't send kids to hell. Or whatever.

On that note, teaching them about more religions might help too? Give them an alternative to Grandma's beliefs? I know you're not religious-neither am I-but I think that squashing this is going to be partially about showing them this set of beliefs isn't universal, partially about giving context, and partially about giving them alternate ways to do religion that aren't so terrifying.
posted by clarinet at 3:09 PM on January 4 [10 favorites]

I read the whole thing and I'm glad you see that "anger/frustration at the kids for hurting their mother knowingly" is not helpful at all. It's not knowing, they are kids! They cannot and should not be expected to conform their expression of belief to avoid the emotional reaction of a parent. But the example you set in the years to come is what's going to make the difference here. Pushing back strongly and forbidding religion is going to backfire, badly. I would give them a taster, go visit a bunch of houses of worship. I bet it would even be interesting for you. Find a church of the dominant religion, a Hindu temple, Unitarian, etc.
posted by wnissen at 3:11 PM on January 4 [12 favorites]

I didn't grow up with this kind of indoctrination, so this is hardly authoritative advice - just my take.

I'd talk with them about it. Like sit down all together nice and comfortable, ask them to tell you about going to church with the grandparents, how they felt about it, how they feel about the prayers and about the things they were taught. You might find out they liked some aspects of it all, which is important to know. The certainty of it all might appeal a lot to kids whose lives have had some big changes in it.

Then I'd talk with them a little about how their mom also grew up going to church with their grandparents. But how some of the things she learned really bothered her. Like the idea of hell. Would a kind god really do that to people? Do they think it's a good punishment? What about the idea that some people have extra powers and others don't. What kind of extra powers are those? Would that be fair? If they were God, would they really only give special powers to some people and not to others? In reality everyone has their own special powers, and it's not that some are more special than others - everyone just has their own share of skills and talents. And it's not permanent either - you can grow your skills and talents with work and time, if you want to, and add new ones too. Can they think of the special powers they have? Their friends? Etc., etc. Talk about what values they think are most important, and what ones you think are most important, and why. Talk about how their grandparents' church isn't the only church - there are lots of churches and lots of religions, and also lots of people who don't do organized religion but who make their own ways to practice the values that they care about. Talk about how their grandparent's church, and its ideas about punishment and hell, make you sad. How it can encourage people to judge other people, instead of listening to them.

If you find that they are still interested in having some kind of church-y experience, or that prayer makes them feel safe, and so on, you can try to offer alternatives. Maybe there's something like a Unitarian or a Quaker community in your area. If not, during the pandemic lots of churches have been offering online services you could try. You could get a book of Unitarian (or whatever) prayers and look through it together, so they can pick the ones most meaningful to them. Or help them make up their own.

tl;dr I wouldn't come at this from a "church is evil and we don't want you to do it" approach. Try to understand what they're currently getting from it, have real conversations about the parts that are problematic and why, and see if there are alternatives that might help.

Eventually you'll also need to talk with them about how to reconcile negative views on the church with the fact that friends of theirs might go there. But hopefully that can wait for now.
posted by trig at 3:12 PM on January 4 [16 favorites]

+1 to Warriorqueen's advice - their current beliefs are IMPORTANT to them and taking a hard "you're wrong" stance isn't likely to win the hearts and ears of the kids.

Find a Unitarian Universalist church near you. UU churches are known for not following a particular doctrine, letting people have their own beliefs, but also supporting equality and common curtesy. They also have a very positive acceptance of beliefs while also showing people how to be nice to each other.

I doubt you'd attend a service and hear anything that makes your wife upset - yet the format of the crowd of people listening to one person would be very effective at slowly changing the minds of your kids. After a few weeks, you could even ask the pastor to talk to your kids about disturbing beliefs - as they are so experienced about being healthy and accepting, I'm sure they could help.

They also have many nondom counselors that could help your family and wife through this tough situation. They have sex ed classes for each age group that emphasize both safety, healthy boundaries, and consent in a way I couldn't find fault in.

Once you feel like things are going better, you can stop going!
posted by bbqturtle at 3:14 PM on January 4 [18 favorites]

I came in to say something along the same lines as warriorqueen, with the same endorsement of the Unitarian society.

The Baptist parochial school my sister and I attended for the primary grades was really big on the hellfire and brimstone and the Chick tract style philosophy. It was more traumatic for my sister; toward the end she fell into a depression over all the loved ones she had been persuaded were going to Hell if she didn’t convert them. We were taken out of the school, and our mother had always told us, from the time we were old enough to understand such things, that we didn’t have to believe anything we were told in church.

But, even though I’m a confirmed agnostic as an adult, the moderate mainline churches I attended with my mother went a long way toward counteracting what I’d been exposed to in school.

Your mentioning that this church is attended by the majority of people in your area, including your kids’ schoolmates, makes me think it might be particularly helpful. It might possibly make them feel less like they’re missing out on something “everybody else” is doing.

Given your wife’s background of religious abuse, I can well imagine that it might be a very difficult thing for her to do. I’ve attended a number of Unitarian services (it’s hard for a musician to avoid churches altogether!) and they’ve all been very welcoming, low-key, positive experiences.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:16 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
We cut off all contact with my wife's mother after the yelling on the front porch incident and the kids have not seen her since then. We invited all other family members (other than her) to the wedding that occurred a few months later and they all opted to not go. She supposedly told her husband (grandpa) that if he went without her she'd divorce him, and she has convinced everyone in the family she is the victim. As of this point, it has been a year+ since we have had direct contact with that side of the family, and we've never been happier (recent events aside).
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:23 PM on January 4 [23 favorites]

They are 7 and 9. They are interested in this because it's obviously secret and powerful (look at the effect it has on mom!). They are praying the way other kids play Faeries or Wonder Woman, and the right way to deal with it is the same way you would deal with those things. That is, leave them to their imaginations, consider this as imaginative play, let them play, and if they ask you about it, calmly explain that you don't believe in it and why.

And cut off all contact with your in-laws. You will not be able to reason with them and they will never respect your boundaries.

If you ignore the kiddy imaginative spirituality you've got going on there, it will go away (or at least dramatically evolve) as the kids mature. But making a thing out of it will make a thing out of it.
posted by shadygrove at 3:29 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

I was about 10 when my mom got me a book on comparative religions (because I was having existential crises and wasn't sleeping well). I'm very sure it wasn't her intent, but reading about all of the different things different people believe, both around the world and through time, is part of what made me an atheist today. It sure wasn't my parents (one Catholic, one anti-organized-religion-but-generally-deist) telling me not to believe.

So I agree with the exposure, possibly to multiple different options, as being one way to give them context for what they had been taught before.
posted by nat at 3:30 PM on January 4 [11 favorites]

I'm sorry your family is going through this. I am a conventionally religious person, and if one of my in-laws was behaving this way, I would be stewing with anger and frustration.

I think the most obvious step to take is going full no-contact with Grandma for a very long time, if not indefinitely. She will never respect your role as parents, and will probably never view your wife as anything other than stupid and ungrateful, which is apparently how she has treated her for her entire life. If you haven't already, there's nothing wrong with telling your kids an age-appropriate version of the truth about why they don't see Grandma anymore. (She says mean things that hurt their mother's feelings and won't stop, she tried to hit their mother, she lies and makes people feel bad on purpose so that she can control them).

After reading your story, I didn't notice a time when you shared with the kids what you and your wife believe in an affirmative sense. You have told them to stop doing and saying things that you disagree with (as is your right), and you have explained how the church hurt their mother, but I didn't see where you explained what you believed and why. Do you regularly have conversations with your kids where you explain, for example, why you think boys and girls are equal, and how you act on that belief, and why you think that belief would make the world a better place if everyone adopted it? If you don't already, make an intentional effort to speak with your kids about the beliefs you and your wife share, and leave room for them to ask questions and share what they think and why.

In my experience (in the absence of someone like your MIL undermining the parent-child relationship), kids who have kind, loving, honest parents come to understand that their patents want what is best for them, and develop respect for their parent's sincerely held beliefs, even if they don't adopt those beliefs entirely.
posted by Chuck Barris at 3:32 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]

I think it's really urgent, now that the family is cut off and that's taken care of, to work with a therapist for the whole family, so you can get some expert coaching and help processing all this.

And I really really think you should not try to find a "good" church until you're in a good ongoing pace with a therapist, because y'all are going to glow like neon targets to predators, and predators love churches and they love religiously-traumatized people. The kids will survive without it for now. If anything, spending some time modeling agnosticism and humanism will help broaden the kids' horizons too.

As parents, I think you guys need better boundary skills before you run that gauntlet or decide for sure that's the appropriate step in a deprogramming process. That's not a criticism of your parenting, just an acknowledgement that history and circumstances have created a need for especially good skills there going forward.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:33 PM on January 4 [11 favorites]

Coming at this from an atheist reform Jewish perspective, I agree with the majority of above answers. The Bible itself is going to be a useful tool for you. Since religion is triggering for your wife, you need to take this on yourself, and it’s going to be harder for you since you don’t have a lifetime of familiarity with the text, but there is an overwhelming amount of available education on the actual content of the Bible that you can access. Talk to them about things like other religions in the world, include as many local people and places as you can (if there is a synagogue nearby you will most likely be able to, for example, take them to a Friday evening shabbat service for observation, if there’s anywhere that has like, halal menus you can talk about that while eating delicious falafel, etc). Show them how many options there are and that there are many good people who do differently than grandma, who by the way was wrong wrong wrong about Mom.

I would not treat it like harmless Santa Claus pretend superpowers stuff because it’s all wrapped up in a message that they are going to get from the world at large. Actively shed light on it, replace the comfort and routines and certainty the church provided with less insidious comforts. Don’t take away the pamphlets and texts, but bring a bunch of additional little books and special stories for them to have and keep themselves about other cultures and morality moments that are more in line with your family values. Invite them to ask you questions about intangible stuff like god and hell and souls and be confident in telling them about how you don’t have an answer for certain but here is what you think, and what do they think? Etc.

I’m sorry this has happened to your family but it sounds like your instincts, to sidestep your anger and support your wife and kids, are solid. Bring in support from other people you trust. Multiple perspectives and experiences will help you.
posted by Mizu at 3:41 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]

In addition to the church stuff, your kids were very close to a loving adult who they have now lost. They are grieving, and it's more complicated and painful than if she had just died because they also have to grieve the fact that she was never completely the loving wonderful person they thought they knew - she was very toxic and harmful to their mother at the same time. This adult that they were close to was not what they thought she was.

Maybe hanging on to the religious stuff she taught them might be a way of feeling closer to the loving version of her that they knew, or a way of feeling more secure in an uncertain world where loving adults and caretakers can turn out to be horrible hurtful people. I bet those kids have a lot of complicated, scary feelings mixed up in all this.

I'd try my hardest to give them reassurance, unconditional love, stability, and a bunch of therapy. And separately from that, a bunch of conversations about how science is great, magic isn't real, humans have to take care of each other, etc.
posted by beandip at 3:49 PM on January 4 [5 favorites]

I don't think the question is how to get these kids to stop believing something they believe. Pushing them hard on this might make them double down. There's a good chance they'll shift out of these beliefs on their own, with exposure to more time in the house with you.

Here's the deal: you all going HARD on not believing is not a lot different than their grandmother going all in on believing. You can't make them believe or not believe. You need to give them space to have their own ideas and thoughts and beliefs. These beliefs will change a great deal over time. I think you need to work hard to make sure their grandmother doesn't have some secret backchannel.

I think these kids desperately need therapy to help undo all the toxic grandparenting they've had. They've been taught not to listen to their mother, and even if they do listen to their mom, they've had truly awful experiences. I think they should be individual therapy. Like, it's okay if they're missing their grandmother. They get to have those feelings, and they need some space to work through this.

I also think it might be helpful if you (you the stepparent alone, not your wife; she can stay home with your kids) took them to a low key church, like a unitarian place. Having a loving contrast to the fire and brimstone message might resonate. And it would show that you aren't a devilish enemy of the almighty (or whatever they think about your religious beliefs). In fact, maybe it would be great if you visited a few different congregations over several months, so they can be around religious folks in religious services and see the diversity and variety themselves. (My older kid was intensely interested in religion and pretty much lost interest after we went to a church service; it took the romance and mystery out of it.)

It sounds like your wife and stepkids went from an abusive home with her first spouse (their dad?) to an emotionally abusive home with their grandparents, to the house you all share now. That's a lot. I hope the three of them are also in family therapy together.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:54 PM on January 4 [15 favorites]

From reading your question, I'm wondering if the church in question is the LDS church- the boys have special powers bit, the no POC until the 70s.

Whilst Mormonism is considered by some to be another flavour of Christianity, by others it's considered a cult, and as such there should be resources out there for deprogramming.
posted by freethefeet at 4:01 PM on January 4 [15 favorites]

I agree with the previous poster: Teach them about other belief systems.

Learning about other people's beliefs is one of the reasons I'm an atheist now. I went to church with my grandma on Sundays, too, despite my mom not being actively religious. To me the stories I learned in church were just ... more stories?

I mean, I can't promise you that this will make your kids nonreligious. It's not like all religious people are ignorant of others' beliefs. However, it's something that's really important to know anyway, so it's not like you'd be wasting your time on something that "doesn't work." I think it's especially important if they've been in an environment where Christianity was very dominant. They need to understand (and respect) other belief systems.

And it might help temper that feeling that grandma was giving them a definitive explanation of how the universe really works.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:02 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

I agree that Unitarian Universalism is pretty closely aligned to your belief system. My UU friends ended up with a good understanding of the major world religions with some theatre, music, and sex ed thrown in). If you decide as a family that joining a UU church in some capacity is the right decision, you might want to offer to your wife that you vet different churches and/or attend any services with the kids.

From this internet stranger's perspective, I think it might be helpful for these children to realize that there are entire communities of people who approach religion with a critical eye.
posted by oceano at 4:04 PM on January 4 [6 favorites]

I'd take them to a bunch of different churches so they can see the wide variety of ways that people worship. Grandma's got no monopoly on religion; it would be a mistake to set her up as a uniquely forbidden fruit.

(By the way if you do decide to take them to houses of worship of other religions, it would be courteous to call their office and introduce yourself first. I've seen people on here suggesting that folks wander into Shabbat services essentially as looky-loo tourists, and there's no synagogue I've ever been to where that would be appropriate.)

I also think that clergy of lower key religions can be a resource to you in providing materials and explanations, and conveying that a major purpose of religion is to help people act in a way that elevates our spirit rather than degrades it. That means being kinder and more loving, not the opposite.

But I also think you don't have to make a huge deal out of it. The pretend play is natural; if they weren't playing Special Powers they'd be playing Superheroes.

(Good for you guys for firing Grandma. Be kind to your wife, I'm sure she's suffering and conflicted about that even if she knows it's for the best.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:29 PM on January 4 [5 favorites]

I was also going to suggest a few sessions at a different church, so they have the familiarity of the ritual without the strictness. There are faith groups that are a lot more moderate, and there are people within different faith groups that are also a lot more moderate (I was raised Catholic, and the Deacon of our church flat-out said he didn't believe in Biblical literalism during one of our Sunday School sessions "but that's not the point anyway").

A priest or chuch elder in that church may also be a good ally to help undo all of the toxic beliefs. Your kids may have heard a lot of religious talk from Grandma, which was reinforced by whoever was the leader of whatever church they went to; and both of them implied that this heaven and hell stuff was real, and Grandma also piled on that you guys were nonbelievers and therefore doomed. So maybe your kids aren't necessarily listening to YOU when you deny hell is real ("well, yeah, Mom and Dad would say this kind of stuff if they're not believers, but what do they know"), but if a religious figure talks to them about religion, they may trust him simply because he is a Religious Figure Of Authority ("hmm, I didn't believe Mom and Dad when they said that hell doesn't work that way, but that was because I didn't think they knew what they were talking about - but Father Joe also says hell doesn't work that way, and I'm pretty sure he'd know his stuff.")

Going to a church may be something your wife maybe can't do right now, so this may be something you and the kids might need to do yourselves. Absolutely involve your wife if she feels she can join, but if she needs to tap out, don't insist.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:37 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

As said above, your kids really believe this stuff right now. They are not aware that some people misuse religion for cruelty, control of the vulnerable, and to cover mental illness.

You cut off contact with the mentally ill grandma. You must also cut off contact with anyone who supports her. You don't want those people to reinforce the beliefs she instilled in your kids.

As said above, to extinguish the unwanted beliefs, you can't attack the beliefs directly or forbid your children to express them. That just fits in with the template imposed on your family by the mentally ill grandma. You have to talk about their current beliefs, let them talk about them, and gently contrast them with the kind and generous way you live your lives, and the way other religious but not mentally ill people live their lives. Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus washing a prostitute's feet, let those among us who are without sin cast the first stone (I guess you would have to explain execution by stoning for that one, so that might be tough). You might try to explain free will, and why you and your family members making their own choices what to believe is important to you, as long as they don't use religion to hurt or demean other people like their mentally ill grandmother does. You might explore the Salem witch trials, and how all those innocent people were condemned to death because of hysteria like their grandmothers'. I feel pretty certain I'm reinventing the wheel here, and a better googling Metafilter member could find an article or book on how to bring your children out of the trance they have been lured into by their mentally ill grandmother.

Others above have suggested exposing them to other religions. You might talk to a rabbi about this. They tend to have the big picture about how evangelical christian religions go wrong sometimes. (Note: I am not Jewish, have not studied Judaism, just know a large number of Jewish people and have read a lot, so YMMV.) You can always find a Mormon to come to your house and explain how their religion is the one true religion, and they baptize dead Non-Mormons so they can get to Mormon heaven. (Note: I am not Mormon, have not studied Mormonism, just know many Mormons, and have allowed Mormon missionaries' conversion attempts out of curiosity, so YMMV.) You could get some devout Catholics, of whom there are many, to explain the positive, life-affirming aspects of the Roman Catholic faith, and how the church now focuses on the New Testament ("the Good News"), rather than the "eye for an eye" old testament. (Note: I was raised Catholic, the church considers me a lapsed Catholic, I consider myself an ex-Catholic, and am personally aware how Catholicism can be used by mentally ill or just abusive people to harm children or otherwise vulnerable persons. YMMV.) These three religions are (generally) family-positive, emphasize forgiveness and reprieve (to different degrees and in different ways), and encourage people to be kind, generous, good neighbors and good friends and community members. What does that look like? The opposite of an evil grandmother trying to hit her daughter and screaming hateful false things at her in front of her children as she flees to avoid further abuse.

I'm about where you are on religion at this time. Your kids are not. If you are able to "study" religion with them, and what good it can do and how it can be misused, maybe you can bring them out of this indoctrination. I have revealed more about myself than I otherwise would in hopes you can show them grandmother's way of living and dying is not the one true way, billions of other people believe there are other, better ways.
posted by KayQuestions at 4:42 PM on January 4

My thoughts
  • Do not under any circumstances talk down to your children, especially about the beliefs they currently hold. That will only make them more reluctant to share things with you.
  • If they repeat a belief you disagree with, ask them about it. Ask them why they feel that way. Ask them what they think the consequence of that belief is. Ask them what they think other people might believe. Allow them to explore alternate 'what if' scenarios. Introduce ideas, but allow them to adopt them at their own pace.
  • Be firm about unacceptable behavior (e.g. displays of sexism, racism, etc.), but make sure they understand why it's unacceptable (e.g. it harms other people).
  • Be honest and upfront about your own beliefs and why you feel the way you do. Children will appreciate being approached as equals, and being allowed the space and environment that allows them to change their own minds. Their grandmother almost assuredly did not offer the same benefit and used her perceived authority to scare them or manipulate them into their current beliefs. Approaching them from the same angle will likely backfire.
  • If you're unable to set boundaries with their grandmother in regards to their upbringing that she'll respect, I think it's appropriate to curtail the time spent with her and anyone who might also try to indoctrinate your kids against your wishes.

posted by Aleyn at 4:48 PM on January 4 [5 favorites]

I grew up and was raised in the LDS church, and I'm thinking that's the religion we are talking about here. My parent's were strict and bought into the "true church" bit so much that there was no other alternative. I did have a close friend who was Catholic and there were a few times that I attended church with her. Attending another denomination only made me double down on my own belief that the LDS church was true. Friend's church was foreign and new and I attributed my feelings of discomfort of attending a new church to that church not being true. I do not agree that taking the children to another church/denomination would help them see things differently and it would instead perhaps make them double down on the LDS church being the true church and anyone who doesn't subscribe to that belief system is going to hell.

Another difficult angle to remember, as well, is the "Families Can Be Together Forever" bit that is shoved down our throats since we were babies. The church seems to revolve around this and this is a big selling point. It starts in Nursery class - where children 18 months - 3 years have "class" and simple lessons about the church are taught. There is a church hymn titled "Families Can Be Together Forever" that you learn in Primary (ages 3-12). Lessons revolve around this concept. This is drilled into our heads. But here's the thing: It comes with conditions! Your family will only be together forever if everyone in the family are worthy members who have gotten married/sealed in the temple and raised righteous children, while enduring to the end keeping all of your temple covenants. This requires being active in the church, paying 10% of your income forever, and doing whatever is asked of you. If you do not live up to that then you very well may not be together with your family forever.

I am betting that these kids were taught by gramma about eternal families and the importance of doing all the church (not just any church, but the LDS church) asks or else they won't be able to be with their family. Not only that, whoever isn't on the LDS bandwagon will be sent to outer darkness cut off from their families for eternity. I am betting that these kids are terrified that their family is not forever due to the kids not being baptized, the parents not being sealed in the temple, not going to church, etc. and the kids have the extremely heavy burden of being missionaries and saviors to their own parents to bring them back to the church so that you all can be an eternal family.

I may have a different perspective than others since I was raised this way and continue to hear about it (I'm 45 years old) from my own parents who are still active in the church. Their fear is real and they spread it around to anyone not living up to the church's standards and the fear is contagious. If the kids are also hearing similar things at school since they are in an LDS condensed area, they are still being exposed to the rhetoric.

I'd get your kids in therapy - not LDS based therapy! I'd also have some frank conversations with them about the nature of God. Do they believe that God loves them? If God loves them, does that mean he also wants them to be happy? Does being with their family make them happy? If so, doesn't that then mean that God would want them to be with their family? Why would God take away their family if that made the kids sad? Would God do that?

You might also want to look into street epistemology. While you don't have to have deep questioning conversations with the kids, you could at least get the hang of ways to direct conversations so that the kids can be reflective and learn how to be critical thinkers.

I really do think that their continued beliefs are probably stemming from the eternal families thing. It's a hard one to overcome and more so for children whose identities and feelings of safety are through the family unit. Having that at stake is probably pretty terrifying for them.

Good for keeping Gramma out of the picture - please ensure that she's not somehow sneaking in and continuing to "teach" the kids (secret phone calls? visits at the school/elsewhere/with other family?).

If the kids are adamant about attending church, you might try that with them. The main part is Sacrament meeting and that can be long and boring. Maybe that's just what they need - to experience the absolute boredom of going to church. The kids' classes are usually more interactive and happen after Sacrament meeting (and where they'd get a lot of eternal family talk) but not sure if that's happening due to the pandemic. You could always skip that part though and just stick with Sacrament. Then, come home and discuss what you heard/were taught and course correct as necessary. "Sister Jones said we can't swim/shop/play on Sundays because it's breaking the Sabbath!" Then discuss this claim with them. Show them where it says to honor the Sabbath but nowhere does it say that means no swimming/shopping/playing and that Sister Jones saying that was only saying what she thought was true and it was in fact not true. Sister Jones was wrong. If they can understand that people can be mistaken or interpret things incorrectly, then maybe they'd be up for a conversation about what Gramma taught and that hey, maybe Gramma interpreted some stuff wrong. Maybe Gramma doesn't know everything.

I wish you luck. And I hope you're able to get the kids straightened out.
posted by Sassyfras at 4:53 PM on January 4 [23 favorites]

I'd like to also recommend Unitarian Universalism. If the kids are thinking big thoughts about hell and what it means to be a good person, and they are stuck on the answers given to them by insidious sneaky grandma, give them something else to think about, show them that there is more than one way to look at the world and faith, and that they can find their own truth. (It might be helpful to your wife also.) That's what UU is all about. Good luck.
posted by molasses at 5:24 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

Now that Grandma's out of the picture, see if you and your wife can turn down the temperature around religion. For example, instead of No Religion Talk, when a kid says "bad people go to hell," ask questions, like "Wow! Tell me about that. Why do you think that's true?" And let them tell you. And then say, "You know, I really don't believe in hell. If I believed in a god, I just can't think why a god would want to torture people," or something. Be honest.

Talk about when you were and she were kids, and how you decided religion didn't make sense to you. But also tell them you know not everyone feels the same way and that's ok. You won't be mad if they believe. Apologize for being so strict. Emphasize that they can choose, they can pray if they want to.

Kids love stories. The more stories you and their mom can tell them about ways you thought about big concepts when you were small, and how you came to be happy where you are, the more you connect.

Hug them and love them and be there for them. Give them an example of how you don't need church to be good people. They'll figure it out, whether they end up atheist or not.
posted by emjaybee at 6:22 PM on January 4 [6 favorites]

- another yes! for family Unitarian congregation worship. Best case scenario.

- Bible study is good, but starts to make more sense around ages 12/13 when critical faculties emerge. Before that, some emphasis on New Testament Gospels is good.

- a qualified no for therapy. When I was young I would Not like being in a room with a stranger who asked me personal questions about my thoughts & feelings. There are situations where youth therapy is needed and helpful, but these situations should be weighed carefully..
posted by ovvl at 6:27 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I was also suspecting LDS from this one, specifically because it sounds like most of everyone in the town goes to the same church. Ah....would you consider moving somewhere where The Church doesn't dominate everything? I know that's hard to ask, but if the kids are STILL getting The Church stuff from their classmates and their overall society, it's going to be hard to exterminate. It sounds like it's still going on even in a more diverse background.

Also, these are little kids who have been told they are going to hell, their mommy is going to hell, etc. This is extremely hard to argue with emotionally with small children. Especially if Mommy and Daddy are outnumbered in their world by many churchgoing people.

Beyond that, I suspect the "you can't beat 'em, join 'em....the UU's, that is" answer some others gave might be your best bet if you're not going to leave The Church area.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:16 PM on January 4 [8 favorites]

I guess I'm in the minority after reading through the other responses, but I am a person who converted hard to evangelical Christianity for about 7 years between the ages of 13-20, and after that became an atheist, and I would not take your kids to any church anymore. Not even the Unitarians. No doubt your MIL has already poisoned them on most of these, and although maybe they could go there and see that it's not as bad as grandma says, they might just double down. Or they might just be confused because UU kinda leans into everything/nothing is true. Anyway, they don't need the ritual -- that's not why kids like church.

They're still so young. Enroll them in some clubs, give them a sense of belonging that church does -- Girl Scouts, sports, whatever they're interested in, as soon as it's safe or via Zoom or whatever. They'll forget about it. Their last memory of grandma will be her screaming at their mother and making her upset. They won't associate that with good things after a while.

My fear is that if you introduce the Bible or other Christian-based religions then you're just telling them Grandma is kind of right, and if she's kind of right, why is that so bad? They know Christianity is out there and will have plenty of exposure from the culture -- there's no need to bring it into your house.
posted by possibilityleft at 7:16 PM on January 4 [6 favorites]

Apologies up front if you didn't want to specify the religion...

As others have said, going nuclear can lead to the backfire effect. You don't need to worry about them staying with the church long term. When they are older you can show them the rosetta stone and how it shows that somebody that claimed to be able to translate didn't actually know how to translate Egyptian. (or for others reading this and are curious for themselves, the CES letter is a pretty difficult document to read and justify these particular beliefs).

I don't agree with others about the need to go to another church. Studying other faiths, however, big YES. Nothing makes an atheist like learning about religion. Epistomology, and the rationalization for belief is also great. Explain the scientific method and explain that praying and receiving positive feelings is not a great way to justify beliefs because different people can come to different conclusions.

You could also try the reddit forum for ex-members for a more inside perspective.

Oh, and quitting the church was the best choice I ever made. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I'm so much happier now.
posted by jeffmilner at 7:31 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry your family is going through this. You're getting a lot of good suggestions here, I'll add something offbeat:

You know who had a really cool religion? The ancient Egyptians! My interest in archaeology was sparked almost solely through the Isis cartoon series on Saturday mornings. Your kids are the perfect age for it, AND it is available on Amazon. Learning about other religions (plenty of good kid-friendly movies and shows about the Greeks and Romans) was my initial stepping stone to secularism, and no one can argue that mythology is awesome.

Another really cool religion is SUNDAY BRUNCH, and I highly recommend "Cinnamon Roll Sunday" or similar.

My mom (RIP) was a staunch Southern Baptist and we spoke every Sunday. "Did you go to church, Cindy?"

"No, Mama. But I went to brunch."

Good luck to you all.
posted by cyndigo at 8:22 PM on January 4 [4 favorites]

You're describing a busy, stressful timeline for anyone, and your stepchildren are so young. In the span of a few years, their mom left a terrible, abusive marriage; they moved into a crowded, multi-generational, religiously-observant household (with Grandma as the primary caregiver, this was a different kind of trauma from what they witnessed or experienced first-hand with their biological father); and now they're living with mom, step-parent, and two step-siblings in a non-religious home in an area that skews very religious. (And Mom's extended family is not in their lives.) Are the four kids close in age? How are your biological children handling being in the minority w/r/t religion in their peer group?

Of course the seven-year-old is thrilled to hear he has special powers, because he doesn't have much in the way of ordinary powers. You describe your eldest stepdaughter as a POC (which reads as, she differs from her brother and maternal family-of-origin in that respect), when relating how odd you find her interest in this religion (as it didn't welcome POC until the '70s). If she's one of handful of POCs locally, then embracing this (patriarchal) belief system is not primarily about pushing against the new household's rules, or missing Grandma. (Despite your excellent decision to distance your family from your in-laws, Gran may be popping up anyway, if your community is small, or your wife's siblings have kids in the same school district, or there are enough religious-minded folk around you invested in Grandma's "save the grandkids" narrative.) The nine-year-old isn't driven solely by religious devotion, either. It is a survival tactic.

We're not really sure what to do at this point - this type of thing brings up every major negative trigger in my wife (the church and her mother) and we are both just super disappointed that the kids are still thinking this way. I realize they are kids and that grandma and the church are comforting to them, but it's becoming very distressing for their mother.

Please don't be disappointed in these children when they're distressed, too. Your wife has had a good experience with therapy herself; I hope you're both open to family counseling, too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:07 PM on January 4 [5 favorites]

the background is incomprehensible to a person not enmeshed in and already tolerant of this abusive dynamic. the way the children continued to be sent off to see these horribly abusive people after they & your wife escaped them? the way you talk about asserting a "boundary" re: the children as though the grandparents' abuse of your wife was not a pre-existing violation of a boundary she already had for herself?

anyway, you moved past that. then this:

confronted the 7 year old - he doubled down and said he knows the church is true and told my wife "You just don't understand. You are wrong and I'm sad you are going to hell." We had to put our foot down and tell him that this was inappropriate in many ways and that it needed to stop. He stopped talking about it and we assumed this was resolved.

things I do not understand in this paragraph:
1. "confronting" a small child
2. a small child "doubl[ing] down"
3. telling a small child that an enormous metaphysical question of right and wrong, heaven and hell, and most importantly true and false, was a simple question of manners, of "appropriateness."
4. the idea that what a child of any age is not speaking, they are not thinking.

what I think you must do:
1. find an age-appropriate and natural way to speak clearly and honestly with a young child without any of this extremely adult-jargon framework poisoning the atmosphere or the parental interpretations
3. affirm to the children that they have liberty of conscience and the duty to use it, and that while the boy has done some things wrong, he is doing one thing right: which is holding fast to what he believes in the face of overwhelming pressure from authority. affirm this to yourself first if you're not clear on it -- if you're serious about only adults having the freedom to believe what they like.

he is not, however, at liberty to behave abusively to other persons in the household, and so hateful (misogynist) insults and declarations are forbidden just as serious violence is. you may have to wait until he gets a little further into the age of reason to argue him out of his belief that being a boy makes him God's special superior pet. long before then, however, you can forbid him to express that belief in offensive ways. and it just so happens that all ways of expressing the first belief are offensive. In our house, boys and girls are equal. in our house we don't tell our sisters they're inferior (or our brothers that they're superior). not because it is not appropriate, but because it is false and shameful.

you may choose to add that in our house, we don't tell our parents they're hellbound. but this is not a rude word he's repeating, this is the most terrifying fear a child could have, worse than being afraid his parents are about to die. he is wrong but it isn't his fault he's wrong. he must be patiently, repeatedly, and kindly corrected.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:41 PM on January 4 [22 favorites]

Disclaimer: I was raised by two non-believing parents and got baptized Catholic at the age of 8-ish at my own request though the rest of my circumstances was very different so I won't include it here.

Your children being told that their parents were destined to hell was spiritual abuse.
Your stepdaughter and stepson being told that women were inferior to men was, if not abusive, at the very least seriously hurtful.

I think your children need to heal.
I would not take them to church or read the Bible with them right now, if you yourselves are not believers. If they were teenagers, maybe - but at this age, no. Instead, I second the advice to talk to them about what they believe, and what you believe. Truth is powerful. Talk to them about love, about justice, about equality, about humility. Draw their attention to what is beautiful. In a certain kind of church there is so much talk about sin, and the badness of human nature. Give them some spiritual fresh air. Listen to them and do not shut them up, talk to them as you would to an adult you respected.

It's possible that they miss the sense of community the church provided but also some of the depth. These are real human needs but you can show them that they can find the community and the depth outside of this (toxic) church. If you are not members of any faith I wouldn't take them to any other church. You have the right to model your own values and if you are not a member yourself you might involuntarily expose them to some teaching you very much disagree with, again.

If your community is very strongly steeped in this church's culture, I would very seriously consider taking your family out of this environment. What messages are they hearing at school, from their friends, during other activities? Do they still hear that boys are more special than girls, that it's the kids' job to convert their parents, that being a believer is normal and not being a church member is an exception? Is there an unspoken belief that POC or women are not meant for leadership positions?

It won't be practical during COVID times but I'd look for ways to spend time as a family with friends who share your values, and around kids whose parents share your values.

If you live in a very religious environment you are up against very strong currents and honestly, I would go as far as moving.
posted by M. at 3:20 AM on January 5 [5 favorites]

An important part of these types of religious groups (growing up in a family that had these types of values) is that children are taught this is a war of life or death and or it is absolutely terrifying for the child to have different people telling them things when a trusted adult figure is telling them they will die. And importantly, these belief systems tell the child that people against these belief systems are proof of the war. It is not going to be ignored, your kids naturally want to live. The dynamic is pitting you against your childrens will to live and desire for an afterlife. These questions are super abstract. Your children don't have the developmental capability yet to really analyze these beliefs, and it is providing reassurance for things that they are noticing like the reality of death.

So first, you are going to have to tell them that different beliefs are okay. You are going to have to reassure them that they aren't going to die, and that they are going to go to heaven, and your going to have to do this over and over and over again. You are going to let them have their own expression of beliefs. It is going to have to be permitted in your household.

I do think you need to find some sort of church. I recommend spending some time with different religious groups of different faiths and learning about all the expression of religion in the world.

I also recommend asking your children what they want, and if they want a baptism or other religious expression going with it because you do need to avoid the us vs them dynamic as much as possible.

Good news is that religious beliefs aren't set in stone, and kids do believe lots of things at this age that will have little importance to the outcome of their spirituality long term.

The most important thing you can do is question their thoughts and have then articulate where they learned things or why they think it's true. Help them develop critical thinking skills. Also provide tons of reassurance that you both love them. It may help to articulate reasons why grandmother isn't involved that isn't directly religious related. Like Grandmother says you're mom doesn't love you, and that's a lie. That will be easier to refute and less likely to run into those religious dynamics.

I think therapy is going to be a part of this. I can tell you that my experience in leaving those belief systems didn't fully resolve until well into my 20s and sometimes I still experience a deep fear of what leaving those spaces meant. I definately have triggers in those spaces. I really really feel for your spouse. I have lots of ptsd related to the religious upbringing and subsequent control and also my emotional feelings about all of it. I also spent a good portion of my childhood in those spaces.I have no idea how I would cope with this situation, but I can tell you that reinforcement of us vs them dynamic will not be helpful for your children right now.

I'm willing to discuss my experience further via pm if you would like. I think that's enough for my answer to this on its own.

Take gentle care, and you both are taking huge steps by cutting off contact and moving forward the best you can. This is progress even if it is so so so hard right now.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:39 AM on January 5 [4 favorites]

I echo the first response from fukiyama. I can't find the video now, but in an interview, the magician Penn Jillette was asked how he became an atheist. He was raised in a Christian family and attended Sunday school. He said when he was in his early teens, he read the Bible. Three times. That's what turned him into an atheist.

He adds that he continued to go to Sunday school and ask probing questions. The minister eventually went to his family and asked that Jillette not attend anymore: his questions were upsetting the other students.

For myself, I was not raised in a particularly religious family. It really wasn't a topic of conversation. But American's live in a largely Christian society and I had believers as friends, so in my teens, I became more interested. Then my interest expanded to other religions, to philosophy, and I eventually concluded that many people believed many things and there was no method to find the right belief.

Now I am an out-of-the-closet atheist and I've lived most of my adult life in the Old South, where church is a very important part of most peoples lives. When new friends learn I'm an atheist, they're astounded. How could I find hope to live? How could I make moral choices? I've learned not to enter into these conversations. It becomes a talk without sharing any a priory foundations and is meaningless to both parties. Like a Mormon missionary knocking on the door of the Vatican, to make a hyperbolic simile.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:41 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]

As someone who was horribly abused by a grandparent for years, who had a mother who glossed over it all...

It would have done me a world of good to hear, as a child, in unequivocal and definite terms:


She lied to you. She lied, because she's very sick with an illness that makes her need to lie. That's why we don't see Grandma any more, because she's sick and she lies and it hurts people, and we (your parents) are not going to let her hurt you anymore.

Hearing that - and being removed from the possibility of having Grandma hurt me anymore - it might've made the difference in my mental health that could've saved me 20-30 years of recovery time. (That estimate comes from looking at the lives of the cousins who were protected from my Grandmother by their parents.)

Just my perspective.
posted by WaywardPlane at 7:42 AM on January 5 [14 favorites]

Another vote for Unitarian Universalism or something like it, and warriorqueen's advice of not making this into a right v. wrong debate with them (draw a hard line against racism/sexism, not belief in God). If you haven't already, I'd make it clear that you've cut grandma out not because she's religious, but because she's cruel to their mother.

I was raised atheist, but I went through a "Christian phase" in elementary school thanks to some born again Christian kids that lived on my block. And well, I hated the fact that everyone in my school either went to church or temple every week. While I grew up to be an individualist oddball, as a kid, man did I just want to conform and be like every other religious family.

My parents were also a bit alarmed by my born-again "conversion" but this was their response: my dad (who in his counterculture days spent years on ashram) taught me about Buddhism, and my mom took to me to a few Unitarian and Quaker meetings. Which is to say, they took my quest for a spiritual anchor/identity as a child seriously. And it worked- I proceeded to go through a number of other "spiritual phases" and by high school considered myself atheist. So I agree with those saying that you should take them to at least one church, and maybe do a little religion 101 with them. They will likely outgrow where they are now.

Also, since I also got the sense you were talking about might want to look into the Ordain Women org and teach them about that recent history, as a way of addressing the sexism bit.
posted by coffeecat at 7:50 AM on January 5 [3 favorites]

You guys are great parents; your love for your kids really shines through in your post. It sounds rough and you have my sympathy. I just want to second going to a UU church. My story is similar to coffeecat's above and the positive impact the UU church had on my life as a teenager cannot be overstated. You get all of the good parts of a traditional Christian church -- the caring community of like-minded folks, the rituals of service and song, more informal shared rituals like coffee and snacks after service, youth groups and 'lock-ins', etc. -- without the toxic dogma.

Everyone is welcome and respected, including atheists like myself, as long you are also down with the shared principles of compassion, equality, justice and human rights. It's basically the polar opposite of what they've getting from their grandmother without rejecting the idea of religion altogether. And kind of a one-stop shop for the whole "find your own path to spiritual truth and meaning, taking inspiration and lessons from multiple faiths."

I volunteered in the childrens programs; they were so fun and the lesson plan/activities often involved teaching kids about other religious beliefs and practices outside of Christianity. Here are the principles in kid-friendly language:

One caveat is there is a good chance that your local UU church is really white, so in addition, you might want to get involved in a liberal religious community where your stepdaughter can see herself represented a little better.
posted by thewrongparty at 9:06 AM on January 5

I sort of like the idea of using the Bible to counteract grandma's narcissism. I would also look for a nearby church of almost any denomination with a non-aggressive attitude toward new people (i.e. not actively recruiting every soul within range), hopefully with a youth pastor willing to listen to your situation and have a talk with your children. Present him or her as the authority of the message of love in the Bible, not as a tool of hate. (I am NOT religious at all).
posted by kschang at 12:05 PM on January 5

I'm a UU myself, but I might actually encourage you to consider going to a church that's more paradigmatically Christian rather than fundamentally humanist (as the UUs basically are.) I would worry that the UU experience would be so far removed from what your kids have already experienced that they would simply view them as two different and unrelated things, rather than drawing on their new experiences to revise their old ways of thinking.

If you're open to a church where they will actually talk about God in ways that will seem more familiar to your kids, you might consider a church from a denomination on the "Christian left". Examples would probably include Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ. (Of course, particular congregations may vary, so you might want to get a feel for a particular church before committing to it.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:15 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]

I think you and your wife will have to have some sort of narrative beyond "all religion is evil" or "religion is a forbidden topic in this house." For instance you might want to have conversations that point out...
-religion has been very important to many people throughout history
-Greek/ Roman mythologies make interesting stories
-historically religion has been used to explain scientific phenomena (e.g. why we have winter)
-even the religions that people still practice today were founded a long time ago when people didn't know as much as we know now
-even now, we don't know everything, but we do know [core household values]
-there are many different ways to be religious/ spiritual
-we do not see your grandma anymore, because it is not safe
-your parents plan on living on this planet for a long time yet, so there's no need to worry now about what happens after death
-there is plenty of time for you to formally join a religious organization when you are older
-for now we expect that household members keep an open mind and respect our family's core values
posted by oceano at 1:01 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]

Do you have any adult friends that are part of the same religion but are less extreme than your MIL to set a better example? This wouldn't work for every denomination, but if it is LDS, well...most people I know who are LDS don't go around telling children to tell people that non-Mormons are going to hell or even subscribe to the mainstream idea of hell at all. They also tend to rate pretty highly the acts of treating people kindly and seeing the good in others, perhaps even especially if they're not yet part of the church.

If it's anything more mainstream than LDS, then there's a good chance there's an even wider spectrum within the community. If it's anything on the more culty side, probably best to steer clear as much as possible.
posted by lampoil at 1:07 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]

Hi there, I'm responding to this question as a woman who:

- was raised by religious parents
- raised my children in said religion
- went through an ugly divorce when my kids were 10 & 11
- left religion during/through this process

And whose children, now 16 & 17, identify as undecided and atheist respectively.

There's a lot going on here, but first of all:

These kids have been through an incomprehensible amount of trauma and change in 2-3 short years. Abuse in their childhood home, abuse from their grandmother/extended family, parental divorce, a new step-parent, step-siblings, two entirely new living is a wonder they aren't acting out in myriad other ways. These little people have been through A LOT and they deserve sympathy, kindness and patience.

Two lines that stood out to me were:

this type of thing brings up every major negative trigger in my wife


anger/frustration at the kids for hurting their mother knowingly

Your wife has been through a lot too, but for crying out loud, the kids are not HURTING HER KNOWINGLY! They are 9 & 7 years old! Way too young to be ascribed malice in their behaviour. They are confused and traumatized and they need support.

My advice:
1. Your wife should be in active therapy for herself. Specifically she should work on dealing with her own trauma so she is not triggered by the words/actions of her young children.
2. Do everything you can to support her so she can properly support her kids
3. The kids should be going to therapy as well. Find an excellent family therapist; they may choose to work with the kids individually and/or with one or both of you. These kids have lots of emotions to process.

As for religion: recognize that indoctrinated religious beliefs are real beliefs. It's VERY confusing for children to be raised in religion and then suddenly be told those beliefs are false. How are they to process that? When I left religion, my eldest developed anxieties about the afterlife that lingered for years. And my 16 year old still isn't sure what she believes - and that's ok. What these kids need is patience, time, and (this will sound harsh, sorry) stable parents who aren't triggered by their kids. I have sympathy for your wife, but her kids have been through SO MUCH in the past few years and she needs to be a lot more patient with them. Going nuclear would be the completely wrong response.
posted by yawper at 2:18 PM on January 5 [12 favorites]

For you this is a convoluted history of abuse and trauma that explains what is happening, but for your kids.... they don't have the tools yet to understand any of that. To them this is something that was HUGELY important to the most dominant adult in their life, and even though it's causing anger and fear it's still HUGELY important to the dominant adults in their life.

Even mentioning this topic has an immediate impact on their surroundings. That's soooo powerful for a little kid! That's why they'll suddenly decide to yell out "FUCK" during a quiet dinner. Knowing this has so much power in their lives must be intense for them.

It would be helpful for you to separate the powerfulness of it and the indoctrination. If you and your wife were casually "oh no thank you" about this topic I doubt it would have nearly the hold it does. Honestly I don't think you can achieve this alone, considering your wife's trauma and wanting to go "nuclear" on a 7 year old, and I would absolutely look into family therapy.
posted by Dynex at 4:57 PM on January 5

I really don't get all these discussions of pros and cons of different churches, reading the Bible, etc.

Let's start with the "putting on oxygen masks" stage here: your children have been severely traumatized and abused and they need therapy. Go directly to therapy. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
posted by medusa at 8:47 PM on January 5 [8 favorites]

I am stunned and disappointed in the amount of guessing advice here. Your children were abused. They need a therapist, preferably 2 or 3 years ago. This is a health issue that needs to be treated by a professional, not by strangers on the internet. Any other advice besides 'seek medical attention' is dangerous. Do not introduce them to other churches. Do not adopt the abusive language of "special powers" for other areas of your life. You've mad some terrible, though uninformed, decisions in how to handle the grandmother in the past that has done real and lasting harm to the children, and need to stop as soon as possible. Neither you, nor anyone on this site, are qualified to make decisions regarding how to treat abuse.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:21 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]

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