Guest blogger Bonnie Harris answers this question from a concerned parent and reader:
Q. What do you say to a son who says he doesn't believe in God? We are a family who goes to church often, talks about doing good to and for others, and tries to instill proper values and ethics in the lives of our children.
At dinner the other night, while conversing, our 14-year-old son dropped this bombshell that he was going to choose to be an atheist. It upset both my husband and me to the point where we sent him to his room to reflect on all he has to be thankful for.
He is of a pretty calm and kind nature, so this really disappointed us and upset us. Is there something we could say and/or do to make him understand that God is important!?
A. Your son is demonstrating his growing independence. It is important that you honor that while at the same time maintaining a relationship with him that he will always want to gain love, support, and influence from.
It is his attachment to you and your family that will keep him safe, self-assured, and strong in the face of growing peer dominance. If you punish him for what he believes or what he says he believes, you are putting that relationship at risk.
At 14, you can no longer convince him to believe as you do or make him understand what you believe is right or important. He has his own mind, sees others believing differently and now knows that he can too. Let him know that you admire his independent thinking even though you believe differently.
I would acknowledge that you know that not everyone believes in God and many have different gods than yours — as well as how important your belief has been to you. When we put others down for believing differently than we do, we foster bigotry. Your son could find that as further reason to not believe especially if he is punished (being sent to his room) for his disbelief. In other words, you could be sending him further down the path you least want him to take.
One does not have to believe in God to be humble, grateful, kind, helpful and respectful of others. He will take his values and ethics from you regardless of what he believes. It is important that you uphold those values by honoring his right to think differently. If you let him know that you understand he is struggling with important philosophical thinking, and you are open to discussing his quandaries with him, he will listen.
When you let him know that you do not and will not approve of his decision to believe differently, he will no longer seek your advice. This is an important milestone for all of you.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at Connective Parenting.