Care and Feeding

My 7-Year-Old’s Best Friend Won’t Stop Proselytizing

Can I tell him to stop?

A young boy whispering in the ear of another young boy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are both non-religious, but we were both raised in Christian households. We have chosen to raise our children without religion. My 7-year-old’s best friend’s parents don’t feel the same, however. They are Mormon and are fairly devout. My problem is this kid is REALLY pushy with his religion. Pretty much every time they spend time together this kid is trying to teach mine about a Bible story or giving him religious presents or talking about how Jesus loves him.

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We have talked to our son about how people believe different things that we don’t, but lately he has been asking questions about the Bible, or why we don’t go to church more often. To be clear, I don’t blame my son’s friend. I know Mormons typically teach their kids to proselytize to others, and the boy isn’t really old enough to know better. But I don’t really want my son to learn these things. I don’t want him to be religious, honestly. I want him to learn that you should be a good person and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because God will punish you if you don’t.

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I did briefly reach out to this boy’s parents, but I’m not close to them, and they didn’t seem interested in stopping the proselytizing. I don’t want to stop him from spending time with this friend, but I don’t really want my son to get some of these religious ideas in his head so young. My husband agrees with me, but I talked to my (moderately religious) sister about it, and she thinks I should just let it go and accept that he will be exposed to religion. I have considered talking to this kid about it, but I am concerned that that would be inappropriate since I’m not his parent, and therefore shouldn’t really be interfering with his religious upbringing. I am torn, please help!

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—Don’t Preach to My Kid, Kid

Dear Don’t Preach,

I’m completely on your side here. There’s nothing wrong with your son learning about other religions, but I wouldn’t be happy with anyone—kid or not—trying to make my children follow a certain religion.

What your sister would do is irrelevant—she’s not raising your child. All that matters is that you’re in agreement with your husband. And you have every right to say something to your son’s friend if he’s preaching to your son. If his friend said, “You should run across this busy street with me. It would be fun,” would you think, “I don’t know…it’s not my place to intervene because I’m not his parent”? No, you would step in immediately. The same rule applies in any instance that relates to what’s best for your child.

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I think it’s fine to tell the kid that you don’t want to hear any talk about salvation, Jesus, the Bible, or anything else while he’s playing with your son, and that if it continues, then playtime is over. Also, I would coach your son to say the same thing to the kid. If his friend won’t stop talking about religion, then you need to show how serious you are by ending the playdate right then and there. If it comes to that, then I would reach out to his parents to explain how you don’t feel comfortable with your son taking part in those conversations at his age. They may get offended, but if they’re reasonable, they should fall in line.

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The bottom line is everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe, but that doesn’t mean they have to push those beliefs on your family.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When is the right time to talk about suicide with kids? My kids are 11, 9, and 5. My 24-year-old niece has always struggled with mental illness (bipolar disorder). Ninety-eight percent of the time she’s fine, has a good job, college degree, and can function normally, but occasionally she stops taking her medication and goes into a major depressive spiral. Two months ago she attempted suicide. It felt like it came out of nowhere. She survived but had some complications and she’s still in the hospital (and should be getting out sometime next month if all goes well). My kids love their cousin and miss her a lot. Prior to this she babysat them at least once a week. They asked why we haven’t seen her, and I lied and said she was sick. I feel like I owe them a deeper explanation, especially to my 11-year-old who doesn’t understand why we can’t visit her if she’s sick. How do I explain this to kids?

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—Suicide Talk

Dear Suicide,

I can speak to this firsthand because I almost took my own life in 2017. At the time, my kids were 6 and 4, and I chose not to talk to them about it then—mostly because I was ashamed for even considering such a thing, but also because I don’t think they would understand the depths of it. Now that my girls are 10 and almost 8, and I have a better grasp on mental illness due to the years of therapy since my failed suicide attempt, I feel comfortable talking to them about it candidly.

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I’ve told them that I have an issue with my brain that makes me feel “super sad” at times, and just like a broken arm, if I don’t take care of it, the problem will get worse. I tell them that in the case of my mental illness (depression), my neglecting things made the problem so bad that I almost took my own life. Predictably, a ton of questions from my kiddos followed. I informed them that it’s not their fault that I have this issue; that I’m taking care of the issue now so it won’t happen again; and most importantly that I want them to be open with me about their mental health, especially if they ever feel like they’re in as dark place as I was.

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The big difference between my situation and yours is that your niece’s story isn’t yours to tell. I’m a unicorn in the sense that I’m a Black man who’s open about my mental illness, but the vast majority of people in my shoes don’t roll like that. Attempted suicide is an incredibly personal thing that can be twisted in all kinds of ways if we allow others to tell our stories.

If I were you, and if you feel like your niece is in a stable place mentally and emotionally, I’d talk to your niece first to see if it’s OK for you to tell your kids the truth about her situation. If she decides to open up herself, that’s great—but I wouldn’t count on it due to the stigma around suicide. In the event that she wants to be the one to share what happened, I would have her deliver a dry-run of the script by you first to ensure she delivers the news in a way that’s as palatable and appropriate as possible for your kids. Granted, she doesn’t have kids, so she may need some coaching from you in that regard. When the time comes to have the real conversation with your kids, you should be present to observe.

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If she says no, then you can refer to the general talking points I used with my kids as far as introducing them to the concept of suicide (I think more parents should talk about this issue, not less) without getting into specifics about your niece. I would say that she’s going through a personal matter and we have to respect her privacy right now—and when she’s ready, you can see her. End of discussion.

Additionally, your kids can continue to give your niece love from a distance. Zoom calls, handwritten letters, etc. can go a long way to showing her how many people care about her.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m currently a stay-at-home mom, and I have an 18-month-old whom I love more than anything. I am so afraid he is going to be hurt in some random mass killing after the pandemic is over. I can’t tell if this fear is rational or if I’m paranoid. How can I truly protect him from gun violence in this country? Move somewhere else? Homeschool? Chill out? I’d love some perspective.

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—Terrified of Guns

Dear Terrified,

I get it. I’m as anti-gun of a person that you’ll find in America, and I’m completely disgusted by our nation’s obsession with firearms and the mass shootings that seem to happen weekly. I’m not going to get on my soapbox about it here, though.

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How can you protect your precious baby boy from gun violence? Sadly, you really can’t, if you want to live a somewhat normal life. It can happen at church, schools, movie theaters, supermarkets, you name it. In other words, if you go out in public, it can happen to you. You could move to a different country, and that would solve many of your gun violence concerns—but as long as you stay here in America, it will always be an issue. To keep things in perspective, however, there are way more responsible gun owners out there than reckless ones.

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You probably—rationally—already know this, however, which is why I think it’s important for you to discuss this with your OB/GYN, primary care doctor, or a therapist if these intrusive thoughts are constant or debilitating. It’s not uncommon for women to experience this type of anxiety post-partum, and your healthcare providers may be able to offer guidance on how to better manage your fears.

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If you feel like these thoughts are manageable from a mental health perspective, and this is a concern that still keeps you up at night, I would direct your energy toward making changes in your community. Vote for politicians locally and nationally who believe in sensible gun laws, rally people in your community who feel the same way you do, volunteer with a group like Moms Demand Action, and continue to share your message about ending gun violence to as many people who will listen. In doing so, you’re setting the example for your son to fight for change instead of running away when things get difficult.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was the only Indian kid (and one of the few Asian kids) in the small Midwestern town where I grew up. I was always taught by my immigrant parents to keep my head down and not cause trouble even when other kids said racist things to me because “everything would blow over.” Now, I live with my husband and daughter in a far more diverse area on the West Coast, because I never wanted her to go through the years of bullying I went through.

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She’s in ninth grade and is thriving, and she was super excited to join an Asian students’ group at her school. The club seems to be really great, and after the horrific hate crimes on East and Southeast Asians, they were planning on holding a student forum to talk about the history of racism towards East and Southeast Asians in the United States. The problem is, my daughter is upset that South Asians weren’t included. She says that even though we aren’t targeted specifically, we’ve been affected, and she wants to say something about how in the U.S. “we’re not seen as Asian.”

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My husband, who is also a second-generation Indian-American like me, was much more involved in activism as a teen, and is encouraging her. But I feel like she’s trying to center herself in an issue that doesn’t affect her, and I want her to support her fellow club members instead. However, I’m worried I’m looking at this issue through the “keep your head down and ignore it” lens I was raised with. I am hoping you can give me an outside perspective. Should I support her? If not, what should I say?

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—Unsure What to Say in CA

Dear Unsure,

I’m with your husband on this one—your daughter absolutely should speak up about her experiences with racism as a South Asian. She’d only be “centering herself” if she was not a part of a group that’s been victimized by racism. For example, it’s not as if she’s a white person trying to share her experiences with reverse-racism (newsflash: reverse-racism isn’t a thing) or a man trying to share his stories about being discriminated against by women in a group that fights against misogyny. As a South Asian person in a group that discusses anti-Asian racism, she should share her stories, because it could be a blind spot for many of the group’s members.

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I understand that a lot of people might disagree with me. When George Floyd was murdered, I know many Black people weren’t interested in hearing stories about anti-Asian racism. Conversely, I know some Asian people who want the anti-racism spotlight shining directly on their experiences and not anybody else’s. My counterargument is simple: racism is awful and it should be eradicated in all of its forms. Yes, anti-Black racism has many differences from anti-Asian racism, but the common enemy is white supremacy. If we use our diverse stories about racism to come together, we can create an unstoppable force for good.

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Being quiet about racism isn’t an option. As author Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” All people of color need to be outspoken about this today and every day—including your daughter.

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—Doyin

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I was at my sister-in-law’s for a birthday, and after she lit the candles on the cake, she handed my 2-year-old the lit match. He brought it to his face and watched it burn to his fingertips while she instructed him to blow it out. I yelled at her to blow out the match, and she did, just before it touched his fingers. Then she calmly stated, “I would never let him get hurt,” as if my freakout was unwarranted. I was so gobsmacked I didn’t say anything. But I can’t stop thinking about it. Should I bring it up with her?

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