If they adopted my beliefs, that felt like winning; if they chose different beliefs over mine, that felt like losing. Turns out, there’s a little bit of tyrant in every patriarch.
My wife, two daughters, and I were playing LifeStories. Unlike the board games I grew up on, which encouraged you to covet real estate, sink battleships, perform unnecessary surgery, and invade neighboring countries, LifeStories had a simple goal: Learn something new about each other. Roll the dice, land on a space color-coded by theme, draw a card, read the question, then answer from your own experience.
So when my younger daughter drew a card that read, “Describe a way that your parents have influenced your spiritual beliefs,” I perked up. Jen and I had worked hard to build a spiritual context for our girls (then 9 and 11). Now here was a casual opportunity for our 9-year-old to express her own feelings, and maybe affirm her dad’s at the same time.
She held the card in one hand, thought for a moment, then looked up with wide brown eyes as if struck by an epiphany. I leaned forward, expecting one of those simple yet profound moments of affirmation that a parent can’t plan or ask for.
“Actually,” she said, “I don’t believe in God.”
What happens when you realize you want to defeat your own children—not in a board game, but in ideas and values? We don’t usually frame it in such a crude way, but isn’t it true? We want our ideas to win. Even the most open-minded parents hope, if not fully expect, their children to adopt their beliefs. Many families are shaken apart along these fault lines.
If I have to be categorized, I’d place myself under that unsatisfying banner, Spiritual but Not Religious. Though Jen and I both came from a Lutheran background, we felt drawn to a wider interpretation, and tried to build an open spiritual foundation for our children.
We attended a local peace church committed to social justice and LGBT rights. We set up a family altar where the Bible and Thich Nhat Hahn were given equal weight. We went on “Loaf and Invite Your Soul Days,” leaving home by foot, with no plans or maps, just following our Whitmanesque souls into L.A. and beyond. Sometimes we ended up at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels where my daughters climbed stone animals in the sculpture garden and wrote poems in the shade of hundred-year-old fig trees.
I felt good about all this. I had even, to my surprise, satisfied my dormant orthodox side, fulfilling Proverbs 22 Verse 6: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
Sitting under those fig trees, I felt like a patriarch. “Look at your children,” I’d say to myself. “You must be very proud,” I’d answer back.
My wife has a Masters degree in family therapy. Over the years, she has tried to teach me to stay neutral and curious when our daughters expressed feelings different from our own.
“Don’t shut them down,” she would say, usually after I had shut someone down. “We want to encourage them to speak up for themselves.”
So when my daughter drew that game card, I turned into a cartoon of indignation, “What are you talking about? How can you say you don’t believe in God?”—but only in my mind. On the outside, I nodded and said, “Hmm. Why is that?”
She explained that maybe she did believe in God, she wasn’t sure, but not like the God in The Ten Commandments, and not like the God in Sunday School. She was a logical kid, so parting the Red Sea and walking on water felt wrong to her, like God was breaking his own rules.
Then she shrugged happily, put down the card, and passed the dice as if nothing significant had happened.
But for her dad, smiling and nodding and murmuring, “Hmm,” the world had shifted.
In the weeks that followed, I autopsied the God Incident from every angle. Was there something lacking in our spiritual practice or in my own devotion? Was our open-ended immersion too open, allowing our children to drift into vague humanism? In a moment of ridiculous moping, I found myself thinking, She might as well have said, “I don’t believe you’re my dad. Mom says you are. Maybe you are. I don’t know.” It was that primal to me. I couldn’t get past it.
Then Jen remembered another time we both felt hurt, confused, and, if we’re honest, betrayed as parents.
But it wasn’t about God. It was about food.
We’ve raised our girls on a plant-based diet. We don’t always make healthy decisions, we’re a few pounds overweight, and the term “junk food vegan” could bracket large portions of our lives. But for Jen, this is as deep and personal as my belief in God.
So when, almost a full year before the God Incident, our youngest daughter said, “I want a cheeseburger,” Jen almost choked on her own advice.
“Hmm,” she said. “A cheeseburger. Why’s that?”
“They smell so good. All my friends eat them. I want to know what they taste like.”
Jen smiled, praised our 8-year-old for expressing her feelings so clearly, and sent her outside to play. Then she sat in the kitchen and cried. When I came home, she said, “Your daughter wants a cheeseburger!”
But even in tears—even as I argued that we were the parents, and sometimes a parent had to say no, and our girls would get over it, would forget the whole thing in a week—even still, Jen held to her parenting philosophy. It took me a little longer to come around.
So that weekend, we found ourselves in a florescent booth at Denny’s. The girls sat across the table—huge, laminated, multi-page menus open in their hands.
“Order anything off the menu,” I said.
They looked at each other sideways. When we ate at plant-based restaurants like Real Food Daily or Native Foods, they ordered anything they wanted. But this was the first time they heard those glorious words at a regular restaurant. Eating out with friends or family, our options usually came down to the American trinity of salad, onion rings, and fries.
Our oldest daughter ordered a cheeseburger. But our 8-year-old spread the menu open and pointed at a huge photo. “Anything on the menu?”
We looked down at a dripping, glistening double cheeseburger.
Jen squeezed my hand under the table.
“Anything on the menu,” I repeated.
They both ordered double cheeseburgers with extra cheese and gallon-sized milk shakes. They were so excited, they bounced in their seats, commenting on the beauty of Denny’s neon decor.
When they took those first bites, they leaned back, eyes rolling, swooning like they were having a religious experience.
“This is the best thing I ever tasted!”
“Me too! Oh my God!”
I actually heard my knuckles crack under the table.
By the third bite, our oldest was feeling sad about eating a cow, but our youngest chomped on. A few bites later, she pushed the burger aside, saying, “It’s good, but it doesn’t taste as good as before.”
Both said they felt a little sick, but managed to finish every drop of their milk shakes. The slurping straws sounded as sincere as any Amen I’ve ever heard.
They’ve since wandered into the wilderness of donuts and ice cream, cheese and croissants. But by the time they were 10 and 12, they had settled into their own commitment. They had decided for themselves that they weren’t going to eat animals, and I got hands-on training in how to encourage my children to explore their own beliefs—training that saved me from a religious confrontation with my daughter less than a year later.
As we talked about God and Cheeseburgers, I realized I had a win/lose paradigm toward my children’s values and ideas. If they adopted my beliefs, that felt like winning; if they chose different beliefs over mine, that felt like losing. Turns out, there’s a little bit of tyrant in every patriarch.
But in a world where most kids carry the equivalent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in their pocket, win-lose is an unsustainable model.
Jen and I decided to change the paradigm by adding a footnote to the values we taught. “One day,” we said, “you’ll need to choose for yourself. Because until you examine and test a belief and make it your own, it’s just a habit.”
Only then did the obvious truth become, finally, obvious to me. Nothing had gone wrong. Just the opposite. When my daughter said she wasn’t sure if she believed in God, she was in fact fulfilling our family’s core value and Proverbs 22. We had raised them to think for themselves, they were growing into that, and, hopefully, they would not turn from it when they were old.
Unlike the board games I grew up on, parenting isn’t about winning or dominating. It’s about getting to know each other—which turns out to be a longer, more satisfying game.
One night, after everyone had gone to sleep, I went into the living room, took out the board game, shuffled through the deck, and found the card that had started all the trouble. I’ve kept it like a holy reminder on my desk ever since.
It’s there now, right in front of me.
Charles Duffie is a writer and graphic designer living in the Los Angeles area with his wife and two daughters (now 13 and 15). When his first daughter was born, he left a good business opportunity to become a work-from-home dad. While it has been challenging at times, it was definitely the right choice for him.