This week is Yom Kippur, one of the most holy days in Judaism. I am not Jewish and know little more than what I have learned from the Internet. Religious holidays are a good occasion, however, to visit the challenges in parenting a child of a different faith than ours. As the winter holidays approach, some of us may be navigating the minefield not only of differing family traditions, but of differing religious traditions. As always, there is no magic formula to remove conflict, but there are some principles we can follow to help build strong relationships.
Respect Biological Parents’ Beliefs
We should always work to avoid getting between our foster or bonus kids and their biological parents, and this principle applies to religious beliefs. We may think their parents are wrong or misguided or neglectful or any number of other adjectives. None of that matters. We cannot help our kids by driving a wedge between them and their parents. We need to work within whatever limits the biological parents set on this sensitive issue.
If we are parenting foster kids, their parents may have rights to require or prohibit certain religious practices. If we are stepparents not married to a custodial parent, the custody order may give the other parent the right to decide about religious affiliation. Even if we don’t have those restrictions, however, we need to respect the biological parents’ point of view about their children’s religious observance. Every parent with different religious beliefs and every nonreligious parent is entitled to our respect for their decisions about the lives of their children, and our children need to see us give them that respect.
Understand the Difference Between Faith and Tradition
The next question we have to ask ourselves is which of our personal traditions are founded on religious convictions and which are simply traditions that we have grown up with. This question is an important one. People with integrity can’t compromise on core values, but we can (or at least should) be flexible about everything else. We may believe that Christmas represents the birth of Christ, for example, but our religious views shouldn’t prevent including other traditions for a child in our family.
This exercise of distinguishing between faith and tradition is one for us, not our kids. They don’t have the experience or knowledge to make that distinction. Furthermore, the distinctions don’t matter. If they are emotionally attached to a tradition, we need to try to help them hang on to it. The more we can help them keep some continuity in their lives, the stronger relationship we can build.
There may be times that we think our kids are not expressing a core belief, but simply rejecting us and whatever we think. That dynamic shouldn’t change our response; it sometimes comes with the parenting package. Building a strong relationship requires that we give young people as much space as we can to experiment with belief systems, and to sometimes reject us without our changing how much we care about them. The more room we give them, the more calm our family life will be and the better the odds that they will find their way into a healthy relationship with us.
Don’t Apologize for Your Core Beliefs
One common piece of advice I see for interfaith families is “don’t assume that your beliefs are right and others are wrong.” That statement does not understand the character of strong religious beliefs. Of course I believe that my religion is more “right” than others. Otherwise, I would believe something else.
I understand the modern worldview that everyone defines their own reality (within the strict guidelines of what is currently socially acceptable). That philosophy may work well in some areas, but not so well in others. For example, the law of gravity applies no matter what one’s personal beliefs might be. For devout people, religious beliefs are more like gravity than lifestyle decisions. Religious faith goes to the core of who we are and how we should live our lives. Core beliefs are not preferences that we can shift to accommodate our environment.
At the same time, being part of a tradition that we believe to be true does not allow us to be arrogant. As one friend said, “God has never asked my opinion about anything or put me on any admissions committees.” Most religious beliefs are about our obligations, not our personal pride.
The same principle is true for parents who follow secular instead of religious values. Our religious beliefs or the lack of beliefs are entitled to respect. Whatever your core beliefs, whether religious or secular, do not apologize or downplay them. You are entitled to the same respect as anyone with other beliefs.
Respect Our Kids’ Beliefs
At the same time, we have to give that same respect and courtesy to others. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves which beliefs to center their lives around. Children are no exception. They may not have all of the facts or life experiences they need, and most children experiment with beliefs, just like everything else, until they find their own religious beliefs. But whatever their age or stage of religious exploration, we should respect their right to make their own choices.
It can be hard to balance our responsibility to parent children with their right to make their own decisions, and religion is no exception. Devout parents truly believe that their children will be happiest by staying within the parents’ faith tradition. Atheist or agnostic parents often have a very logical and reasonable concern that a religious upbringing will encourage their children to believe in fairy tales. Yet, just like any other parenting issue, we have to respect both the parents’ beliefs and a child’s right to make his or her own decisions.
That respect has to carry through into how we communicate our beliefs. While we should not apologize, neither should we assume that we have all the answers. I value my friends of different faiths, or no faith, because their questions and discussions make me take a second look at my assumptions and keep me from becoming arrogant. Anything we say to our children should have that same humility at its core.
I have explained to numerous children and adult friends that I do not believe that my sacred text, the Bible, is a set of arbitrary rules. Rather, it’s an owner’s manual from the world’s manufacturer, telling us the best way to be happy as we live in that world. Yet, no one has to read and follow an owner’s manual before using an appliance. Everyone is free to learn by trial and error. In the same way, my children are free to agree or disagree with me. Either way, my job is the same — to love them and help them find their way into adulthood.
Accommodate Their Beliefs Whenever You Can
Accommodating children’s religious choices is one of those aspirations that is wonderful in theory and hard in practice. With younger children, for example, we have no choice but to take them to our religious services. We cannot leave them at home alone. They may not like having to attend Sunday School, for example, but the experience will not harm them. Learning to sit quietly during activities that do not interest them can be an important skill for them as adults.
Older children have more options and are more likely to start questioning their previous beliefs and adopting different views. It’s actually very common for teenagers question the faith of their parents and develop their own views. As one wise therapist said to me once, “Of course teenagers disagree with almost everything you say. It’s their job.”
At whatever age our children start expressing religious preferences, we need to give them the respect of accommodating their decisions. If they want to attend religious activities at a different place of worship, we need to try to provide transportation just as we would for ball games or school plays. If children do not want to go to our services, consider whether it is safe to leave them at home and whether allowing them to stay home is consistent with our rules for the other children in our home. If the answer is yes, then perhaps we should not force them to go with us. We can look for other places they can learn the character lessons that we want them to learn, such as volunteering with a service organization.
Finally, take the opportunity to learn as much as you can about their beliefs. Asking sincere and respectful questions will not only make the child feel a valued part of the family, but it will broaden your horizons. Neither of you has to change your core beliefs to find common ground, and if you ask questions with an open mind, you may find that you and your child have more beliefs in common than you realized.
Parenting a child who comes from a different faith tradition can be challenging, but it’s not an impossible task. With a little flexibility, a good amount of respect, and a lot of communication, you can make the experience one that will strengthen your relationships among all of your family members.