Those of us parenting a child who started life in another family already know the challenges of navigating the holidays this time of year.  Another minefield some of us face is the many different winter holidays for different faiths.  If one of our child follows a different religion than ours, or is more/less devout that we are, these months become even more challenging.  As always, there is no magic formula to remove conflict, but there are some principles we can follow to make some happy memories.

Don’t Apologize for Your Beliefs

One common piece of advice I constantly see is “don’t assume that your beliefs are right and others are wrong.”   That statement simple does not understand, and is mildly insulting to, those of us with 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 — the law of gravity comes to mind.  For devout people, religious beliefs are more like gravity than lifestyle decisions or political beliefs.  Religious faith goes to the core of who we are and how we should live our lives.  It is more than a matter of what works for us.

At the same time, being part of a tradition that we believe to be “right” 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.  

Still, whatever our personal failings, 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 Their 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 one with the right fit.  But whatever their age, they have agency that we should respect.

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 their children are growing up believing in fairy tales.  Yet, just like any other parenting issue, we have to respect 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 help them find their way into adulthood.

Accommodate Their Beliefs Whenever You Can

Accommodating someone else’s beliefs 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 activities.  We cannot leave them at home alone.  They may not like it, 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.  As one wise therapist said to me one, “Of course teenagers start disagreeing 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 services at a different place of worship, we need to provide transportation just as we would to ball games or school plays.  If children do not want to go to our services, and it is safe to leave them at home, then 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.

Adapt Your Holiday Traditions

Do what you can to incorporate their religious traditions into your holiday celebrations.  Let your child tell you what traditions they want to see in your home. Not only can the rest of your family learn from a child of another faith, but your child will feel more a part of the family if they can see something of themselves in your celebration.  There are plenty of suggestions about interfaith celebrations on the Internet; just find some that work for your family.

This time of year can be difficult for blended families.  With a little flexibility, a good amount of respect, and a lot of communication, you can make it one that your family will remember with joy for a long time.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.