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I am often asked about interfaith marriage and the effects on children. A recent letter: “Do you have any recommendations for interfaith parents – Jewish and Christian – choosing a religion?”
I’m far from being an expert in religious matters but I do have something to say about children and family conflict.
King Solomon decided to give the disputed baby to the mother who refused to let the baby be cut in half. The real mother loved the baby too much to harm it. In interfaith situations EVERYBODY loves the child–mother, father, both sets of grandparents and relatives–hopefully too much to harm the child.
This should make any decision about religion cool. But unfortunately, too often religion is a hot topic that leads to family conflicts. The reason is that religion is a very basic part of each parent’s identity–and it’s hard to give up one’s identity. Egos get involved and, if families are not careful, this can turn into a win/lose situation which in my experience means everybody loses, especially the children.
To my way of thinking a religious upbringing is important for children–even if the child will reject organized religion or change affiliation when he or she becomes an adult. Religion does two things: it helps each of us deal with the meaning of life and it helps teach us the laws of moral human behavior.
The tendency of humans to congregate and look to stronger individuals or a deity to help them is universal in all cultures. Religion gives children a sense of belonging to a group wider than the nuclear or extended family. Sunday school gives the child knowledge about the family’s ideology, exposure to peers of the same group, and the sense of “congregating”.
When an atheist or agnostic asks me about Sunday School for their children, I recommend exposing their children to a religion. My suggestions are to say something like, “I went when I was a child to learn. As a grownup I don’t feel I need it but you may feel differently when you grow up.” or “I didn’t go to Sunday school as a child but I feel I missed something other children had.”
Yes, parents are the ones who teach basic values to our children but we can’t do it alone. Sunday schools provide children with wholesome social opportunities while translating important values into age-appropriate precepts. And such religious education is a good antidote to the materialism and violence of contemporary society.
The couple who wrote to me have only three options: celebrate holidays and rituals from both religions, choose either Judaism or Christianity, or decide against any religious affiliation at all.
My advice: Decide BEFORE MARRIAGE after careful and thoughtful deliberation. Think through all the potential problems. Get counseling if necessary from spiritual advisors and/or a marriage counselor.
I have already stated my bias against no religious affiliation. Celebrating the rituals of both religions is ecumenical, fun for the children because holidays are joyful (who wouldn’t want to have both Hanukkah and Christmas?), and has the advantage of letting both parents keep their religious practices.
But there is a disadvantage in that the children have to work harder than other children when it comes to developing an identity. What am I? and Who am I? are closely related. Practicing two religions is not an impossible task, but it is harder than having one religion.
If one parent is comfortable in converting to the other parent’s religion, and both extended families are willing to go along with this without rancor, that can work. But parents should always teach the children about BOTH heritages.
All options will work if both parents are willing to put in the time and effort to create family unity and unanimity.
A word to grandparents and relatives. Let the parents decide and then back up the decision. I have seen too many families torn apart by religious disputes. Remember both sides of the family have grandchildren to cherish no matter what church or synagogue they go to.
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