Solving a Holiday Quandary

Twelve tips for raising kids in an interfaith family.

The most important parenting decision in an interfaith family is often made before the children are born. In what faith will the children be raised? Statistics show that children raised with two religious traditions often ultimately adopt neither religion, or they identify with the more socially prevalent tradition.

If you want your child to grow up with a strong sense of faith, or a strong religious identity, you should choose one religion for your child. The earlier you make the decision, the better. And, here are a dozen more tips for interfaith families.

You can celebrate holidays outside of the religious tradition you’re raising your child in by being clear about what’s religious and what’s not.

A good strategy is to explain that celebrating the holiday outside the religion you choose for your family is like celebrating a friend’s birthday— you can join in the fun and celebrate, but it’s not your special day. You’re celebrating the holiday because it’s important to someone you care about. This is a particularly effective approach if you celebrate one religion’s holidays at home and different holidays at the homes of friends and family members.

Grandparents can be wonderful transmitters of religious and family traditions, but it’s crucial to maintain boundaries.

For grandparents who honor a different religious tradition than your children, talk to the grandparents before they visit about the religious message you are trying to send. Hold the discussions around key times of potential holiday conflict, such as September, when Krishna Janmashtami (Hindu) and the Jewish High Holidays coincide, or April, when Easter and Baisakhi (Sikh) coincide. As it’s possible that one set of grandparents may feel excluded from their grandchild’s upbringing, make an extra effort to involve them in secular and cultural family celebrations, including birthdays and Thanksgiving.

While it may seem democratic to let your child choose his or her own faith, young children do not have the capacity to make educated choices about different religious traditions.

It is also highly likely that they will simply default to whichever religion seems the most fun or is most socially acceptable— hardly solid criteria by which to choose a faith. Faith is the foundation of a moral education, and you can only give your child a solid moral education by starting to teach him or her values at a young age. That means parents should choose their children’s religion for them.

Sending your children to religious school is an important part of their religious education.

However, it is not the most important part. The most enduring learning happens at home. Such learning requires both parents— regardless of their faith— to model religious traditions, teach the values and narratives of the family’s chosen faith, and show an openness and enthusiasm for the faith. Equally involving parents gives children a strong sense of faith, as well as allows both parents to feel fully part of their children’s upbringing.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the religious differences concerning Mommy and Daddy.

Young children require self-definition to form an independent identity, and explaining what each member of the family is— and is not— helps kids achieve this definition. Ironically, discussing the differences among religions can strengthen your child’s sense of faith or religious identity. Unlike their peers from families where both parents are from the same religion, your children will grasp, at a young age, some of the differences among religions.

Maintain a united front with your partner.

Whatever your thoughts about religious school, worship, home practice, holidays and rituals, discuss religious decisions in advance with your partner. Children are keen at identifying and exploiting differences of opinion between parents. Ambiguity or outright contradiction in religious decisions send the message that these decisions are up for debate. Yet, if you and your partner deliver the same message, children may disagree but they clearly understand that it’s something they must abide.

At school, your child will probably be asked, “What are you?”

Defining each other is a common practice among children because they’re often anxious about defining themselves. Prepare your child with a short answer he or she understands: “My Mom and I are Unitarian but my Dad is Baptist.” “I’m Jewish even though my Mom is Catholic.” Most importantly, you are what you do. If children do not see you modeling the religious behavior of the tradition you’ve told them to identify with, they may wonder whether you care about what they believe.

As children enter adolescence, they often identify more strongly with the same-sex parent.

This can create conflict if your family’s chosen religion is the tradition of the opposite-sex parent. But, it can also present an opportunity to explain to kids how relationships work. “I know it seems unfair that we don’t follow the religious tradition I grew up in,” you may say, “but we follow Dad’s/Mom’s religion because I love and care about him/her. When people love each other, they want to do caring things for each other.”

No matter what religion you grew up observing, you have no reason to feel guilty, ashamed or part of your family’s chosen faith.

By choosing a single religion for your children, you have done something brave and difficult. Don’t allow your child to exploit the religious differences in your family in order to argue that he or she shouldn’t have to go to CCD or shouldn’t have to fast for Ramadan. Though your children may not like it initially, they will grow up with a strong sense of faith if they are treated like their peers of the same religion.

Make religion fun and real.

If you’re raising your children Christian, relate popular movies and TV shows to your family’s values, encouraging kids to understand that religion isn’t something that’s confined to the Bible— it’s something that’s lived. If you’re raising your children Jewish, go out of the box during holidays: Host a menorah-lighting party or take the kids to an interfaith seder focused on fighting prejudice. Cook or buy appealing foods that the kids may associate with their religious and cultural upbringing.

Adapt rituals to your family’s needs.

As long as you model appropriate behavior and worship, you can modify celebrations to suit your family. In other words, just because your parents hosted your bat mitzvah or shahada in a certain way doesn’t mean that you have to host your child’s such event in the same way. Often, you send a more positive message to your child by including family members of other faiths in rituals and religious ceremonies, than you do by celebrating everything in the most orthodox manner.

Just as Mommy has invited Daddy to participate in her religion, let your children invite their friends over for religious holidays or even worship services, as long as it’s fine with their friends’ parents.

This can serve multiple purposes: It may make your child feel less alone in his family’s religious practice, and it probably helps your child’s friends to realize that your child isn’t that different. It may also evoke surprisingly intelligent discussions about faith between your child and his friend, or your child and yourself.