Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions

The concept of raising children as “both” continues to raise eyebrows, hackles, and goosebumps. From where I stand, with my second-generation-interfaith children almost grown, the benefits of raising them with both religions seem clear. But I thought it might be useful to sum up my reasoning and experience:

  1. Children have the right to understand and appreciate both cultures and religions represented in their family tree. Withholding information or explanations about this background can create resentment, or a sense of the suppressed religion as “forbidden fruit.” This was my own experience, growing up in an interfaith family without any education about my Christian side.
  2. Children who are equally rooted and equally comfortable with both sets of extended family may feel they have greater family support from both sides. My children, teens raised with both, are comfortable in church with Grandma, and at the Passover Seder led by Grandpa. All of the grandparents participated in my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony, which drew on both traditions.
  3. Whether they eventually choose to identify with one religion or with both, people who are religiously bi-literate, who know the stories and rituals of two religions, will have a greater understanding of world politics, history, culture and literature.  My teens often find themselves explaining religious imagery and concepts to their peers from “monofaith” families.
  4. Some interfaith families abandon religious education altogether when they cannot agree on one religion. But interfaith adults raised with “nothing” sometimes express regret and frustration at their own religious ignorance. If both parents are unified in passing on an atheist, secular humanist or ethical culture perspective (different from choosing nothing), that’s fine. But for me, teaching both is vastly preferable to avoiding religious or ethical education altogether.
  5. Children deeply appreciate it when both parents are equally comfortable sharing their religious traditions, places of worship, and thinking, and when they sense a balance of power between parents. When one parent is the “out” or “odd” parent with a religion that differs from the rest of the family, the child may sense the lack of family unity, and may even interpret one parent as dominant and the other as submissive, misguided, or even in moral danger. I have encountered children who worry and take it on themselves to try to convert the “out” parent.
  6. As parents, we cannot ultimately control the religious identity of our children anyway. All adults can, and many do, switch religious affiliations in adulthood. Giving children some basis in both familial traditions gives them a better basis for making a choice or shifting labels, rather than forcing them to start from scratch in learning a new religion.
  7. Even if parents label their child with one religion, the outside world may reject that label. Jews will either label your children based on the religion of the mother (in the case of Conservative and Orthodox), or based on meeting certain litmus tests of Jewish practice (in the case of Reform). Meanwhile, Muslims go by the religion of the child’s father. Some Christians will label children based on whether they have been baptized, or “saved.” Your ability to control your child’s label is limited once they go out into the world, and the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting criteria in different religions and denominations may diminish your ability to make a particular label stick.
  8. The sense that learning about both religions is radical or controversial actually appeals to teens and young adults, engaging them at precisely the moment when many youth lose interest in religion. I know more than one teenager who has used their interfaith identity as a college application essay topic. The jazzy, rebellious pride exhibited by young “half-Jews,” the reappropriation and transformation of this once-derogatory label, is further evidence of positive energy derived from interfaithness.
  9. The ability to see the world from more than one perspective, the interfaith child’s stereoscopic vision, has benefits beyond the religious domain. Many adult interfaith children testify that their interfaith status predisposes them to become natural peacemakers and bridge-builders.
  10. Celebrating both sets of holidays, and studying the intertwined history of any two religions (particularly any two of the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam), creates a rich synergy. No religion ever sprang full-blown into the world, out of nowhere. Each religion is woven from the strands of previous traditions, and discovering their historical interconnectedness is deeply satisfying to those of us in interfaith families. The rich tapestry of each interfaith family is a microcosm of the lively design of religious evolution through history. Scientists testify to the power of this type of “fractal” design, in which  each small part echoes the pattern of the whole: fascinating, complex, and gorgeous.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

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23 Comments on “Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions”

  1. Marci Says:

    What a well-thought out and concise list, Sue! It echoes my feelings exactly, so thank you for putting it out there for others to see. My feeling has always been that ignorance leads to intolerance and misunderstanding when it comes to religious beliefs. I believe that the more that we strive to understand each other’s religious beliefs, the more tolerant we become… it’s the key to a more peaceful world!


  2. And reason number 11: childhood is more fun and more stable when the whole family has rituals and traditions to look forward to and share together year after year.


  3. Sue,
    Your observations in this and other postings are so important and helpful to those of us doing this work (as we do in our several locations of the Interfaith Community throughout New York and New England). Your reports are also so valuable to those who do not have the benefit of an organization which supports them. Significantly, your insights tap in to the perceptions of today’s children — who see religion and religious differences very differently than do we or their grandparents. Once again, BRAVA, Sue!
    Sheila Gordon, Pres. Interfaith Community,Inc.


  4. I am a Quaker, and my husband is Roman Catholic. We are raising our children both, which has been easier than I expected before we had children. Of course, our two faiths are not as different as some couples’, especially given that my husband is a progressive Catholic who shares my concerns about peace and justice issues (as well as women’s ordination). Our children clearly understand that they will make their own choices about what is meaningful to them, which means more questioning at a younger age than I ever did. I think that’s good in the long term, but it does add an extra challenge to parenting sometimes.


  5. Sheila–Thank YOU for creating a model for educating children in both religions and successfully replicating it in many locations now, providing access to a growing number of interfaith families.

    Eileen–I love it when the “being both” idea appeals to families who are Christian/Christian, or Jewish/Jewish. We have families of both types in our interfaith families community, simply because they like our radical inclusivity and the way we do things. Your words confirm my perspective that ALL families are interfaith, since no two parents are identical in their theology or practice. Hmmm, sounds like a blog post…

  6. Raouf Says:

    Hi Susan! I would just like to say that this post is beautiful and has helped me tremendously! I am not yet a parent but my wife and I have been talking about how to raise our children. I myself am a Muslim and she is a Catholic. We find it that both religions share so much in common but we’re afraid that our children will have a tough time learning from both religions. We can’t even begin to think about how to raise our children under two religions and that’s probably what’s scaring us the most. We want to focus on how to bring together both cultures and communities (we have large families that are either all Catholic or Muslim). Do you have any advice on this? Thank you for this post!


    • Raouf,
      I’m so glad you found this helpful, and I hope you will find some of the other posts at On Being Both equally helpful. I envision a time, coming soon, when there will be support networks and groups specifically for Muslim/Christian and Muslim/Jewish interfaith families: the numbers of such families are certainly rising. Stay tuned, I will return to this topic in the near future…Susan

  7. Jen Says:

    Susan,

    I could not have found your blog at a better time in my life! I am a 30 year old woman who was raised in an interfaith family (christian and hindu). My husband is Jewish. We are expecting our first child in November and your blog has given me such inspiration and so many ideas re: parenting. Recently I have been asked MANY MANY times by friends, acquaintances “What are you going to do when you have kids” and I am proud to answer we will have an interfaith family and our child will be lucky :)

    Growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood (near Toronto Ontario) and being known as the “not jewish girl” in my high school my biggest concern for my son/daughter is that they will always be thought of as “not really jewish” (since I am not). I was practically in tears when I read the “interfaith child bill of rights” and can’t wait to share it with my future son/daughter.

    I look forward to continuing to follow your blog in the future. I wish the internet exisited when I was 10 years old this would have helped my parents (and myself) through many situations!!!!

    Thanks again,
    Jennifer


    • Jennifer,
      I’m so glad you found On Being Both. Your family is part of what I think is an inevitable and very positive shift in the way we interact and self-identify. It won’t always be easy, but your children will experenience unique benefits and play an important role as descendants of two generation of love strong enough to leap across religious boundaires. I look forward to your comments and hope you will share more of your experience with our growing, global interfaith community. –Sue

  8. jill Says:

    what if both religions are damaging and limiting? like, really old folk tales with contradictory moral messages and impossible narratives? i was raised catholic, and have spent much of my adulthood–after realizing the absurdity of my religiously implanted existential foundation—trying to figure out a sense of how to be in a world in which everything i thought was true about the cosmos is obviously not there. why not open up that reality at an early age? so that children don’t have to grow up and, upon realizing there is no ground, manage how to fall? why not let them consider this groundlessness as natural? dual indoctrination (“interfaith” is a pleasant word) is not a healthy relativity. i do agree, however, that it is good to have a literacy, if not a fluency, in the belief systems that people have clung to throughout the ages , like a bad habit, celebrated as “heritage,” because these stories have motivated so much of human history.


    • Jill-
      Interfaith communities are not teaching children what is “true” or what to believe. Many atheist, agnostic and secular humanist parents enroll their children in interfaith education programs and participate in interfaith communities.

  9. sharl'z Says:

    Thank you Sue your article has been very insightful and and helpful,looking forward to more post on this matter thanks.

  10. sharl'z Says:

    Thank you Sue your article has been very insightful,looking forward to further post’s.

  11. James Says:

    My son is Jewish and his wife is a Christian. Neither have worshiped in a synagogue or church in years, but they are now beginning to turn back to those directions. This is brought up some questions about how to raise their 3 1/2 year old son, so I think this is a very good list for them both. Thanks.

    • Beth Says:

      I found this article just by googling interfaith children as I am a parent of interfaith kids who are interracial as well. I am Jewish and my husband was raised Methodist . We have stayed away from religion persay with exception of the holidays with the occasional attendance to church or temple , my husband now wants our 7&8 year old to sing at times on the kids choir which I have been opposed to , however after reading your article it makes me more comfortable but knowing my Jewish mother is going to have a coronary scares me ! Are there any articles I can reference for the grandmother aspect ?? I understand my mother and his mother have feelings and opinions but at the end of the day it’s him and I who need to set boundaries . My husband feels that by participating on the kids choir would give them a part in a community that they do not really have . Any suggestions ??


      • Beth–
        I agree that it is you and your husband who need to make these decisions together. And I think providing both religious education and community can bring great benefits. There are many ways for an interfaith family to do this (participate in church activities, participate in Jewish communities, do both, join a Unitarian community, join a secular humanist community, and/or homeschool religious education in one or both religions). My suggestion would be that you and your husband decide which of these elements is important to you, and find friends and communities and clergy that support you. Interfaithfamily.com (which promotes Jewish choices) has essays for grandparents on accepting children being raised in a different religion. But if you are not labeling your children Christian, but simply allowing them to learn some elements of Christianity and experience religious community, explain that to your mother. The approach of interfaith family communities is to balance this kind of experience and learning (choir) with experience and learning in the other religion. If you and your husband are open to doing that, your mother might be less alarmed. Some grandparents are concerned when their intermarried children “do nothing” and are relieved when their grandchildren get some religious experience, even if it is in the other religion.

        • Beth Says:

          Thank for your guidance and I information I will definitely check out interfaith family.com for some more insight !

  12. Art Says:

    Susan, you really struck a chord with me in this post. I’m the only Hindu in a family of (relatively new) Christians. Sometimes I do feel less emphasis placed on my faith within the family, such as with two of my family members not participating in a certain holiday with me simply because they didn’t feel like it. I had not considered the problem of the appearance of dominance, or seeming outside the norm.

    Thank you for your insight. I’m thankful to have found your blog.

  13. Art Says:

    Reblogged this on Bamboo Thoughts and commented:
    I’ve never reblogged a post before, but this one struck me as vitally important to my personal life and the issues that matter to me. Here, my new friend, Susan, discusses her experiences with raising interfaith children, and gives advice for those doing so. Very thought-provoking and insightful.

  14. Elena Says:

    Susan, I’ve been looking for a blog that will help me understand the task of raising interfaith kids. I recently got engaged to the most amazing Hindu man and religion ( Iam Christian Pentecostal) has been one of the scary topics. We have talked about raising the kids knowing both religions and celebrate both religions’ holidays. However, it seems almost imposible due to both religions differences and both our families background.


    • Elana, You will find links on this blog to lots of families successfully raising kids with both religions. But it is also true that this path is not the right one for every family. In particular, a belief in the Bible as literal truth and the necessity of salvation will make doing both much harder. It is also possible to choose one religious label and one formal religious education for your children, but share and honor both religions on another level. All the reading you do now, on this blog and elsewhere, and reaching out to find understanding clergy and wise intermarried elders, will help you as you proceed, no matter where your path takes you. And finding a religious or spiritual community that supports your whole family, no matter which choice you make for your children, is essential.

  15. tumbleina Says:

    Susan, Im not sure if my other comment posted! The situation though I have is the conflict of my child’s Dad and family being Jehovahs Witnesses. Please help…not only is Mommy being controlled by Satan, but I should be shunned. Thank you for your thoughts and time.


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