Positive Interfaith Identity in Children: Five Strategies
Those of us born into more than one race, culture or religion share a bond of “bothness.” Whether from immigrant families, adopted, multifaith, multiracial, raised overseas, or simply of mixed Irish and Italian background, we share the experience of growing up with more than one worldview. And we share the reality of existing outside of neat, labeled identity boxes. As an interfaith child and parent, I am teaching my own children to leap joyfully in and out of those boxes, and frolic in the space between them.
My parents (one Jewish, one Protestant) have been happily intermarried for more than fifty years now. I revel in being a “both/and” person rather than an “either/or” person. Through working with a community of over 100 interfaith families, counseling interfaith couples, and writing an interfaith families blog, I have distilled principles to help in cultivating the joy of being both:
1. Give children permission to explore and connect with all sides of their heritage. This sounds obvious, but there is tremendous pressure from society to reduce your child’s identity to a single label. Every time we fill out a form and check one box for race, or religion, we face this reductive and diminishing pressure. Ironically, ignoring a significant part of a child’s background can create a situation in which the “forbidden fruit” becomes more attractive than the identity you are trying to foster.
2. Avoid setting up an expectation that the child will “choose” an identity someday. Pressure to choose can create a sense of competition. Understand that your child may shift identities in different circumstances, and over time. We are complex, not confused. Pioneering psychologist Maria Root has written a “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” every “both” child should hang in his or her bedroom. With Dr. Root’s permission, I have adapted this into a “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.”
3. Understand that those who are not born into bothness, even those who are intermarried, may never fully appreciate the idea of being both. For historical, political, or practical reasons, we all choose labels sometimes that simplify our backgrounds and allow us to fit in, or make a statement of solidarity with one of our cultures. In the presence of anti-Semites, I loudly proclaim my Judaism, rather than denying it. Many black/white biracial children find it necessary in American culture to identify as African-American. But we still feel our bothness.
4. Insist on the joy of being both. In the face of skepticism from the media, friends, family and clergy, stay true to the vision that inspired you to intermarry, move to a new culture, or adopt across boundaries. Communicate to your children that they represent hope for the future, bridges of peace and understanding, crucial new connections across rigid, deteriorating barriers.
5. Seek and develop communities that share your bothness. I grew up as the only “half-Jewish” kid I knew. Now, I see my children thriving in a community of interfaith families. Find or construct a community that shares your family’s complexity. This will be easier in Brooklyn or Vancouver than in a rural area. If you are an interfaith family, check the list of resources on my blog, onbeingboth.com. (An interfaith families community in Philadelphia is just starting up!) No matter where you live, it is getting easier for us to find each other online. Because we are the demographic future.
Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.
I wrote this essay for the debut issue of Bridge Magazine, a Philadelphia-based digital publication created to tell the stories of the intereverything generation (biracial, interfaith, transracially adopted, etc.). Special thanks to Sam Watson, founder and editor, for permission to repost.