Raising Interfaith Children, and Letting Them Go
The author, Susan Sommercamp, states that she and her (former) husband wanted to share both traditions and “thought” their children could be “both,” but that “unfortunately things don’t always go as planned.” The big reveal in the piece is that one daughter chose to practice Christianity, while the other daughter chose to practice Judaism. From my perspective, having children choose two different religions is not an unfortunate or surprising result. It’s a typical result. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
First of all, we don’t control the ultimate beliefs, practices or affiliations of our children. This is true in mono-faith families, as well as in interfaith families. How many of us have siblings with identical religious practices to our own? As parents, we can choose an initial religious label for our children, and a form of religious education for them. But ultimately they grow up and make their own decisions. This is not “unfortunate,” it is just life. This would be a good moment to put on Sweet Honey in the Rock’s gorgeous rendition of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children,” which states, “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
Second, as a corollary, raising children with both traditions cannot have the goal for children to become, and stay, religiously both. Some will, and some won’t. As documented in Being Both, some will choose one religion, or the other, or both, or none, or a new religion. And the choice may not be permanent. Pew Research has found that some half of all Americans change their religious affiliation at least once. The benefits of educating children in both family religions include allowing them to make more informed religious decisions, and allowing them to feel a connection and support from both sides of the extended family, and giving them bi-religious literacy. Not fixing them permanently in a “both” identity.
There were unfortunate aspects of this family story, but they do not stem, in my estimation, from the initial decision to raise the children with both religions. Of course it was unfortunate that the couple divorced, and that the children may have felt a competition between the parents (and parental religions) as a result. It was unfortunate that (partly as a result of the divorce) the two religions were each celebrated with only one parent, and without the support of an interfaith families community, so that the parents and children did not have a way to discuss and integrate their identities in a neutral and supportive space.
And while the author claims in the first paragraph that the couple had agreed to share both “faiths and heritages,” she admits that she took them to synagogue and Jewish religious education, and felt “surprise and some disappointment” when her husband begins taking them to church. In reality, she was attempting to raise them solely with Judaism, plus some holiday celebrations, not with full exposure to both. It is only after the divorce that she tersely accepts a sort of “separate but equal” exposure to both religions. So this family’s experience in no way reflects “doing both” in the context of good communication between the parents and full dual-faith religious education.
Ultimately, despite the divorce and initial tension as the two daughters claimed their religious identities, the author concludes that “we are all more tolerant and understanding because of our messy interfaith family.” It is interesting to note that Sommercamp saw the benefit of being an interfaith family, even after the difficulty of divorce. But those of us who raise our children with both religions with the intention of letting them go, of letting them claim the practices and identities and affiliations most meaningful to them, would never use the word “tolerant” in this context. The goal is not to tolerate each other, but to embrace each other, and embrace the religious choices of everyone in the family.
Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.