Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.
A Therapist Responds to "Seeking Acceptance" by Edward Ableser
Reading Edward's essay one breathes a sigh of relief that at this stage in his life he has found a "sacred space" for himself, that he has managed to de-toxify the religious experiences of his youth so that the faith that he has now crafted for himself can be a source of strength and healing for him. The family tug-of-war that he describes growing up amidst rings true and unfortunately represents a good example of what happens when two interfaith parents do not (or cannot) decide how to raise the children.
Edward seems to be the proverbial "caught in the middle" child. His Jewish grandparents don't seem to fully accept him as a Jew because his mother is not Jewish. His Catholic grandparents appear to be worried about the Jewish "influence" in his life. Edward seemed happy to bounce from religious community to religious community complying with whatever the authorities said was the next step in religious commitment until finally somebody noticed that this kid expected to be confirmed as a Catholic and have a Bar Mitzvah, too. Uh-oh.
As a family therapist I did not know whether to laugh or cry at all the well-meaning attempts to secure counseling for Edward so that he could make a decision about his two religions. What about his parents? Should they not also be weighing in on this important decision? Edward says later that neither of his parents was dedicated to their respective faiths. If that is so, why was Edward directed to any religious training to begin with? Probably to shush the grandparents.
Edward's situation brings to mind two common "solutions" employed by interfaith parents to their dilemma of how to raise their children. The first: in an effort to not disappoint or alienate either set of relatives, the parents decide to raise the children in both religions. While there are interfaith families who claim success in this venture, in Edward's case it backfired in a way that was quite traumatic for him. While certainly unintentional on the part of his parents, Edward's sense of displacement when the process came to a halt, his "ex-communication," affected him deeply.
The second common "solution" employed by interfaith parents is to say that they will "expose" the kids to both religions and then will let them decide. What these parents fail to recognize is that they are in essence saying, "These issues feel too big, too scary, too complicated, too full of implications, for us as adults to address. So, we will hand it all over to you so that you as a ten year old (or twelve or fourteen year old) can make sense of a situation that we as adults are unable to resolve." It is a rare kid who would not be hamstrung by the pressure of making this decision and would not be affected by all the conflicting loyalties. Most kids would do what Edward did, which was to try to avoid choosing.
When I work with interfaith parents who are trying to decide how to raise the children religiously, I try to show them how NOT making a clear decision can affect their potential children at different stages of their development. For instance, when kids reach the stage where it is developmentally appropriate for them to establish a sense of belonging with their peers and they don't know which group they are supposed to belong to, the kids are subject to exactly the kind of ridicule that Edward describes when he reports being called a "poseur" by his Jewish friends. I say to these parents, give your child the gift of a single religious identity so that, if nothing else, when he or she reaches late adolescence and the appropriate developmental task is "to rebel," he or she will have something definitive to rebel against. Contrast this to our friend Edward who wandered around lost and confused and felt he could not depend on anyone or any one thing.
It is to Edward's credit that as an adult he finds his way back to some kind of hybrid faith that sustains and nurtures him. While I usually advocate one religion for a person, it seems in Edward's case that he has been able to create a spirituality for himself that is not dependent on a single religious community or the singularity of one theology. Edward's story helps us to see how the decisions that interfaith parents make (or do not make) about their children's religious life can have long-reaching effects.