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Reprinted with permission from iParenting Media.
Before Jodi and Jim Cook were even engaged, they discussed how they would bring up their children. Religion was a topic they covered extensively because the Buffalo, N.Y., couple agreed it was crucial for their children to have a religious background. Since Jodi was raised Jewish and Jim is Lutheran, they wanted to have only one religion in the house to eliminate any confusion for their children.
"We felt it was important to be on the same page before we had children," says Jodi. "Some people think that they can decide something like this after bringing their children into the world. However, it may cause a great deal of stress and negative feelings toward one another. Deciding this prior to having children gives you one fewer (and possibly difficult) decision to make at a time when your emotions may not allow you to think clearly."
Indeed, the general consensus from parents, parenting experts and clergy seems to be that religion is one issue that should be decided on before conception, if not before marriage.
Why Later Isn't Wiser
"Religion is a loaded issue for couples," says Tina Tessina, a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California who works with a lot of interfaith and inter-cultural couples on this topic. "Not only is it a personal choice, it also has generations of tradition and family pressure behind it. So differences in religion can be difficult to sort out."
If you put off the decision, it will only become worse later, she says, adding that if you come to an impasse, you should have a consultation with a member of the clergy or get counseling. If the problem is a religiously rigid family on one side, you can make your decision and provide a united front.
The last thing you want is for the religion decision to be the source of arguments and family struggles. This can begin as early as deciding whether to have a bris or a baptism. "If you have this worked out in advance, you can support each other when the greater family tries to interfere, and you won't fight about it," says Tessina. "If you don't work it out, every holiday, family tradition and religious occasion will be a source of struggle."
Your child will have a more solid sense of identity if she can look back and learn about all the religious things that were done for her as a baby, says Ronnie Friedland, editor of InterfaithFamily.com.
How to Tackle the Topic
To begin the religion conversation, approach it as a way to deepen intimacy and create a deeper understanding of the place of religion and spirituality in your family, not as a way to prove that your religious views are the right ones, says Susyn Reeve, an interfaith minister. She suggests some discussion questions:
"What religion do you consider yourself to be?"
"Is this the religion you want for your children?"
"What is important to you about your religion?"
"What have been the gifts of your religion in your life?"
"How have your religious beliefs been a burden for you?"
"If you could pick any religion for your child, what would it be?"
"What would you tell your child about religion/spirituality?"
Putting a Plan in Action
If a couple doesn't have a religious community of their own but wants one, they should "shop around" and try different religious services and see if any are appealing, says Friedland. She recommends talking to the rabbis, ministers or priests, as well as friends. "It is important to feel comfortable in the religious community you choose," she says. "It is more than just a religion, but a community."
If you're actually planning to convert or adopt another religion, keep in mind that there are classes and time commitments involved. If you plan to baptize your baby, for example, and you're not Catholic, it's not as easy as showing up to a church one afternoon and asking a priest. Many churches insist on some sort of classes, and in some, an attendance requirement must be met.
Couples with differences need to consider all possibilities, including blending religious traditions in order to reach a workable place, says Tessina. "Faith is so important to one's sense of well-being and inner strength," she says. "Every religion has stories about people whose faith brought them through hard times, and hearing such stories helps."
Respecting the Results
You can make whatever decision you want--to raise the children in a faith or keep them away from it, says Tessina. If you're lukewarm about religion or if you are more spiritual, it shouldn't be too big a question. But if religion is important to one or both of you, or if one is an atheist or averse toward the other's religion, you have a couple of choices. You can blend your religions into a new version that suits both of you or find a new faith that will accommodate both of your beliefs.
"You can even decide to go to separate services, but please don't make your children suffer from this difference when they are old enough to understand," says Tessina. "Either let them freely choose, or insist that they go with each of you at various times, but don't make it a struggle."
In the Cooks' case, their big religious discussion was relatively easy to resolve. Jim saw that Jodi's family was much more religious than his, so he suggested they bring the children up in a Jewish home. They came to the decision together, and then let both sets of parents know their decision. Everyone was supportive, and Jim's parents said they would love their grandchildren no matter what religion they are.
And they've fashioned their own middle ground. They make sure the kids are aware of both traditions. And while they're being raised Jewish, the Cooks allow holiday symbols like Santa and the Easter Bunny to be part of their lives. "Seeing as Jim's family isn't Jewish and that we feel these are merely symbols of a holiday, we don't see this as a conflict of interest," says Jodi.
Ultimately, you need to be comfortable with your family's faith. "Your religious beliefs or lack thereof will affect your parenting styles in a big way," says Tessina.