S. Courtney Nathan, LCSW, is a clinical social worker and co-author of the book, When a Parent Is Seriously Ill, Practical Tips for Helping Parents and Children. Formerly coordinator of the Outreach to Intermarrieds program at Jewish Family Service, she is currently taking time off to raise her children.
The Life-Cycle of an Interfaith Relationship: Raising School-Age Children
Being an interfaith couple with school-age children, parents face some real choices. One might wonder, what do interfaith issues have to do with school? Maybe nothing, or maybe a lot.
Deciding where to send your child to school may or may not involve religious issues. Depending on where you live and the quality of education in your area, you may have several or few choices. Sometimes, a parochial school affords the best educational environment for a child. This can create new stress on a family that has not previously dealt with their religious differences. Religious feelings can also erupt if one partner attended parochial school. One couple I worked with had agreed to expose their child to both religions without choosing one. But the Catholic husband felt very strongly that he wanted his child to attend his alma mater, a parochial school. His experience there had been very positive and the particularly strong relationship he had formed with a school priest had had a major impact on his life. His Jewish wife, while uncomfortable with sending her child to a religious school, respected his strong feelings and agreed to explore the idea.
Certainly where the child will attend school is an important decision. But there are other religious issues that might arise when children reach school age. Will the child attend Sunday school? If yes, which one? If a child is being exposed to both family religions, how will he or she be religiously educated? Who will be responsible for this education?
Are you affiliated with a church or synagogue, and if not, will you join one or both? Is your church/synagogue welcoming to interfaith families?
In addition to school decisions, parents must answer children's questions about religious identity. Most kids of school age begin asking a lot of questions about who they are, what they believe and why they believe it. Not only is this an issue of maturity level, but it is also due to increased exposure to other kids. Once at school, children will meet other children of different races, religions and ethnicities. Remember, children want to "be" something. They will wonder who they are, why they are different, what they believe and what it all means for their lives. They will be asked questions by other kids who wonder about their faith, and if they do not have answers, they will come to you for help. It is best to be prepared. One child of intermarriage told his peers he was "Chewish" because his mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish.
Kids at this age are beginning to develop a sense of personal identity. They are constantly attempting to answer the existential question, who am I? Having some solid footing to stand on regarding religious identity is an important aspect of this issue for children. For children, what you do is who you are. If they are not attending any religious institution or observing any religious rituals or traditions, they may wonder what that means about them. If they are observing two different religions, they may begin to question why they are doing that and what they really are. This can be a trying time for parents when their every decision may be questioned.
Kids at this age may also become very aware of parental differences. Why does Mommy go to church without Daddy? Why don't we have a Christmas tree like Grandma and Grandpa? Why am I Jewish and Daddy is Catholic? Why can't I be Jewish like Mommy? With their child's age and maturity level in mind, parents need to provide honest answers to these questions. If couples have not sorted through their feelings and made decisions regarding religion, this may be a very difficult time for them.
Another potentially explosive area is divorce. One mother told me of her constant struggle with her ten-year-old daughter following her divorce. The child had been raised Jewish, but the Christian father was taking her to church and encouraging her to adopt his faith. She was rejecting Sunday school and telling her mother she wanted to be like her father. This was devastating for her mother who felt rejected and torn about what to do.
School-age children wonder where they belong as they are looking for ways to fit in and feel a secure identity. Particularly if they are not being given one religious identity, they will wonder where to turn in times of need. They may want to pray at bedtime and wonder which God to pray to. They may wish to pray for a friend who is sick or in need and wonder which religion to affirm. They have deep and personal needs that parents must be prepared to face.
Children should be told that their parents discussed the issue of religion and together made a decision on how to raise them. It is important for parents to present a united front when informing children of this decision. If not, children may feel torn between parents, wanting to please both and worrying about rejecting or abandoning a parent if they adhere to a different religion. It is very important to be clear with your children that you made a choice because religion is an adult thing, and when they are adults they will be able to choose what they believe and want to do, but for now, you have decided this for him.
It is okay to tell your children why you chose a specific religion. An example may be, "When we got pregnant with you we talked a lot about religion. We chose to raise you Jewish because Mommy is Jewish and even though Daddy is Episcopalian, Daddy believes all of the same things Mommy does about God. We both wanted you to be Jewish, and since the day you were born we have been raising you that way. Mommy and Daddy both love you and will share in your religious education and upbringing even though Daddy is a different faith. And while you are Jewish, we also want you to learn about Daddy's religion because it is important to Daddy and it's a part of our family."
Ask your children if your explanation makes sense and chances are, your children will say it does and will leave it at that. When parents present a united front, and give children a clear sense of who they are, it gives the children a sense of security and safety that is essential. Encourage your children to ask questions and let them know that even if you don't have answers, you'll try to give them as much information as you have and you can learn things together.
Again, if interfaith couples have not made a decision about the religious upbringing of their children, now is a time to seriously consider doing so. While some parents may be content to send their kids to a non-sectarian school and avoid Sunday school altogether, it is likely that at some point your children will have questions and will demand answers.
While not having a clear sense of religious identity will not necessarily harm your children in any way, having one is an added benefit in establishing a strong sense of self.