Raising Multi-Faith Children

May 24, 2016
Raising Multi-Faith Children

For interfaith couples, deciding where and how to exchange wedding vows may be only the beginning of a lifelong negotiation between multiple faiths. With interfaith marriages on the rise in the United States, couples are increasingly facing daunting questions about how to pass on their religions to their children.

While some interfaith couples ultimately choose a primary faith tradition in which to raise their children, a growing number of organizations are helping support parents who want their children to “be both.”

“If you have a parent who was Italian, say, or another who’s Korean, you might identify as half Italian and half Korean,” said NPRs Michel Martin. Why not apply the same ideology to religious identity?

The Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) is a Kensington, Maryland-based organization hoping to provide resources to parents who do not wish to choose between passing on their Jewish and Christian heritage to their children. Offering “a comprehensive religious education program” for children and adults alike, the IFFP aims “to teach children about Judaism and Christianity in a way that both respects the uniqueness of each religion and acknowledges the history, scripture, and values they share in common.”

Mixing Bible reading with Hebrew lessons, the IFFP Sunday School culminates in a Coming of Age ceremony that seeks to parallel both the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah and the Christian rite of confirmation. Classes for adults consist of comparative studies of the texts and traditions of the two faiths. Their Interfaith Couples workshop allows parents to consider how to navigate holidays, extended families, and peacemaking in the home.

For members of the IFFP, “being both” is not about creating a united religion out of two traditions, but rather represents their desire to instill their children with the lessons and values of each unique tradition. “We don’t tell the kids what they need to think,” IFFP director Beth McCracken-Harness told NPR. “We say Christians believe this, Jews believe this…. We’re helping them to understand both.” 

While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share many of the same stories and traditions, teaching across religions outside of the Abrahamic faiths can present further complications for interfaith families. Lacking shared sacred texts, some interfaith couples instead choose to share cross-faith rituals and customs with their children. Sheryl and Dharmesh Parbhoo told PBS that they share their Catholic and Hindu faiths with their children primarily through observing the celebrations of both traditions—“dyeing Easter eggs and lighting oil lamps called diya…trimming the Christmas tree and exchanging gifts and rakhi bracelets during Raksha Bandhan, a holiday that celebrates siblings.”

One common sentiment among parents attempting to raise children with multiple faiths is the concern that their children will be confused or overwhelmed by attempting to reconcile two traditions. Interfaith Community’s Reverend Rick Spalding told The Huffington Post that he thinks such fears are misguided. “It’s a complex world, and I don’t think we do our children any favors at all by pretending it’s simpler than it is,” Spalding said.

Social Worker and therapist Susan Needles likewise considers interfaith education to be well within children’s sphere of comprehension. “Children can handle ambivalence, can handle complexity,” Needles said. “It’s only adults who want it tied up in a neat package. Children are going to tear open the package anyway.”

The Pew Research Center reports that, of the 27 percent of Americans in mixed-affiliation marriages in 2008, Jewish and Catholic Americans were the most likely to be in an interfaith marriage, with 69 percent of Jews and 78 percent of Catholics marrying outside their faith. Hindus and Mormons, on the other hand, were the least likely to marry outside their faith, at respective rates of only 10 and 17 percent. 

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Family. Photo by Kat Grigg, Flickr Creative Commons.