Choosing My Religion
Part of parenting and raising a family is sharing and passing on your attitudes and beliefs with your children on all sorts of things, especially religion and spirituality. Whether you devoutly follow a specific denomination or are a dyed-in-the-wool agnostic, it’s only natural to want your kids to hold views that are similar to your own on questions as fundamental, yet mysterious, as whether there is a higher power, what life is all about and where we go when we die. And perhaps most importantly, you want them to demonstrate reverence and respect for your beliefs and follow in your footsteps as they move into adulthood.
At a young age, you pretty much have a basic responsibility to exercise control over what your children think and do. However, at some point as they grow older and are expected to start thinking for themselves, they may develop beliefs that don’t necessarily match up with your own. It can be painful and troubling to think your kids are in some way rejecting that which you have the deepest faith in, and also frustrating to watch them perhaps grow more spiritual than you or embrace institutions and teachings you’ve chosen to walk away from in your own life. So how can you better prepare yourself for the stage in which your children begin to form their own beliefs?
Start By Raising a Free Thinker
Gladys Maged, the administrator of Kahal B’raira, Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Cambridge, says young people, just like adults, have the ability to think for themselves, and its crucial to support their processes of questioning, reasoning and learning. She explains in her congregation, in addition to sharing a long and wonderful intellectual and ethical tradition and line of thinking that dates back to biblical times, they also believe in putting children in situations where their thinking processes can flourish and mature.
Maged says it’s important to remember your kids are not functioning in a neutral environment, so while you want to avoid pushing them into rigidly following your creed, you also don’t want to leave them subject to whatever they happen to encounter as they venture out into society at large. “Your children are going to be influenced by all of these things, and you need to decide which influences you expose them to in order to give them a grounding, and that’s not equivalent to taking away their ability to think.”
Wendy Thomas Russell, an award-winning journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious (Brown Paper Press, 2015), explains one of the major issues parents encounter today is not knowing how to talk to their kids and share what they believe without indoctrinating them. “The issue of raising a child to believe precisely the way you do presents so many problems, whether you’re very religious, ardently atheist or somewhere in between,” says Russell. It’s crucial to remember you’re raising a human being that will at some point inevitably hold different opinions than you do. Because when you don’t, it can damage a child’s self-esteem while at the same point weaken your relationship.
“We need to find a way to talk to our kids about beliefs openly and honestly while also leaving the door open to them to make up their own minds. When you give a child the freedom to choose their path, your child is far more likely to give everyone else on the planet the freedom to choose a path that’s right for them.”
Be Mindful of What You’re Modeling
As is the case so often in parenting, the things you do and how you live your life have a more genuine and lasting influence on a child than lectures, stories and sermons. “If you believe that people should be treated with respect and you want your child to treat people with respect, you have to treat your child with respect. If we want to show that reason (not force), respect, care and love are values and priorities of ours, then we have to redouble our efforts as parents to model that,” says Maged.
One specific area of behavior parents should be especially cognizant of is the attitudes exhibited toward individuals and groups that hold views that differ from your own. Often as parents, we let our guards down at home and amongst those we’re most comfortable around, and in turn demonstrate negativity toward those who express disparate beliefs on religion, lifestyle and politics. When parents choose to denigrate or ridicule the beliefs of others, it not only makes kids think it’s OK to do the same openly. It also puts a wall up between you and your child should they ever have the interest in exploring or experimenting with anything that isn’t strictly aligned with your belief system.
Create an Experience Worth Holding Onto
While exploring beliefs and spirituality is healthy and natural, often the reasons kids actively seek divergent paths stems directly from their personal history. While some may have felt forced into following their family’s faith or lack thereof, in many cases they simply haven’t been provided an experience they’ve enjoyed, value and wish to continue. Rather than put the onus to conform on the child at this formative juncture, it can be enlightening to take a moment to clearly reflect on the path that has brought you to your current belief system. And also confirm what it is about the religion or culture or community you are a part of that you feel is important to pass on to your kids.
According to Maged, many adults will tell you their strongest connection to their cultural, ethnic or religious background was the family dinner with relatives or a special celebration they attended with their parents. A firm believer in the “It takes a village to raise a child” way of thinking, she recommends families that aren’t part of a religious congregation to join or start their own cultural and social communities, to build the type of supportive environment that gives children confidence and sets the right example.
“Younger children, there’s nothing they want to do more than spend time with their parents. They want to be in close family relationships,” says Maged. So taking part in activities and social projects, whether it’s with a congregation or a community group, is a surefire way to get kids engaged and interested in the traditions and/or institutions you choose to be a part of.
Have Faith, and Try to Relax
It may take a leap of faith, but when you notice your children are going through a phase where they’re exploring new ideas in terms of religion and spirituality, don’t freak out. In fact, you should probably celebrate the fact they’re not only showing curiosity and demonstrating critical thinking, but they’re also comfortable enough to include you in their thoughts and experiences.
“You are their greatest confidant, you are the sounding board, you are the most trusted person, because you are the person they know is going to stay with them,” says Maged. “So they’re going to bring out all kinds of inner difficult questions in front of you. And you’re mistaken to think everything they bring up that they want to explore, they’re necessarily going to stay with.”
Both Russell and Maged agree that trying to force your kids to believe what you do is a slippery slope that can create a divide in your relationship. However, when you’ve given your children the gift of allowing them to think for themselves, says Russell, “There’s nothing to rebel against. They still may go their own way, and you still may not like it, but it’s not rebellion. It’s just them, stretching their wings.”
Russell feels kids are hardwired to follow in their parents’ footsteps. She also says it can be an understandable blow to your ego when your children start to turn away from the belief systems you’ve handed down. “If we’re being honest, we have to admit that some of our desire to hold our kids close to us is selfish,” says Russell. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t know best after all mom.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to be like you,’ and that can really sting and that’s normal. But we have to get over that because the only way to keep from having a child that disagrees with us fundamentally on at least a few important issues is not to be a parent at all.”
Maged believes one area most parents can do better is calling on the long-term perspective our past experiences have provided us. It’s about keeping your kids as close as you can, being involved and talking with them, even when they’re saying and doing things you might find difficult and maybe even offensive. “They’re going to bring up things they actually need you to take a stand on. Not a stand that says you must do what I say, but the stand that says, ‘I don’t think that way. I can’t agree with you on that, I believe in something different,” she explains.
This discussion is not about being right. It’s about showing respect for each other and sharing in the countless things we do have in common. “It requires humility and it requires kindness,” says Russell. “If parents dig deep, see inside themselves and decide what they really want is to have a close relationship with their child, for their child to be happy and their child to be kind, then the religious differences that may pop up are not going to interrupt that.” And if somehow we can find the middle ground with our children and the people we love most who don’t share our thoughts and opinions, maybe somehow in this increasingly polarized society we just might start to be a little more tolerant of all people, and judge them by the things they do rather than what they choose to believe or not to believe in.