It's Not a Competition: 8 Tips for Interfaith Parents

In America at least, "mixed-religion” families are becoming a norm. And that's a great thing in many ways — great for couples, great for kids, and great for society. But it comes with a fair share of complications, too. And figuring out how to talk to children about these different beliefs is one of them. It can be hard, for instance, to field questions of faith when your answers collide with those of your partner's — "Mommy's going to heaven, and Daddy is — well, he's going to the ground." But these talks (not to mention these marriages) need not end badly — whether you're a Jew married to Muslim, a Hindu married to Buddhist, or a Catholic married to an atheist. The trick is to remember to love your partner the way you love your children: unconditionally. You fell in love with someone who sees the world a certain way; embrace her journey, even if you give no credence to her religious beliefs.

Here are eight tips:

1. Show shame the middle finger. Sharing your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, with your child is important — even if it means letting your child know that this is one area where you and Daddy don't agree. Remember, no matter what you believe — or don't — there is no shame in having your own thoughts about how the world works. And that's a lesson you want to teach your child, right? So model it. Don't hide what you are — even if certain other people think you're wrong or weird or downright evil. You know differently; be sure your child does, too.

2. Take 'hell' off the table. It's one thing to dangle heaven as a reward for a life well-lived; it's another to threaten hell as a punishment for faithlessness. If your partner, for instance, insists on telling your child that there is a fiery place where people go if they don't embrace a certain set of beliefs, your partner is suffering from some major cognitive dissonance and should be asked — as nicely as possible — to lay the fuck off.

3. Be respectful — even if you have to fake it. Agree in advance that you will not intentionally denigrate or disrespect each other's beliefs in any way. Make a deal that your children be allowed to embrace one belief over the other, but that both parents get to be honest about their beliefs (or, again, lack thereof). Promise not to put down your partner's views in any way, but rather encourage your children to seek honest answers for themselves.

4. Find stuff you agree on. There are a great many things that nonreligious and religious parents have in common. Many religious people believe, for instance, that the Bible is not literal, that the world is not 6,000 years old, and that there are no such things as ghosts. Many nonreligious people believe that the world was created by some supernatural force, which they may or may not call "God." As a couple, decide what you agree on, and what you don't, so you know exactly what areas need to be traversed sensitively.

5. Speak up! Allowing one partner to "take over" the religious upbringing of a child happens a lot — and it's not the worst thing in the world. But it's also a kind of sad when you think about it. The existence/nonexistence of God and what happens after we die figures so heavily in the Big Questions of the universe — the questions that each and every child will, at some point, want to explore. If you don't share your views, you can't share with your child all the wonderful philosophies and theories and wisdom about human nature that you've collected during your experience as a human being. And that's robbing your child of something special; it's robbing them of you.

6. Say 'I believe' a lot. You can avoid a lot of stress with your partner (and vice versa) simply by adding "I believe" in front of whatever you say. It's the concrete statements — "People who support abortion are disappointing God" — that make nonreligious parents bristle. But adding: "I believe..." or "My interpretation is…" to religious statements can go a long way toward taking the edge off. (So can whiskey, by the way. But that's probably not going to help your marriage. On the other hand, maybe it will.)

7. Perfect your shrug. Your child may not know what to make of having parents with different religions at first. It might spark more questions than usual, and that's just fine. Encourage these questions, and try to answer them as a couple as often as you can. But do let your child know that this stuff is super-confusing and neither parent has all the answers. You can say: "No one really knows for sure. That's what allows us to have different opinions about this stuff." This is one area where not having all the answers is not just okay — it's sort of required.

8. Acknowledge your lack of control, and embrace it. Think of your family as points on a grid, standing equidistance from one another. The goal is not to invite your child to join you on your exact point on the grid (that's never going to happen), but rather to encourage your child be comfortable and confident on her own unique grid point. That your child is kind to other people is your concern; whether she believes in the prophet Muhammad is not. If you're curious what your kid believes, ask in the most neutral way you can: "What do you think? What makes sense to you?" And be sure she knows that however she responds is fine by you. Oh, and never try to pressure a child into believing the way you do — it rarely works, and might even backfire. Oftentimes, the harder you push a child to your way of thinking, the more distance the child puts between you — until, eventually, she's off your grid altogether.

This post originally appeared in July 2012.

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer — But Choose Wisely

Library books

Can we talk about religious picture books for a minute?

I'm assuming most of you didn't read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. And that it rarely occurs to you to wonder what new Islamic, Hindu or Christian children's books came out this year. I'm also willing to bet you don't spend a lot of time in the religious section at your public library.

But it might be time to start.

For the last month or so I've been obsessed with religion-books for kids — mostly because my own knowledge of religious stories is limited, and I'm always looking for language to use when talking through certain religious concepts with my daughter. At any given time, I might have 15 of these things stacked in my office, and another dozen on hold at the library.

As you can imagine, kids' religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to "educate" and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children's interests in mind.

Because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don't feel like "learning experiences" — even though that's exactly what they are.

Of course, it's sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. Which is why I'm endeavoring to sort through the lot in search of the best and most helpful reads to pass on to you guys. (How nice am I?) In the meantime, though, I thought I'd offer some advice on choosing titles that won't confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears.

1. Choose a book that will appeal to your kid

You know your kid and his taste more than anyone else. You know when a book (or toy or game) has a good chance of holding his interest, or no chance at all. If your 7-year-old is a real boy's boy who's going to roll his eyes at an Easter story about a little girl and her lamb, put it back. If your daughter is only interested in princesses, maybe choose a book about the Jewish Princess Esther over a book about the Hindu God Shiva. Religious literacy isn't about cramming shit down kids' throats; in fact, it's quite the opposite.

2. Go for age-appropriate

Like No. 1, this is usually pretty easy to judge by a quick glance. The cover art and the amount of text on the first couple of pages are good guides. And, of course, if you're at all worried about violence or other adult situations, be sure to flip through the book before handing it on to your little one; lots of religious stories depict people — not to mention God — doing some pretty gnarly things.

3. Make it relevant

If you want this stuff to be at all meaningful, it's probably best not to introduce reading material completely randomly. Read her a Ramadan story during the month of Ramadan, a Good Friday story around Easter. You don't have to have some big master plan, of course, but do try to introduce each book with a sentence about why you're reading it — why this book, why now. As a side note: Many books out there are what I would call "secondary" books — books that are great to read AFTER your kid has been introduced to certain concepts. Hoppy Passover, for instance, is a sweet book about a bunny family that holds a Seder. But because it assumes some basic knowledge of Passover, it might be better as an accompaniment to another book — rather than standing on its own.

4. Check for historical accuracy

This is a biggie. As secular parents, the point of reading religious books is to teach our kids about religion. When authors take poetic license or manipulate religious history to the point where the stories are no longer accurate, the value for us is gone. Religious people might believe that their kids will get the "full story" eventually, and may not be worried about these deviations. Hell, they might even prefer revisionist history from time to time, especially when the revision creates a more believable, desirable or compelling story. But we as secular parents are looking for the truth. And, just as often, the inaccuracies insult both believers and nonbelievers.

5. Watch out for white-washing

That a story is "accurate" doesn't mean it's complete. Bible stories (especially the ones you find in the Religion sections at major bookstores) often are abbreviated to sound kinder, gentler, and more understandable. (The story of Noah's Ark is not nearly so charming when you consider that God went on to exterminate every living creature on earth, for example.) I do understand the desire to make stories age-appropriate. I've found myself struggling to explain certain religious violence to my daughter in a way that won't give her nightmares. But if a story needs to be white-washed in order to share it, maybe it's not time to share that particular story. I'd love for my kid to see Chinatown someday; that doesn't mean I need to watch it with her tonight. That said, if you find yourself sharing a cleaned-up Bible story with your child, no sweat. Just explain that there's a bit more to the story than that, and you'll tell her the rest when she gets older.

6. Be aware of slants and bias 

Although it may surprise you, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. Even books written from a religious perspective can be really well-done and educational. It all depends on the nature and degree of the slant. With some titles, the only slant is the point of view. An author might use "we," for instance, instead of "they" when talking about the religious group featured in the book. But as long as you are comfortable addressing these slants as they pop up — "The author uses 'we' in this story because he, himself, is Muslim," for example — then this shouldn't be a problem. Some books, though, are more overt, and secular parents would do right to leave those behind. Sermonizing books will do nothing but confuse your child and annoy the hell of you. If you think you might be looking at such a book, but aren't sure, here's a hint: Flip to the back, and find the story's denouement, summary or wrap-up. That's where most authors put their "morals" — and if the book has a preachy element, you'll find it at the end.