Raising Kids Between Religions: Latching onto God Despite a Bad Case of Steeple Confusion
What religion or religions will you raise your children with?
BY: Andrew Andestic
Recently, I listened to an inter-religious panel of rabbis and priests discussing interfaith marriages. The context was quite serious—they were deconstructing an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm on the TV Guide Channel (yes, this is the quality TV I watch when Jersey Shore is not on). It was a good conversation, but I was struck when one of the guests, a seemingly liberal fellow, made the point that in such marriages it was critical, undeniably essential, that the couple pick one faith to raise the child. I was stunned. Certainly somebody would counter this guy. But they all agreed—the priest, the rabbi, and the host. Don’t confuse your kids by trying to raise them in two religions. You would have to be crazy to do that.
Call my crazy because that’s what I want to do. And not just in two religions. Why stop there? I want to raise my three kids across a broad spectrum of religions. I want them to have the best God that Sunday can buy. But here comes this panel of experts on the hard-hitting TV Guide Channel making me feel like I’m going to turn my kids into head cases. Children with religion confusion! I recalled the scolding my wife and I took when, as new parents, we unwittingly gave our first-born a bottle early in his breast-feeding career and therefore doomed him to the evil monster of nipple confusion. We just wanted to get out of the house for a martini. Instead we scarred him for life. And something is wrong with him. He’s six and doesn’t care about bottles or boobs—two of my favorite things.
Now I’ve unleashed a new kind of confusion. I’m going to have kids who don’t know their catechism from their four noble truths. They’ll be looking for holy water in mindfulness bowls and praying to Allah with a Rosary. I’m screwing these kids up in so many ways already, should I really be attempting a multi-faith childhood? TV Guide Channel says no.
To make the matter more potent, a dear friend of ours lost his battle with cancer. Now my mother is worried sick that I’m going to confuse my two oldest boys with my meandering explanations for all the possible locations of this man they both loved, each depending on which church we most recently attended. One minute we’re telling them he’s in the air and water and clouds around us; the next my mother is saying he’s fully himself sitting at a banquet table with Jesus (and if I know my friend, he’s got Jesus turning water into wine and the table salad into something greener and more potent). I finally settled the matter by telling the boys the truth: we don’t know exactly. We know something. We hope. But we don’t know exactly.
Now I’ve really done it. But what can I do? I’ve committed to staying with one woman, but I draw the line at drinking one kind beer, sticking with the same pizza toppings, and attending one church. I’m a spiritual guy who likes variety. And like many people my age, I have come to see religion as a valuable aid in one’s personal search for meaning, not an end in itself. It’s a tool. And there are many different tools worth using, or, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And yes, in this analogy, the cat is God and the skinning is how we get to Her (yeah, I said it).
I want my kids to have a religious foundation to their lives and a deep seeded sense of the divine. I don’t, however, want them to hit fifteen and realize that their dad, mom, and most the world, frankly, don’t believe all the unshakeable truths that religions push on us. I think most people are willing to grant God a little larger living space than one book and building. The Buddha said never believe anything until you’ve tested it yourself. If only I could just stay a Buddhist all the time. Problem is, Buddhists don’t have a God, and I like having a God handy. So I’m Catholic too, part-time, especially the time when I want my kids to have some good old ass-kicking religion. You know, old-time religion with straight-backed pews and uncomfortable kneelers and a nice hour of cleansing boredom and jarring organ music. My kids need quiet too—so I’m a part-time Quaker. They also need to be involved in an open, welcoming community: enter the Unitarians. Finally, on the Sunday’s after daddy and mommy were up a little late with their “church community” of friends who drink good wine and chat, well, then there’s this cool church nearby that doesn’t start until five in the evening. It has a rock band and a pastor who wears Chuck Taylor’s.
My mother disputes: what will your kids do when they grow up? Won’t they just end up doing nothing, therefore becoming uncaring, despairing heathens?
I counter: they can pick whatever religion they like the best.
My mother rebuffs: how will your children pick a faith when they’re adults, if you don’t show them that you’ve picked one yourself?
My rejoinder: how will they know if they like Thai food if I only take them to Italian restaurants? Plus, I have picked a faith. I’ve picked six.
I know many an example of a devout saint who sprouted from a less than devout family: Thomas Merton and The Buddha come to mind. I also know many examples of people raised by the book in a single religion who got so turned off that now they’re nothing: the entire graduating class of my Catholic grade school comes to mind.
The bottom line is that kids are humans, not puppies needing to be trained how to pee on command. They’re going to spend their whole life sorting through nuances and mixed-signals. Religion will be the least of their problems. At the core, most religions offer the same reassurance of some sort of divine plan along with a nice set of moral codes (because you gotta sin to be saved). Try getting the same consistency from the opposite sex or your manager at work.
So why not dabble a little bit. Enjoy the variety instead of fearing the enemy. A little Quaker. A little Muslim. Toss in some Hebrew. Catholic. Vedanta. Who’ve I missed? We live in so much fear and distrust, and we cover it all up in these shaky certainties. Would God really damn half the world because they happen to be born into the wrong religion? No. He won’t. I asked Him. Let me be very clear, Jesus Christ is really cool and the only way, unless you have another one that works for you.
Which leaves the only real problem with what I’m trying to do with my kids. The problem: the religions themselves. Like an episode of three’s company, eventually one God is going to find out you’re slipping out the door to see Another. Of course, God won’t care—but the pastor might. It’s not like Trader Joe’s beer section, where they actually encourage you to build your own variety pack. Churches want to see you sign up, stick around, and enroll in the automatic payment plan. They want to see you, your kids, and your wallet there every week. They want a community—which is right and good.
I can handle that. I can drag my kids up to meet the priest every few weeks (okay, really every few months—because sometimes Sunday has to be a day of total rest, and church with three kids is anything but restful) and look him in the eye and say, Sorry we missed your homily last week, Father, but my boys had their Wiccan initiation ritual down at the witch’s pond. Is it too late to sign them up for first communion?
Andrew Andestic is a teacher, writer, musician, father, and wanna-be mystic. He founded Tall Trees Grow Deep, a site devoted to sharing resources for parents and teachers who want to raise awesome humans.