How to parent within an inter-faith marriage

December 20, 2010

I know about that: I was raised Baptist in the South with very little knowledge about my husband's Catholic tradition. Our wedding was held in an Episcopalian church (long story) and we never really thought about religion until it was time to have our son and get him christened.

My husband didn't think his family would be comfortable in a Baptist church with its revivalist singing and preaching. I thought my family would get lost in the Catholic rites of standing, kneeling and liturgies they never learned. In the end, we went Catholic. I saw it as a way of doing a big ritual that mattered to my husband. In addition, I know our son will get a good dose of my traditions, since I'm more likely to take him to church as he gets older.

So what's the best way to parent when you come from different faith backgrounds?

A lot of people come to the fork in the road and try to go both ways, raising kids with both religions. But experts say kids lose on two counts: They often shun making a choice, fearing it will upset the other parent. Instead, they often detach from both religions, and that leaves them without the guidance, comfort and connection parents were trying to preserve in the first place, says Cunningham.

Instead, experts say it is best to pick a religious tradition but honor the other parent's cultural traditions. I met the Roccos of Lower Merion. Deb is Jewish and Jim is Catholic. The two went through four years of dating and four years of marriage without really discussing religion, other than having a priest and rabbi at the wedding. As they had their first son, they decided to raise their kids Jewish. "It was hard that there wasn't going to be things I experienced growing up, church, having communion, confirmation," he says.

But Jim feels even more strongly about being Italian-American and the traditions of his childhood. So at Christmas the Roccos get a tree, leave out cookies for Santas, and join Jim's family for the feast of the seven fishes. His kids look forward to Easter baskets and egg rolls, as well as another big family meal. "So we've kind of merged Italian traditions with the Jewish religion," says Deb.

The Roccos sons, Nicky and Jake, are clear in who they are: "We're Jewish," says Jake. But they also beam when talking about their dad and the things they share with him.

The Roccos have another piece of advice, born out of their own experience. Jim didn't use the choice of Judaism as an excuse to check out, leaving Deb to do the religious training on her own. He goes to synagogue with his family and is helping plan Jake's bar mitzvah. One night this Hanukkah, Deb had to work late. Jim led Jake and Nicky in lighting the menorah and saying prayers. "Even though we made the decision to raise the kids Jewish, it's not just Deb's responsibility. It's our responsibility. And I think that's huge. Otherwise it is really confusing for the children."

Even once you and your partner come to a plan, that doesn't mean your extended family will accept it. It may never go down well with Grandma that her grandchildren praise Allah, have a shrine to Ganesh in the house, go to synagogue on Saturday, got baptized, center with a Buddhist chant or celebrate after Christmas with Kwanzaa. But honoring both traditions will help extended family see their connection and inclusion too.

And it can create some cool moments. Jim's family is looking forward to Jake's bar mitzvah. "Even at our synagogue where there are interfaith marriages, it's still unusual to hear 'We're going to ask the Roccos to come up to the bimah (altar) for Jake to read."

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