There are many challenging talks to be had with your children, but perhaps one of the least talked about is the one you’ll have about religion.
This is new territory for today’s parents of younger children, and something previous generations didn’t necessarily face. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey in 2010, 16 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with a religion, 71 percent of whom are under the age of fifty. Yet, despite not associating with a particular religion, 41 percent of these adults say religion is important in their lives and about a quarter attend religious services at least a couple times per year.
Even those who are religiously affiliated are not necessarily married to someone of their same faith—it’s estimated that about 37 percent of couples subscribe to different religions. So, when children start asking questions about why they celebrate certain holidays or why they don’t go to church on Sunday morning like some of their friends, it can be difficult to know where to begin and what to say.
We asked local religious leaders, including Alissa Zuchman, director of family education at Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Father Mike McGovern from The Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest and Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, for advice about talking to your children about faith with respect and thoughtfulness.
Consider your Religious Values
It can be difficult as a parent to fit in conversations about moral and ethical values, and even then, how do you begin? Zuchman offers that, “religion most often gives parents a moral and ethical base to begin with. Every faith has a version of the golden rule and religions talk about how we should treat each other and be moral people.”
One Family, Two Religions
Interfaith is a part of the world we live in and it’s important to be open with your children. “So often in faith communities you have to choose for your child to be one religion of the other, but it’s not good to make children choose. Eventually they will decide—as we all do—what they want to believe, so being more open about your interfaith family begins the process much earlier,” Zuchman says. Ultimately, Father McGovern advises, “It is important for children to see that both mom and dad have a life that is centered on God even if they subscribe to different faiths.”
For parents who are looking for extra support with explaining their faith or teaching religious values, religious education, such as youth groups, can be a helpful tool. “Young people need a peer group that supports their religious beliefs, and it takes a certain critical mass of people to develop a culture where children feel supported in practicing their faith,” Father McGovern says. Youth ministry programs can be a very positive experience for children and parents. Zuchman advises that programs should be fun and joyful, rather than feeling like school, to be most beneficial to kids.
Hesitant About Faith?
Parents not looking to raise their children with a faith background may find questions about God and religion especially difficult to answer. Yamada explains, “Similar to most parenting situations, parents must balance their own honesty and integrity with the needs of their children.”
When children ask questions about God, often they are looking for reassurance about troubling issues such as the loss of a loved one. “A tactic that I have found helpful with my own children is to ask more questions, and to reassure children that they are not alone in their thinking and questions,” Yamada says.