When I was a child growing up in central Kentucky, most of my neighbors were Christian. If they did not attend the Baptist church where my father was the senior minister, they most likely attended one of the other Christian churches occupying the four corners of our downtown. For the most part, even those who were not regular churchgoers considered themselves Christian nonetheless.
As a consequence, most parents in our communities shared many of the same values and beliefs, as well as paid homage to the same Christian traditions and holidays—Christmas, Lent, Easter, and so forth.
Today, we live in a more multicultural, and religiously diverse, world. Your neighbors may be Christian. But, it's just as possible they are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or they may profess no faith association whatsoever. In the recent wedding of Chelsea Clinton, daughter of the former president, to Marc Mezvinski for example, we were reminded of the rapidly growing phenomenon of interfaith marriages. Just twenty-five years ago, according to the Washington Post, interfaith marriages made up only 15 percent of U.S. households. Today, that number is at least 25 percent – or one-fourth of all households.
So, what are parents like Marc and Chelsea to do if and when they bring children into this world? In which faith tradition will they raise their children? Even if yours is not an interfaith marriage, how do you raise a spiritually curious child in this ever--expanding interfaith culture? Here are my tips:
1. Before talking to your child, talk to each other. If you’re in an interfaith marriage, you and your partner must address some basic questions: Will the children go with you to synagogue? Or, to your partner's church? Or, will you rotate and, eventually, let the child make up his or her own mind?
The last one is my suggestion. No one tradition is more “right” than another, although the ego inside you wants to believe it is. (And admittedly, it’s hard not to feel your spiritual tradition is “better.” Otherwise, why did you choose it over another?) So, be very careful to work out these matters as a team. The goal is to help kids make their own decisions and choices, and do so in a spiritual environment devoid of judgment.
2. Expose them to as many different faiths as possible. Even if you and your partner share the same faith tradition and so raise your children to believe as you do, affirm their innate curiosity by introducing them to other faith traditions. If you don’t, you can bet the culture around them will. And that's a good thing.
As I say in my book, The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God teach them to question everything—your beliefs, their beliefs, and the beliefs of others, while keeping an open mind and a respectful attitude toward all of them. Guard against passing judgment, either by what you say (or, don’t say) or how your react to anyone else’s faith or beliefs. Be careful, too, about teaching a child that your way of believing is a better way or, worse, the only way to know God (or, the Divine, or Dharma, or whatever your faith language is for “ultimate reality”). Spirituality is nurtured in the crucible of curiosity, questions, even doubts. In fact, one could say, there is no faith apart from doubt. So embrace their questions.
3. ...But don't freak out if you don't have all the answers. The truth is, you don’t. So, give up any notion that you have to answer all their questions. What you have to do is listen and encourage their questions, their curiosity. That’s all. Ponder their questions with them. Encourage them to seek an answer and, if they find it, to share it with you. Spend time exploring the wonder of this universe with them, too. Nurture quietude and stillness by taking a walk with them in nature.
4. Observe without labeling. Avoid the natural tendency to label everything you see. Instead, encourage a child to look beyond the label, or name, and so explore the object itself. For example, when your child sees a giant oak tree, like the one that covers our front yard and several others, and asks, “What is that?” Don’t just say, “That’s an oak tree.” Instead, walk over to the tree itself. Say, “We call this an oak tree but, look closely at it. Do you see the bark and the ridges between the bark? This is to the oak tree what skin is on you and me. Touch it. Touch yourself? Does it feel different or the same? Does it feel like, or remind you, of anything you felt before?”
This kind of unbiased exploration beyond the mere labels and names that we give to things, as well as to people, will nurture curiosity, openness, and acceptance in your child. And, these three qualities are essential, not only to a healthy spiritual relationship with the Unseen, but a quality relationship with others and with the environment itself.
5. Let the winter holidays be your teachers. As we approach the holiday season, remind your children that, while many of their friends will commemorate the season in Christian traditions, there are others, some of whom they may know from school, who will celebrate the holidays differently but no less passionately. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is probably the most familiar example, but Hindus celebrate a five-day light festival in the Fall called “Diwali” as well. These are teachable moments for you and your child. Use them to nurture curiosity and see what happens.