Ho Ho Hanukkah!

The joys and challenges of inter-faith relationships.

Matzoh or Jellybeans? Sometimes Kids Aren't Asking What We Think They Are

A quarter of marriages are interfaith. What does it mean for the kids?

This year Passover and Easter are unusually proximate. In a place like Manhattan, this sets the stage for all kinds of conversations, compromises and accommodations--interfaith partnership is a way of life here, given the prevalence of factors sociologists tell us predict or correlate with intermarriage. These include a highly mobile population, lower rates of affiliation with a specific temple or church and the general factors that predict lower levels of religious identification (higher income and higher education among them).

A friend who lives in Manhattan tells the story of the experience she and her husband had fielding one of the Big Questions from their daughter, 6 or 7-years-old at the time. Mom, dad, and daughter were driving home from an interfaith wedding between a Jewish friend and his Christian bride. Primed for questions by the experience, they shortly heard their little girl, missing several teeth, lisp from the back seat, "When I'm older, can I have two weligions?"

Two religions. Oh brother. The grown-ups, thoughtful and intelligent, wanted to instill both religious tolerance and an understanding that they personally favored marrying within their own faith. They took a deep breath and launched into an explanation. "Judaism and Christianity have things in common. And some things about the two religions are, um, very different. And, uh, Mommy and I believe it's important for people who marry to be the same religion. When you're older you will think about all this yourself and decide..." etc.

There was silence and then the little girl said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I want some of those jeans that the big girls at my school have. Twue Weligions. When can I?"

Two Religions, True Religions. The wires of faith and fashion had become crossed. One potentially important lesson here, at this particular moment of religious crossing in April: Sometimes kids aren't asking the questions or pondering the issues we think they are. And as often as not, our torment is not theirs. Many are the stories of parents who launch into detailed descriptions of, say, human sexuality with their 5-year-old who then exclaims, "What?! I wanted you to tell me about birds eating bees!" I remember how I myself struggled to explain my own beliefs one December when my stepdaughter, 11 at the time, asked me whether I was Jewish like her dad or Christian like her mom.  "Um, well," I said, wondering if this was going to turn into a philosophical discussion about faith. Do you celebrate Christmas? she pressed. When I affirmed that I did indeed, she did a fist pump and said, "Yessssss, two Christmases! One at mom's and one here!" Ah, so we didn't need to get into philosophy after all.

A 2008 Pew Research study on faith found that a quarter of all Americans have married across religions' lines. That percentage jumps to 37 percent when you count Protestants of different denominations.

While there are a number of organizations--many of them with agendas--that assert that couples in interfaith relationships are dramatically more likely to divorce or end the life partnership, we have to think about such "statistics" carefully. The higher divorce rate in interfaith marriages is likely fueled by factors other than some marital gulf about God. Coincidence and causation are not the same: See this article in Newsweek.

Whatever we think of it, millions of couples and families in the U.S. are living the reality of interfaith marriage every day. Demographers predict that the trend of interfaith relationships and marriages will continue and likely increase, owing to factors including a more religiously heterogeneous population nationwide; lower levels of religious identifications among adolescents than in previous historical periods; and the ways singles are now likely to meet (historically they met at places of religious worship and through parents and relatives; now they are more likely to meet at school, online or through friends).

While there may be no easy answers about questions like "Matzoh, chocolate eggs, or both?" in interfaith households, grappling with two religions may not be as complicated for children as some adults fear. While there are no hard and fast statistics about how having two religions impacts on having True Religion, and how interfaith partnerships affect children (one 1990 study found that children were more likely to practice the religion of their mothers, or follow their mother's example of not practicing any religion), we might well extrapolate from other research about how children process and handle "two realities" in a living situation.

In one 30-year longitudinal study, prominent family researcher Mavis Hetherington noted that children do surprisingly well with "parallel parenting"--two sets of rules in two households post divorce, summed up in the motto, "Two houses, two rules." Similarly, stepfamilies that make it, researchers consistently find, are flexible about accommodating two separate family cultures rather than forcing everyone to "blend" personalities, families or origin, and traditions. Thus some stepfamilies have two Christmas trees so that each gets to decorate "the way we always have"; some cook two turkeys to honor their "own" foodways. It is precisely this flexibility--rather than some unrealistic notion of blending seamlessly--that allows stepfamilies that succeed to do so.

The kids in such families are adaptable and flexible and can hold ostensible "contradictions" (whether it's "mom's house mom's rules, dad's house dad's rules" or "Easter egg hunt and a seder") in mind without feeling torn. Many parents in interfaith marriages are already familiar with these qualities in their own children, and will do well to nurture them.



Hetherington, Mavis, Virginia Longitudinal Study results summarized in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (W.W. Norton, 1993).

Nelson, Hart, "The religious identification of children in interfaith marriages," Review of Religious Research, Vol. 32, No. 2 ( December, 1990).