Today’s question comes from Beverly. She asks a great question that many families are wrestling with these days. Here is her question.
“Some of us in my group were recently talking about how to raise kids in a family with divergent spiritual traditions. Some parents come from different religious backgrounds than each other, others have chosen to follow a different spiritual path than their own parents, and one is trying to raise a foster child who comes from a different nationality and religion than her own. How do you raise children to respect all of the traditions that are their legacy, but still feel a sense of belonging? How do you tell them what you believe while still leaving the door open for them to take a different path?”
Those of you who know me know that I like to use concrete examples to help people wrap their minds around abstract ideas. So here’s what came to mind for me in regard to the question.
Every summer, I take 3 of my 4 weeks of annual vacation to do the same thing: visit my family in Washington State. When it comes to traveling the roughly 1,200 miles between Los Angeles and Spokane, I have a few options about how I can journey. I could, for instance, decide to take a flight from LA to Spokane and arrive in 3 hours. I could also decide to take the Pacific Coast Highway along the coast of California and get to Spokane in about 30 hours. I could drive up Interstate 5 (and US 97, I 84, I 182, and H 395) and arrive in Spokane in about 20 hours; or I could drive north through Nevada, Eastern Oregon and part of Idaho and get there in about 20 hours as well.
If I’m not careful, I could lose myself in the possibilities as I consider all the paths open to me. I could ponder what I might do with the 17 hours I would save if I flew. I could daydream about the beauties of the coastal views I would encounter on the Pacific Coast Highway; or I could look forward to spending time with my friend Gene whom I could visit with if I drove through Idaho.
Ultimately, however, if I want to achieve my goal and arrive at time with my loved ones. I have to pick a path and commit to it.
So how do I do that?
I do that by exploring the values that are most important to me. In the case of the example I used, I have three values that shape my decision each year. First, I want to spend as much time as possible with my family. Second, the trip needs to be as affordable and as safe as possible. Third, I must choose an affordable and loving option for how to care for my 12-year-old dog during this time as well.
When I look at all of these values together, I have decided each year to drive up Interstate 5.
For three reasons. First, it gets me there in the least amount of time. Second, most of the time is spent on well-traveled stretches of road that I know well and consider safe (sorry Nevada, eastern Oregon, and Idaho). Third, I am able to take my old dog with me – as I can’t financially or emotionally afford to board him for 3 weeks.
Does that mean that because I commit myself to the I-5 route that other paths are bogus or somehow “less than”. No. It simply means that the I-5 route is the best path for me that is consistent with my values and goals for life.
When I deal with interfaith families, I try to use a similar approach.
Each parent in an interfaith couple has his or her own set of values. Some of these values may overlap; others may not. Nevertheless, each member of the couple has picked the spiritual path that is most consistent with their values and goals for life. (Please not that when I say “goals for life” – I don’t mean things like “get a good job”, “vacation in Europe each year” or “have a nice house”; I mean how the individual could achieve the deepest sense of peace, happiness, and wholeness in life.)
When the couple has a child (or has children), they are blessed with the opportunity to help their child develop her or his own glorious sense of spirituality. The parents or guardians can certainly talk with the child about some of the spiritual options that are open to the child. They can even explore some of the options together.
As the child gets older – and grows in her or his awareness and sense of self– then it is appropriate for the parents/guardians to begin talking about the process whereby an individual goes about choosing his or her path. In the course of the conversation, the parents/guardians can use themselves as an example and talk about their own process of choosing a path.
You will note that I have a clear bias in this matter. I believe there is tremendous value in an individual actually picking a path and making a commitment to travel down that path toward one’s ultimate goal (God).
That’s not to say that there won’t be twists and turns along the way (says the Pastor who – at one point in his journey considered Judaism, Unitarianism, Agnosticism, and the Baha’i tradition). Or that individuals won’t reach a point in their life where they need to go start over – and set out on a completely new path. But something transformative happens when an individual – after looking at his or her options – decides to commit to a path, rather than losing him or herself in the possibilities (no salvific pun intended here).
So that’s how I would talk about the challenges of introducing children in a religiously pluralistic world to various traditions (especially the various traditions that exist within one’s home) – and then helping them choose the best path for their journey.
So what about you? What thoughts do you have in this matter?