Mixed marriages

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have very different religious views. Before we became parents, we usually agreed to disagree and went our separate ways on Sunday. But with the birth of our son, things are getting complicated, with pressures from every side. How can parents who are deeply committed to different religions raise children together?

A: This is one of the most complex questions in all of parenting, in part because of all of the possible variations. Are you a Reform Jew married to a Southern Baptist? A Catholic married to a Mormon? Is one or both of your extended families especially observant? Each of those scenarios (and plenty of others) brings its own challenges, but the basics are always the same.

Research by the Barna Group and The Gallup Organization indicates that interfaith marriages have a far-greater-than-average likelihood of ending in divorce. Adding children into the situation makes an already-tough situation even more complicated. The more orthodox one or both of your traditions, the more likely that otherwise minor differences will morph into irreconcilable ones as you’re faced with having to make decisions arise about circumcision, baptism, christening, and so on.

On one end of the interfaith scale, there are marriages in which one partner willingly converts to the other’s religion. That tends to resolve most of the religious issues. However, differences within religions are sometimes more problematic than differences between them.

There are also couples in which both keep their individual religions but one partner agrees to have the children raised in the other’s tradition—the Methodist, for example, who practices her own religion but supports raising her children in her husband’s Jewish traditions.

On the far end of the scale are the religions where intermarriage is specifically prohibited. Since you got married in the first place, and you’re both deeply committed to your respective religions, you’re clearly somewhere in the middle—where compromise is both necessary and possible.

Trying to parent effectively in a household with two different religious identities isn’t going to happen on its own. The solution, as in so many other areas, is communication. You and your wife need to sit down, talk openly and honestly about those tough issues, and repeat the process regularly. A few basic rules:

1. Establish mutual respect. Even if the two of you aren’t following the same religions traditions, it’s essential that you at least respect each other’s religious independence.

2. Extend that respect to your children. Though you can and should make your own beliefs known to your kids, neither of you should try to “win” a child’s conversion at the expense of the other. Ultimately, your child’s religious orientation is up to him.

3. Forgo “claiming” rituals until your child hits double digits. Rituals such as baptism, christening, and first communion usually (but not always) signify a pledge of commitment to one religious denomination—something that’s easier done than undone. It also violates rule number two, above—giving the children to make their own religious decisions once they’re old enough.

4. Decide which elements of each of your faith traditions are negotiable and which are not. Recognize that you are creating something new, and that the end result won’t necessarily look like either of your traditions. Give where you can, and draw the line where you must.

5. Present a united front with your extended families and others. Once you and your wife have decided what you’re going to do, you’ll have to make sure that others—whether they’re family or members of your congregations—respect your decisions.

6. Never stop communicating! As your children get older, you may find the need to revisit and/or renegotiate your agreement.

The bottom line is this: If you and your wife agree that your love and respect for each other and for your children is paramount, you’ll be able to build a solid, workable agreement regardless of your differences.