In America at least, “mixed-religion” families are becoming a norm. And that’s a great thing in many ways — great for couples, great for kids, and great for society. But it comes with a fair share of complications, too. And figuring out how to talk to children about these different beliefs is one of them. It can be hard, for instance, to field questions of faith when your answers collide with those of your partner’s — “Mommy’s going to heaven, and Daddy is — well, he’s going to the ground.” But these talks (not to mention these marriages) need not end badly — whether you’re a Jew married to Muslim, a Hindu married to Buddhist, or a Catholic married to an atheist.
The trick is to remember to love your partner the way you love your children: unconditionally. You fell in love with someone who sees the world a certain way; embrace her journey, even if you give no credence to her religious beliefs.
Here are eight tips:
1. Show shame the middle finger. Sharing your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, with your child is important — even if it means letting your child know that this is one area where you and Daddy don’t agree. Remember, no matter what you believe — or don’t — there is no shame in having your own thoughts about how the world works. And that’s a lesson you want to teach your child, right? So model it. Don’t hide what you are — even if certain other people think you’re wrong or weird or downright evil. You know differently; be sure your child does, too.
2. Take ‘hell’ off the table. It’s one thing to dangle heaven as a reward for a life well-lived; it’s another to threaten hell as a punishment for faithlessness. If your partner, for instance, insists on telling your child that there is a fiery place where people go if they don’t embrace a certain set of beliefs, your partner is suffering from some major cognitive dissonance and should be asked — as nicely as possible — to lay the fuck off.
3. Be respectful — even if you have to fake it. Agree in advance that you will not intentionally denigrate or disrespect each other’s beliefs in any way. Make a deal that your children be allowed to embrace one belief over the other, but that both parents get to be honest about their beliefs (or, again, lack thereof). Promise not to put down your partner’s views in any way, but rather encourage your children to seek honest answers for themselves.
4. Find stuff you agree on. There are a great many things that nonreligious and religious parents have in common. Many religious people believe, for instance, that the Bible is not literal, that the world is not 6,000 years old, and that there are no such things as ghosts. Many nonreligious people believe that the world was created by some supernatural force, which they may or may not call “God.” As a couple, decide what you agree on, and what you don’t, so you know exactly what areas need to be traversed sensitively.
5. Speak up! Allowing one partner to “take over” the religious upbringing of a child happens a lot — and it’s not the worst thing in the world. But it’s also a kind of sad when you think about it. The existence/nonexistence of God and what happens after we die figures so heavily in the Big Questions of the universe — the questions that each and every child will, at some point, want to explore. If you don’t share your views, you can’t share with your child all the wonderful philosophies and theories and wisdom about human nature that you’ve collected during your experience as a human being. And that’s robbing your child of something special; it’s robbing them of you.
6. Say ‘I believe’ a lot. You can avoid a lot of stress with your partner (and vice versa) simply by adding “I believe” in front of whatever you say. It’s the concrete statements — “People who support abortion are disappointing God” — that make nonreligious parents bristle. But adding: “I believe…” or “My interpretation is…” to religious statements can go a long way toward taking the edge off. (So can whiskey, by the way. But that’s probably not going to help your marriage. On the other hand, maybe it will.)
7. Perfect your shrug. Your child may not know what to make of having parents with different religions at first. It might spark more questions than usual, and that’s just fine. Encourage these questions, and try to answer them as a couple as often as you can. But do let your child know that this stuff is super-confusing and neither parent has all the answers. You can say: “No one really knows for sure. That’s what allows us to have different opinions about this stuff.” This is one area where not having all the answers is not just okay — it’s sort of required.
8. Acknowledge your lack of control, and embrace it. Think of your family as points on a grid, standing equidistance from one another. The goal is not to invite your child to join you on your exact point on the grid (that’s never going to happen), but rather to encourage your child be comfortable and confident on her own unique grid point. That your child is kind to other people is your concern; whether she believes in the prophet Muhammad is not. If you’re curious what your kid believes, ask in the most neutral way you can: “What do you think? What makes sense to you?” And be sure she knows that however she responds is fine by you. Oh, and never try to pressure a child into believing the way you do — it rarely works, and might even backfire. Oftentimes, the harder you push a child to your way of thinking, the more distance the child puts between you — until, eventually, she’s off your grid altogether.
This post originally appeared in July 2012.