Many children are growing up in families that have ties to multiple spiritual traditions. In a household where one parent is Muslim and another parent Unitarian, children might identify with and participate in activities related to both religious traditions. Children who go to church and have family members from a predominantly Buddhist country may be curious about both Christianity and Buddhism. Our impulse might be to push children to pick one tradition or the other as their own. But studies in acculturation theory suggest that encouraging children to remain open to multiple traditions is a better way to nurture healthy spirituality.
When children try to navigate among diverse family religious practices, acculturation theory suggests they will follow one of four paths: 1) assimilation, 2) segregation, 3) marginalization, or 4) integration. If they choose to ignore one tradition in order to please family members who practice a more mainstream tradition, they are assimilating. Practicing different traditions with different sets of family members is segregating. Siding solely with whichever tradition is less dominant in family life is marginalizing. The healthiest option is integration, in which children identify with and incorporate practices from all of their family’s spiritual traditions into their lives.
Here are several steps you can take to support families navigating multiple religious traditions, adapted from the research of Duane Bidwell and Christel Manning.
- Allow for multiple choices. Often we limit children and their caregivers to one religious identifier. Without options, families with multiple spiritual traditions frequently choose ‘none’ or the most socially acceptable religion with which they identify (e.g., Christian in the Bible Belt even though they also practice Buddhism). When children are required to choose a single option, they may feel like they are being forced to choose between parents or negate their family heritage. Allow families to select multiple traditions on forms and/or provide a blank space where they can self-describe their spiritual identities. Their responses give you valuable insight into the actual religious connections that families have and establish a stronger foundation for collaboratively nurturing children’s spirituality.
- Encourage families to define themselves. Families who participate in multiple spiritual traditions range from those who are recognized members of two religious communities to those who identify more fully with one religion and supplement with a few practices from another tradition. Their children will have their own unique ways of understanding and expressing their spiritual identities. Do not assume that they know and embrace any particular beliefs from specific traditions. Instead, invite them to tell you what they believe and why they believe it. This provides you with a great starting point for further conversation.
- Recognize the tension. There are many assumptions about religious affiliation. Most often, people assume religious identity is a binary choice, meaning to be a part of one group (culturally Hindu) automatically disqualifies you from another group (Jewish). Children in multi-religious families navigate these problematic cultural assumptions while forming their own opinions about what they believe and why. Acknowledging that this process is difficult and you respect their choices goes a long way toward creating safe spaces for building a strong spiritual identity.
- Promote exploration. Some parents in families with multiple spiritual traditions provide their children with little direction or experience with any tradition because they don’t want to sway their children’s religious choices. However, even if caregivers provide little religious instruction, children are picking up beliefs and practices from other family members and the larger culture. Encourage parents to explore their own spiritual identities and practices with their children. This helps children more fully understand how various traditions shape the way that people look at the world, decide on communal values, and ritualize life.