For religious parents: when did you (or plan to) tell your kids about other faiths?

I’m at an age where I have a number of friends (late 30s to mid-40s, if that makes a difference) with young children, mostly 10 and under, being raised in a faith. The faith varies among people, but it tends to be a liberal form in any case. As someone who was raised Catholic but would now consider myself more of a Modern Deist, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

However, there have been a few awkward moments for me when I’ve been a guest in these folks’ homes - moments when it’s clear that either the kids have no apparent awareness that other faiths even exist, or even if they do, assume that I’m the same faith as them because I’m “Aunt Noctilucent”, and that I’ll join in with them on something without a second thought. (An example of this last one: singing Grace before dinner while holding hands.)

I have no desire to pretend I’m something I’m not, and I do my best to gracefully explain that things are different for me without getting overly detailed. But I feel a bit put on the spot by the child’s expectations, while trying not to tread into parental territory by teaching about other beliefs when the parents obviously haven’t gotten around to that yet. (In defense of my friends, all but the example given above came up when a parent wasn’t immediately available to deflect the question, and in that case, a parent did step in.) Moreover, as someone with no kids of my own, I have a hard time gauging just what they’ll understand at certain ages, anyway.

So, couple of questions here:

At what age did you fill in kids about other faiths, or do you plan to?

Would it bother you if your kids asked a religious-based question of a family friend of yours, and they responded in a different way than you would have handled it? Would you have a problem with a family friend attempting to address any such question directly with the child?

FTR, I was only vaguely aware of people of other faiths until I was over 10 myself, so I don’t have my parents’ example to follow, obviously.

My kids knew fairly early on that there were other faiths around. Even though I live in Brooklyn, NY, where there are lots of Orthodox Jews around, it’s still fairly obvious that there are plenty of non-Jews around as well.

If my kids were younger, I’d probably want them to address all such questions to their mother or I, as we’d probably be able to better explain it to them. That being said, we don’t “hide” other religions and their theology from our kids. My oldest (14), for example, knows what Easter represents and how it is more important on the Christian calendar than Christmas.

I wouldn’t have a problem with someone else explaining their religious theology with my kids (teens and older) provided that they weren’t trying to evangelize. Younger than that, however, as I mentioned earlier, I’d rather the information come from their parents.

Zev Steinhardt

Believe, me, I’d much prefer that religious information come from the parents, as well, especially for the younger kids, and I have zero interest in proselytizing. But what if your child asked me something (like, “why don’t you celebrate such-and-such holiday, doesn’t everybody?”), and you’re not there to step in? I know from my nephews, both inquisitive kids, that an answer like “you need to ask mommy or daddy” only puts fuel on the fire.

I know you asked religious folk, but I’ll offer my experiences. No insult or hijack intended.

I was raised Catholic and my wife Lutheran. Tho we are both atheist, our kids were pretty exposed to the Christian beliefs through Christmas and Easter imagery, and family activities like cousins’ first communions, praying at dinner at family gatherings, etc.

When our oldest was in K or 1st grade, we let her go to a neighborhood summer bible school. Figured there was no harm. But we stopped after the first day when she came home asking us if it was true that she and her parents were all going to hell if we didn’t accept Christ… :rolleyes:

About that same time we decided there was some social benefit to attending any church. And tho we vaguely intended to expose our kids to some “comparative religions” curriculum, we realized we were unlikely to motivate ourselves to do it. We started going to a UU church, where quite young the curriculum involved “the church across the street.” During the course of the year they would study and attend services at a different church/temple/whatever about every month.

Now as young adults they pretty much think of all religions pretty equally. Which I personally consider a good thing. But I can imagine it being troublesome for someone who wished their kids to accept a certain belief system over others.

I recall one incident where in HS my oldest was doing a project where each kid had to write something up about a certain religion. Many of the other kids in our predominately Christian neighborhood school were commenting that she was “lucky” to have drawn RC, but she was complaining that she knew far more about Buddhism, Islam, etc. :smiley:

My dad always took me to different church meetings, and encouraged us to visit other churches with our friends. I was probably 7(?) when I went to VBS with a neighbor kid–that was a bit of culture shock, since it was fairly evangelical in style. At 8 I attended Missionette meetings with another friend, and at 9ish I went to Sunday School with my best friend, who was Catholic. Also, my own extended family is about as religiously diverse as possible, so I was attending family holidays with people who were obviously observing different rules. My aunt and uncle drank wine, for example (we are LDS), and my youngest uncle was a Rajneeshi when I was little. I was too young to have a good understanding of exactly what the differences were, but I was old enough to understand that there were differences, and that some of what I saw I liked, or I didn’t agree with. My Rajneeshi uncle was pretty inexplicable though. :wink:

I am very invested in doing similar things with my own kids. My desire to teach them about other religions (and take them seriously, and see their roles in history) was a large part of my motivation to homeschool them, since we get the opportunity to study more history and what the various belief systems were or are. Since we study history chronologically, we have had the chance to read basic information about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in that order, as well as the old myths of various cultures. We are almost to the Protestant Reformation now. My oldest is currently 7, btw, so we are at a pretty simple level. The 4yo obviously has no clue.

IRL, I send my kids to a very good VBS at the Episcopalian church and try to take them to visit other church meetings every so often. I’ve been wanting to take the older one to a Mass again, and my goal is to do that next Sunday. Come to think of it, there will probably be another Feast of Abraham around here soon, and I definitely want to do that this year.

Hm, not really. If my brother explained that he goes to a different church, that would be fine (he converted to Russian Orthodoxy a while back). But I know I can trust my family members and friends not to say stupid things or tell my girls that they’re going to Hell or something. And if they do it’s not the end of the world; it’s a learning opportunity.

I think that when you grow up as an Orthodox Jew in America, even in Brooklyn, you’re aware from a very, very young age that not everybody is Jewish, and not everybody does Jewish things. Christmas lights and ads on TV, by themselves, are enough to make the point abundantly clear by the time a kid is three or so.

Well, we have a policy in our house that our kids can ask anything; so someone telling my kids to “ask their parents” isn’t a problem by us.

That aside, however, I suppose it all depends on the individual family and the individual kids within the family. Some Orthodox Jews, for example, probably wouldn’t want their kids exposed to the ideas of the Virgin Birth, the Ressurection, Original Sin, etc. While you could explain Original Sin to my fourteen year old, I don’t think you could do so when he was six.

Zev Steinhardt

My wife and I are Catholic and my nine year old son attends a Catholic Sunday school but he’s somewhat aware of other faiths. He’s certainly aware of Protestant faiths and I believe we’re mentioned Judaism before. I’ve never discussed Islam or Hinduism or anything but mainly because it’s never come up. I wouldn’t be at all uncomfortable with it.

I wouldn’t be especially concerned if he received an answer from a different theological viewpoint. We’re mainly “ethnic” Catholics anyway. I’d like to know that he was asking the questions though if only because it’d be a good jumping point to discuss religions in general.

I think I need to clarify some points, for the sake of this discussion.

For Orthodox Judaism, I suspect this is particularly true because everyday things like style of dress are immediate and constant reminders of religious differences.

The “what do you mean, you don’t celebrate…” question actually came from the youngest child (a 4-yr-old) of a childhood friend of mine who had converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism, on the occasion of my visiting SoCal around Passover last year. He’d been learning all about Passover at Jewish school, and decided he would test my knowledge one morning while my friend was busy getting her older kids ready for the day. There was no way for me to fake not knowing the answer to “Why is this night different from all other nights?”, so I told him I didn’t know, because I hadn’t grown up Jewish. He was utterly amazed, because up until this point in his life, he hadn’t knowingly met anyone who wasn’t. (He obviously had never been told that his mother’s side of the family was not.) He then set about teaching me, in all seriousness, all he knew about Passover, and I thought that was adorable. :slight_smile: But I did wonder later if my admission had opened up an issue that his parents weren’t ready to deal with.

I should say, it’s not that I think you as a parent would have a problem; it’s that among my friends, their kids are sent to ask me all sorts of nature questions because I’m a scientist. It feels funny to me to answer everything else they ask and then all of a sudden get cagey, if that makes sense.

There are very few adults with whom I’d have that level of religious conversation, and certainly not unless they brought up the subject first. Is this honestly something that happens on a regular basis??

I’m a Deacon in the Presbyterian Church. We raise our kids understanding most religions (admitting that there are some where we have no interaction - Zorastrians or Wiccans that I know of).

My older son started learning about other faiths really in 2nd grade through Cub Scouts. Part of Scouting is the requirement to believe in God - but it is ANY God. As the Den Leader, I led a discussion of with the boys about each of their faiths. We were fortunate to have Christianity (Protestant, Mormon and Catholic), Buddhism, and Judaism represented in our little Den. That got it started, and we keep the discussion going. We have never taught our sons that other religions are bad, nor that followers of others going to Hell either.

The boys get the joy of our religion, and also the fullness of experiencing others.

My kids are welcome to learn to ask polite questions, and I welcome adults answering in the same way. Now, if an atheist friend decided to go down the IPU path with my kids, I would not be pleased with their behavior. I would not do anything about at that time either. Later, I would enjoy a conversation with my older son about both IPU vs. our religion and why the atheist was being an asshole. It would become a teaching moment for both inappropriate behavior AND an examination of faith.

But what if your kid politely asked me why I do not believe in a God, and I politely and reasonably explained the reasons why believing in any supernatural neither makes sense nor seems necessary to me. Would I be an asshole to do so? How would you wish me to respond? Must I keep quiet about my beliefs (or lack thereof), whereas anyone believing in any g/God(s) is free to speak their mind?

Coming from the other side of the fence, I have had experiences where folks got really pissed at what I thought were sincere questions about their faith. For instance, I recall one instance in which I asked my SIL why God needed/wanted to be praised. (She had turned the discussion to religion - specifically, church services in her religion.) I thought it was a legitimate question that might be intelligently discussed. Why support an expensive building and clergy and go to services, instead of spending the resources “doing good things?” She refused to speak to our family for over a year, because she was outraged that I would say something so offensive in front of her teenaged kids.

And as far as “inappropriate behavior” goes, how about religious folk telling my small kids that there is no Santa Claus because Jesus is the reason for the season?

Well, a four year old is a different story than a teenager. I suppose that if a four-year old daughter of a co-worker of mine asked why I didn’t go to church on Sunday, I’d have to reflect that back to the parents, simply because I wouldn’t want to infringe on the way they want their daughter raised.

Kids are, by nature, very curious creatures and will ask all sorts of questions (even inappropriate ones. You’re under no obligation to answer every question a kid asks you about your religion… no more than you are obligated to do so for an adult.

No, of course not. It was just used as an example. Feel free to substitute “Easter Bunny” and “Santa Claus” for Original Sin and Virgin Birth and the example would be just the same.

Zev Steinhardt

That answer doesn’t bother me.

I was imagining some of the more fervent anti-theists here on the board telling my kids that they were suffering from delusions and that I am an evil person for filling their mind with nonsense.

Please note that my kids are in elementary school, and the level of challenge shifts as they age.

I would LOVE that question - it is a great one. A good one-two bottle of wine line of discussion. I would even happily include my older son in the discussion as well.

They fit my asshole classification as well.

Cool - we’re on the same page.

Thanks everyone for your responses so far; this is very informative.

(emphasis mine)

You seem to be saying that the simple act of telling a child you don’t follow the same faith their family does (which is all I did, in my example) is infringing on the parents’ right to raise that child within the context of that faith. Am I understanding you correctly? Or are you looking a broader hypothetical context in which someone goes on to explain aspects of their (different) faith?

No, that’s not quite what I meant. However, my having to explain to her why I don’t go to church on Sunday (i.e. that Jews don’t go to church at all, etc.) might be infringing on the parental authority (and in such cases, it is just about always better to err on the side of caution).

Zev Steinhardt

Really? Saying that you were right and they were wrong in some way would be wrong, but informing a kid of the existence of diversity, especially in this day and age, doesn’t seem to be something I would avoid.

Where I grew up in Queens we were the majority, and our few Christian friends didn’t seem to have any problems. They were the ones who got to go to all our bar mitzvahs without having to invite us to theirs. :slight_smile:

For a four year old (which is what I was discussing), it might be something you’d want to avoid, IMHO. I don’t know that all four year olds can comprehend or understand the reasons why people are different religions. Assuming you know nothing of the parents or their wishes regarding raising their children, then my answer stands. It’s not my place to clue a four-year old in about diversity.

Zev Steinhardt

My daughter attends Catholic private school. She attends this school because quite frankly the public schools in my area are terrible and this particular school has a great reputation. I was raised Catholic and am raising my daughter Catholic.

The confusing part is that she has religion each and every day and although is taught tolerance, she is also taught that “ours” is the one true correct religion.

It just so happens my closest and dearest friend since childhood is Jewish and is raising her son in that faith. The kids are the same age and have also become good friends.

My daughter asked if her friend is going to hell for not believing in the big JC.

She is 8 and it was a bit confusing to her to explain that while it is our faith to believe what we believe , it is her friends faith to believe in something else. Neither is right and neither is wrong. Last year we attended Passover and her friend shared with her the story of the children of Israel and he showed her all the things he had made at Hebrew class for the holiday. It was a great experience for her and it made her understand that while what we believe is important to us, it isn’t the only thing to believe and other people believe just as strongly but about different things.