Parents are often surprised that their small children have such big questions.
Many children start asking questions about their identity at an early age such as, “Who am I?” “Who is my family?” or “Why does my family celebrate some holidays and not others?”
Children ask these questions to explore how they fit into their world. They want to understand the different ways they connect to and compare with their peers, parents, grandparents, and members of their extended family. Understanding those connections can help them feel safe and secure. For children in interfaith families, clarifying the role of Judaism in family life and their identity may require a bit of planning and intention on your part.
As with any important conversation, we recommend that you open the conversation with your child at an early age (though it is never too late) and in a relaxed environment. Let your child know that you are always happy to discuss questions about religious identity by making them casual and comfortable topics.
Clear is Kind
Sometimes, parents are uneasy about discussing Jewish identity and religious practices with children because they haven’t yet made those decisions or reached clear answers for themselves. Perhaps they haven’t yet reached an agreement about the role of religion in their child’s upbringing.
For that reason, we recommend that parents take time to reflect on their own individual feelings and desires around religious identity, practice, and belief, and then share with one another. What role did religion play in your life as a child? What does religion mean to you today? What role do you want it to play in your children’s lives? Which rituals will you adopt, adapt, or create to communicate their background/s to your child? It will be easier to answer your child’s questions clearly when you are clear about your own thoughts and feelings and, if co-parenting, have discussed these questions together.
We also recommend that you proactively communicate your choices with grandparents, other family members, and close friends so that your child will receive consistent responses. It’s natural to be reluctant to share your decisions with your parents and others if you have concerns that they won’t be supportive or agree with your choices. However, they also need your clear and direct communication to give you the support you need.
Responding to Your Child
Sometimes children’s questions pop up at less-expected moments, such as when you are about to drop your child off at a friend’s house, and you may feel unprepared to immediately respond. You don’t need to have all of the answers, all the time. You might respond by gently probing what made them think to ask that question at this moment. Listen carefully to what your child is saying. Consider whether they may be repeating something said by a peer, asking an existential question (such as who am I…), “testing” a concept, or concerned about something specific.
Respond in a way that is appropriate for your child's age. Often a simple answer is best. It’s also ok to respond with “what a great question, let me think about it” and take some time to consider how you want to respond.
When Your Extended Family Doesn’t Share Your Family’s Religious Identity
Parents in interfaith families often wonder how to explain their choice of Jewish identity to their children when that identity is not shared by the child’s parents, grandparents, and extended family.
Give children warm, clear answers that help them understand their Jewish identity in relation to others and build strong relationships with all their relatives. Use phrases that help them understand different practices and what is expected of them. For example, “We are going to Aunt Jody’s house to help her and her family celebrate their holiday.” “We are Jewish, but we love to help Grandpa celebrate his holidays that are different than ours.” “We are going to invite your cousins to celebrate Hanukkah with us even though they do not celebrate Hanukkah in their home.”
When you celebrate Jewish holidays in your home, it may be meaningful to invite your relatives, regardless of their faith-traditions, to share in your celebrations.
Younger children may want simple answers about religious beliefs by asking questions like, “Who is right?” Help them understand that people do things differently, and they are neither right nor wrong. For example, some homes have pets and others don’t. Children tend to be very good at normalizing and accepting differences.
Judaism is a tradition built on questions. From biblical stories to traditions at the Passover Seder to the rich history of textual discussion, asking questions is core to Jewish experience. When your child asks questions about how Judaism fits in your interfaith household, it’s one of the most Jewish things they can do!
Children take cues from their parents. The more comfortable and at ease you are with discussing religious identity, the more comfortable and at ease your children will be with who they are and the decisions you make for them.