Talking to Children About Jewish Identity in an Interfaith Family

Children begin to ask identity questions at an early age. Who am I? Who is my family? Where do I belong? Why does my family celebrate some holidays and not others? These are all standard questions children ask to determine how they fit into their world

The same is true about religious identity. Children want to know the different ways they connect to their parents and members of their extended family. For children in interfaith families, clarifying the role of religion in the family dynamic and the child’s personal identity from an early age is important. The following guidelines will assist you when talking about Jewish identity. 

Conversations about religious identity can occur at any time. We recommend that you and your spouse or partner come to an agreement on how you will handle religious questions as early as possible. It will be easier for both of you to answer questions with some clarity if you have reached an agreement before children’s questions begin. 

As with any important conversation, we recommend that you initiate the conversation with your child at an early age, in a relaxed comfortable environment. Let your child know that you are always happy to discuss religious identity questions and situations with them. Make religious identity a comfortable topic of conversation in your home.

How do I start the conversation?

Before you talk to your child about religious identity, it’s helpful and important to have discussed this with yourself and your spouse and partner. We recommend the following steps to assist you in determining religious identity in your family:

  • Think about how you feel to reach decisions regarding religious identity, practice, and belief.
  • Communicate these decisions to your children directly.
  • Encourage them to discuss these issues with you as a family.

Step 1: Each partner should think about what religious identity means to them. 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?

Step 2: Partners should share their feelings about each question and attempt to come to an agreement about which religion they will raise the child in, how they will celebrate religious holidays in the home, and how they will celebrate with their extended families. It’s helpful to have this discussion before the child is born. Often, parents wait until the child is a few years old before having these conversations. We recommend sooner rather than later, but better late than never!

Step 3: Once you have reached an agreement, share and implement your decision.

Step 4: You also should share the choices you have made with your own parents and in-laws as soon as possible.

Why do my children’s questions catch me off guard?

When seated for a family meal, children may share comments and questions related to religious identity, religious practice, or religious beliefs. In this situation, parents have time to think before responding. However, questions are more likely to pop up at less-expected moments, such as when you are about to drop your child off at a friend’s house.

Children take cues from their parents. The more comfortable you are with discussing religious identity, the more comfortable your children will be with who they are and the decisions you make for them.

Interfaith parents often ask:

  • Now that we’ve made decisions for our family, how do we explain our choice of Jewish identity to our children when one of us is Jewish and one of us is not?
  • How do we create a sense of respect and love for all the members of our extended family, regardless of whether they have Jewish homes?

When responding, keep the following thoughts in mind:

  1. Respond in a way that is appropriate for your child's age. Sometimes, a simple answer is best.
  2. Listen carefully to what your child is saying, and consider whether they may be:
    Repeating something said by a peer?
    Asking an existential question (such as who am I…)?
    “Testing” a concept?
    Concerned about something specific related to religious identity?
  3. Give children warm, clear answers that help them understand their Jewish identity in relation to their extended family:
    “We are Jewish, but we love to help Grandma celebrate her 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”
  4. It is not necessary to have all of the answers, especially when the questions catch you off guard. When that happens, let your child know you will have to get back to them.
  5. Children may want simple answers about religious beliefs by asking questions like “who is right?” Help them understand that sometimes people do things differently, and that is neither right nor wrong.
  6. Help children build strong, warm relationships with all of 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.”
  7. When you celebrate Jewish holidays in your home, invite Jewish and non-Jewish relatives to share in your celebrations.

When your child learns to respect every member of the family, they will be well on their way to celebrating their own Jewish identity!