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Intermarried Parenting: One Couple, Two Different Ideas

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Fay T. Karapanagiotis, Ph.D.

Parenting is an experience that crosses over ethnic and religious backgrounds, gender and class.  There are different styles, approaches and perspectives that are used to guide couples through their journey as parents.  For interfaith couples, the challenges of parenting may be more apparent as the couple is faced with negotiating their cultural, ethnic and religious differences, whereas some of these issues may be void in intra-faith couples (couples where both partners are of the same religious background). Even though intrafaith couples are presented with challenges regarding parenting issues, interfaith couples may need to negotiate more prior to and throughout parenthood.

As a result of my clinical and research experiences, I have come to realize that many couples perceive that the love they have for their husband/wife is all that they need for their marriage/family to be successful.  On the contrary, it is only through committed hard work, on a daily basis, that a partnership can be successful in all aspects of the couple’s marriage.  For interfaith couples who plan on having children or interfaith couples already with children, it is crucial that there are on-going discussions and planning on how they envision themselves as parents and how/what they envision the role of religion as having in their children’s lives. 

Interfaith couples must be committed to discussing, negotiating, and participating in their child’s religious upbringing. Unfortunately, it appears as if “keeping up with the Joneses” is the focus of what children are learning rather than the teachings and practices of Orthodox living.  Our children today are inundated with technology, the latest gadgets, academics, sports and the demand of “keeping up with the Joneses”.  Religion and participation in religious events are second to all of the other “firsts.”  For parents, the challenge is to help guide their children to balance the demands of social acceptance with religious identification and participation.

Continuously during your child’s life there will be milestones that will be met, for example, baptism, confirmation, communion, celebration of holidays and marriage.  Couples often times assume that these milestones will be figured out as the child approaches each milestone.  It is here where couples fall prey to the belief that the love I have for my partner will conquer all differences regarding our parenting approach and perspective.  In order to better safeguard against the pitfall of “love conquers all,” here are a few tips intermarried couples might find helpful. 

For starters, look at your own childhood and the role religion had or didn’t have.  Think about what you liked and disliked about it.  Some questions to consider are:  Did my parents see eye-to-eye on religion?  How did they negotiate their religious beliefs?  What religious rituals did your parents expect you to partake in?  Was there room to challenge religious practices or choose not to participate in religious practices?  How did it make you feel when your parents included or excluded you from religious activities? 

After considering your own experiences, write down what is important for you to pass down to your children regarding their religious upbringing.  Once you have done this, share your thoughts with your fiancé/spouse.  What are the similarities in what each of you have written down?  What are the differences? 

If there are differences, these differences should be explored and addressed.  Discussing these differences should be done with care, not with defensive tactics.  That means really listening to your partner, acknowledging and validating his/her ideas and what’s important for him/her and vise versa.  Being open and flexible will be more productive than being closed or rigid.  Be mindful that you and your partner both have good intentions for your child.  As a result, you both will have to give a little in order to receive a little.    

Now make a plan based on what has been discussed and negotiated.  Describe what the collaborated plan looks like.  In addition to your plan set up a safety net.  In other words, plan for the unexpected.  What you may have negotiated and decided pre-children may change once you have children.  Plan for how this will be handled.  If you agree to something and later find out that it does not materialize or that your partner is unwilling to honor what was decided, you want to give thought to how this will be handled prior to it actually happening.  A good rule of thumb is to “check-in” with your partner every so often to discuss how “the plan” is working.  These “check-ins” provide a venue to re-negotiate and confirm each other’s ideas.  In the event that you and your spouse are having a difficult time negotiating and planning your ideas, consider seeking outside help.  Contact your pastor or a marriage and family therapist to help guide you in working out your differences.  

This process may be challenging, as are all types of challenges.  Work hard getting through your differences in a mutually satisfying manner.  Demonstrate to your children that negotiating differences is a give and take process.  Be prayerful and mindful, because it is through an un-prayerful mindlessness approach that values, morals and living a religious life get dishonored in an intermarried home.  Be mindful of the legacy you and your spouse will be leaving behind to your children long after you are both gone.  The emphasis on what is important, such as the values, morals and religious practices are what our children will carry out because it was what we as parents prioritized and worked hard to cultivate in them.