Both those participants who had discussed their future children’s religious and cultural development before marriage, and those who had not, felt that some attention to this subject before marriage was a good idea. All participants maintained that premarital discussions could reduce or prevent misunderstandings after marriage regarding their children’s religious and spiritual development.
A Respectful Approach
Participants stated that when they adopted a respectful attitude toward one another’s religious background, this strategy seemed to have a positive impact on family life when the children arrived. "I really had to learn this the hard way," stated one Greek Orthodox woman. "My Church was telling me that Orthodoxy is the one true Christian Church…. When I began teaching our children this, some serious tension developed between my husband and me. He felt insulted, and we had some really intense arguments…. I eventually had to mellow-out regarding this point…. I guess I realized that God didn’t want us to be an unhappy couple and family over our religious differences. When I finally understood this, I learned to be more respectful of my husband's religion and he became more respectful of my efforts to raise our children Orthodox…. So, we have compromised. We tell our children that we are both Christians, but that they are Orthodox Christians. We also never say unkind things about each other’s religious background around the children."
When couples began thinking about having children, some struggled with the Greek tradition that obligates parents to name their firstborn after the Greek Orthodox spouse's parent. Depending on each spouse’s cultural and ethnic attachments, this tradition either created some challenges or wasn’t viewed with much importance. For example, when both spouses had an essentially Americanized worldview, they often didn’t follow this tradition. In other instances, if one of two spouses had a strong ethnic attachment, this often determined whose ethnic traditions impacted the children.
When the Greek Orthodox spouse had strong ethnic ties, this sometimes created a challenge for couples. After struggling to find a mutually satisfying resolution, some of these couples eventually chose to give their child two names: a legal name, and the Greek grandparent's name at baptism. Quoting from one non-Greek Orthodox respondent: "I didn't have any problem giving my son his Papou's name at baptism, which was Athanasious, but I just couldn't consent to this tradition when it came to his legal name." In other instances, couples simply chose to give their first born (especially the male first born) his Greek Orthodox grandparent's first name. In this case, the decision was made out of strong needs that existed from both the Greek Orthodox spouse and his extended family. The following observations illustrate this point. "Hey, my dad worked hard to raise me. He sacrificed everything to make certain that I got a good education…. He didn’t care about having a big house, or a fine car, but having our firstborn named after him meant everything to him. How could I do anything else?”
The Challenges Related to the Children’s Baptism
Many couples described the challenges they encountered when trying to decide where their children would be baptized. One respondent’s remarks capture part of the challenge that couples encounter with this issue. “I was fine with Joe’s decision to remain Presbyterian, but when it came to the children’s religious background, I couldn’t be as understanding. I knew that I couldn’t tolerate them being baptized in any church but my own.” One significant reason why some couples struggle with this issue has something to do with how this decision will determine the family’s future place of worship. If the children are baptized Greek Orthodox, then the family will be more likely to worship in the Orthodox Church.
Numerous couples stated that honest, respectful communication assisted them in their efforts to decide where their children would be baptized and raised. Some couples reported that discussions before marriage with regards to this issue proved beneficial to their religious well-being. Others stated that their failure to resolve this issue in a way that was mutually satisfying to both partners undermined individual and marital religious and spiritual well-being. For example, a few participants described lingering, toxic disagreements over this issue that pervaded family worship and marital and family well-being. These individuals stated that they had either experienced (a) pressure from their partner, or (b) pressure from their partner’s family related to this matter. They further stated that as a result of this pressure they felt as though they had been either bullied or manipulated into agreeing to baptize their future children in their partner’s church. Several observed that they regretted caving into this pressure. Some described how they wanted their children to know and respect the religious tradition in which they were raised. These participants lamented the fact that their children would never experience many of rituals and traditions that had nurtured them as children.
Couples also stated that a failure to amicably decide where their children would be baptized and receive their religious training jeopardized their children's religious development. Participants maintained that children reared in a home that is conflicted over religion might negatively impact their children's perception of religion, and cause some children to avoid religion altogether as adults. As such, most maintained that children from intermarriages should be raised in one church. They stated that such a decision serves to minimize children's confusion about religion and facilitates religious and spiritual development. Choosing a church, and then agreeing to raise their children - with consistency - in this faith tradition, was deemed important to their children's religious development.
Factors Affecting an Intermarried Couple’s Decision to Baptize
There are many reasons that influence an intermarried couple’s decision to baptize their children. Moreover, the reasons vary from one couple to the next. The following few observations include the main reasons mentioned.
First, when respondents appeared to have the same level of commitment to their religious tradition, a chief determining factor that helped many couples select the church where their future children would be baptized was based on gender. Several respondents indicated that mothers are in a better position - due in large part to the greater amount of time they spend with the children - to cultivate and nurture the children’s religious and spiritual development. However, an exception to this was when the male partner had strong ties to Hellenism. In these few instances, couples tended to baptize their children in the Greek Orthodox Church because of the husband’s strong ethnic ties.
Second, participants also observed that the spouse with the strongest attachment to his or her religious tradition had the greatest input over where the children would be baptized. However, matters became more complicated when both spouses had equally strong levels of religiosity. In these cases, other factors influenced their decision.
In so far as when couples decided to baptize in the Greek Orthodox Church, the non-Orthodox partner’s understanding of Greek Orthodoxy seemed to be significant. If the non-Orthodox partner understood and respected the Orthodox Church’s theology and traditions, he or she was less likely to express any reservations regarding baptism in the Orthodox Church. If the non-Orthodox partner had little knowledge of Orthodoxy, or was not completely convinced that their future children will receive adequate Christian training, he or she would be more likely to oppose baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Finally, while extended family pressures were not mentioned as being of primary importance, they did play a secondary role in most couple's decision to choose the church for their children’s baptism. However, when couples were unable to effectively deal with extended family pressures, they reported some moderate to serious challenges. One respondent stated, "Until I was able to say, hey, I love you mom and dad, and you’re important, but my family's needs have to come first, I continued to have problems over this baptism thing." One couple who had a particularly difficult time pleasing both extended families, finally determined that it was going to be impossible to do so. This couple made a decision to respectfully tell their unhappy guests that only "those who are able to celebrate this event with us are invited, and all others should stay home. "
When intermarried couples decided to baptize their children in the Greek Orthodox Church, many Greek Orthodox partners stated that they struggled to help the non-Orthodox partner avoid "feeling like the odd-person-out" during family worship. In these instances, spouses admitted that this was often an “exercise in futility, since most non-Orthodox partners ended up feeling marginalized. Nonetheless, couples also stated that a simple acknowledgment of this helped minimize ill feelings and destructive resentment.
Challenges Associated With Living in a Multicultural Society
While most couples were raising their children in the Greek Orthodox Church, many indicated they did not want their children to develop a parochial, exclusionary perspective of the world. They stated that they viewed this as a challenge, and encouraged their children to develop a respect for (a) their Greek Orthodox heritage, (b) the non-Orthodox parent’s religious and cultural heritage, and (c) all other religions and cultures.
Despite parents’ best efforts to raise their children in one church tradition, many participants also stated that they believed their children would acquire a more inclusive perception of Christianity by virtue of living in an inter-Christian, intercultural household.
Many parents also recognized that they lived in a multicultural, multi-religious society, and it was moderately to highly probable that their children might not continue to worship in the church in which they were baptized.
Numerous comments suggested that while most couples would consciously choose to raise their children in one faith tradition, they also appear to be fairly open minded regarding the faith that their children might ultimately choose as adults. Successfully inculcating their children into a broad Christian value system seemed more important to these couples than passing on specific denominational dogmas and doctrines. Many also stated that they would only be moderately disappointed and upset if their children choose to eventually marry into another Christian tradition other than the one in which they were raised. Conversely, numerous comments also suggested that these types of participants would be considerably more unsettled if their children chose to embrace a non-Christian religious tradition. It was their opinion that their children’s religious and cultural identity would ultimately be compromised as a result marrying interreligiously.
Trying to Explain Their Intermarriage to Their Children
Intermarried parents reported experiencing some apprehension and concern when trying to explain their religious differences to their children. They repeatedly stated that they wanted their children to grow up respecting both parents' faith tradition, while also acquiring a healthy religious identity. Trying to explain the differences was sometimes challenging, since it was sometimes difficult for them to remain respectful to both parents' faith backgrounds. One parent put it this way. “I’m not versed in the particulars of my religion. So, when my daughter wanted to know why we have Holy Communion, and Dad’s church doesn’t, it was hard for me to offer an explanation. I just told her that we do things differently. But I don’t think this answer satisfied her completely. That’s because I think she wanted to know who was right, and who was wrong. But I couldn’t provide her with a complete answer because, (1) I didn’t know, and (2) I didn’t want to sound disrespectful.”
Other typical questions that were difficult to answer and evoked anxiety were as follows: Why can't mommy or daddy receive communion together in the Orthodox Church? Why do we celebrate Easter on two different days? Why does mommy (or daddy) do the cross differently? How come daddy goes to a different church than we do?
Children’s questions were often either ignored or answered incompletely. And while parents believed that this approach negatively impacted their children's developing religious identity, they did not know what else to do.
Helping Their Children Acquire a Religious Identity
Participants argued that intermarried parents should take a proactive approach in their children's religious development. They also maintained that parents should become knowledgeable about both parents' faith backgrounds.
Parents stated that they worked hard at helping the children acquire a respect for both parents’ faith background, but they also discerned that their children needed structure and consistency as they sought to acquire a religious identity. As a result, intermarried couples who believed they were experiencing a measure of success inculcating their children with a religious identity attributed their success to their decision to offer religious training from the perspective of one faith tradition. These parents believed that this approach was less confusing.
Help From the Church
In a world that is filled with numerous threats to children's emotional, moral, spiritual and physical well-being, couples said that they came to church to receive some support in their efforts to protect their children’s well-being. They further stated that their busy schedules, and the demands of our increasingly secular society, challenged them as they sought to help their children acquire a Christian worldview. Greek Orthodox spouses were especially concerned that their children would not receive the same inadequate religious training that they received.
Couples who were raising their children in the Greek Orthodox Church indicated that they relied on the church to assist them in their efforts to inculcate their children with a religious and moral foundation. On order to achieve this goal, participants also stated that more English and improved Christian education programs were of primary importance to them.
Participants repeatedly stated that they wanted the church to make the necessary adjustments so that their church communities would feel more "child-friendly." In these cases, participants recalled their childhood and remembered their worship experiences in negative, personally unfulfilling terms. They did not want their children experiencing the “cold stares, “ and “reprimands” they encountered. Being more tolerant of children's limitations and not turning to easy solutions such as childproofing the church by sending the children to Sunday School during Divine Liturgy were some additional observations mentioned. When compared to their parents’ generation, participants stated they avoided using guilt, manipulation and other similar controlling strategies in their efforts to indoctrinate their children into the faith.
Participants repeatedly stated that it was important for them as parents to negotiate clear, healthy boundaries that respected each parent's sensitivities and preferences regarding their children's religious and spiritual development. They also observed that when parents were not in agreement about their children's religious training, this negatively impacted their children's religious development and created a source of family stress.
Couples also recognized the importance of drawing healthy boundaries between themselves and their children. Participants maintained that children lack the maturity to make well informed decisions about their religious development, and that parents should make most of the important decisions up through adolescence - especially if children appear to show an interest in a questionable religious sect.
When making decisions about their children’s religious development, participants also identified the need for them to draw clear boundaries between themselves and the grandparents. They asserted that most intermarried couples have to contend with extended family intrusions when it comes to their children's religious development. In an effort to deal with these unwanted intrusions, participants indicated that it was important for them to respectfully inform grandparents that they would have an advisory role, but that they as parents would make the important decisions. They also observed that this was essential, since grandparents’ conflicting religious biases and unsolicited advice could compromise their children's spiritual development.
Children Impact Parents’ Religious Development
Many participants reported that starting a family motivated them to regularize their church attendance. These parents maintained that regular family attendance was important to their children's religious development. They observed that family worship – which included both parents - reduced the likelihood that their children will become confused about religious matters. Children also motivated parents to develop a more sophisticated understanding of their faith tradition. Many also stated that having a family facilitated their prayer life and relationship with God.
Intermarriages Positively Impact Children
Despite the fact that participants encountered numerous challenges that single faith parents do not face, they repeatedly stated that the challenges were not insurmountable. Most suggested that they were able to effectively negotiate their religious and cultural differences. They further stated that they did not view their decision to intermarry as a liability that served to impoverish and, or compromise their children's religious and spiritual development. On the contrary, intermarried parents in this study generally asserted, that with God's help, and their commitment to their children’s religious development, their marriages functioned to enrich their children's lives.