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When Children Begin Maturing (Part I)

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

The next two articles that will appear in this column will attempt to describe some of the unique challenges that intermarried couples face when their children begin maturing. This information included is offered as a way to facilitate intermarried couples’ efforts to help their children develop a strong and healthy religious and cultural identity.

As children mature, the pace of life dramatically increases. During this stage in the family life cycle, parents typically struggle to meet their children’s growing needs, couple’s needs, family’s needs, extended family’s needs and increased work related responsibilities. However, many important needs and concerns are thus inadvertently neglected, sometimes for years. Some of these lingering needs and concerns are often related to children’s religious development. This is especially true of intermarried couples and families.

As we will see in the interview that follows, along with the usual family life cycle changes and challenges that single faith couples and families face when children begin maturing, intermarried couples who participated in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) described a host of other challenges related to their religious and cultural differences. Moreover, in many instances these challenges frequently were ignored, and in consequence negatively impacted family well-being, along with their children’s religious development.

Meet Costa and Teresa

Costa (35) and Teresa (34) have been married for ten years. Costa is a third generation Greek Orthodox Christian and Teresa comes from an Italian Roman Catholic background. They are both professionals and admit to certain "lingering marital and family disagreements" associated with their different religious backgrounds. They have three children, John (8), Sophia (6), and Thomas (4).

Teresa began. "When it comes to our children's religious training, I don't know, it's been kind of frustrating for me over the years." She pauses for a moment, visibly upset, then continues. "To please Costa and his parents, I relented to baptizing the children in the Greek Church. But I'm often very sorry that I gave in and agreed to this."

Costa interrupts his wife. "That's not entirely true, Honey. It had very little to do with me. Well, what I mean, is that I didn't care nearly as much as my parents about where the kids would be baptized. They're the ones that applied the pressure. So to keep the peace in the family, I remember asking you if you wouldn't mind if we baptized them in the Greek Church."

"Well that's not exactly how I remember things. But anyway, be that as it may, I agreed, and we decided to baptize them Greek Orthodox. "She paused again to collect herself, and then proceeded. "And maybe I wouldn't feel so upset and resentful if Costa took an interest in their religious training, but he hasn't. Don't get me wrong, he's a good man and a great father, but he's not really a very religious person. He doesn’t really know his religion, and he hardly ever goes to church. So the responsibility to bring them up in the Greek Church has fallen on my shoulders. But I don't know the Greek Church like I know my church, so the end result is that they have grown up without much religious training."
"I know that Teresa is right," Costa stated with some regret. "But I've got work commitments that keep me busy all week, and when Sundays roll around, I need to unwind. To be honest, church has never done much for me. I simply don't understand it. I respect it and value religion, but I don't get anything out of it. So, I guess I've chosen other ways of using my time to unwind on Sundays."

"We've had this conversation over and over again," Teresa stated with some frustration and then addressed Costa. "The remedy might have been for us to have chosen to attend the Catholic Church. But I rather doubt that also, because I think our kids’ religious training requires the involvement of both parents…." Teresa paused for a moment, then continued in a slightly different direction. "I'm not Greek Orthodox, so I don't really know the services, and can't participate in communion. It was okay when the children were younger, but now that they're growing older, they ask me questions that I don't know how to answer. So because Costa isn't interested in going to church, we don't go very often -- maybe we might go on Christmas and Easter."

Costa remained quiet, so Teresa continued. "And do you know what really hurts these days? As the kids matured, I would have liked them to experience their first communion and confirmation in the Catholic Church as I did. Those were really special times for me, and I regret the fact that they will not have these experiences."

At this juncture, Costa appeared very serious and genuinely moved by what his wife stated, then offered the following comments. "I didn't know you felt this strongly about this. I guess it's because religion has been such an insignificant factor in our lives. Maybe we need to discuss this more when we get home. Maybe it's time for me to make some changes? Maybe I've been really selfish?"

"Yes, maybe you have Costa. Maybe we both have. I hope we can resolve this before they get much older, and it's too late. I hope it's not too late now…. I guess I'm really glad we had this conversation. "

A Few Concluding Observations

A central finding to emerge from the IRP is that many couples like Costa and Teresa enter marriage assuming that their religious and cultural differences will not offer them many serious challenges. However, as children arrive and begin maturing, participants reported encountering a higher number of challenges than they first anticipated - many of which had the potential to generate high levels of marital and family conflict.

Participants also indicated that the fast pace which typically characterizes this stage in the family life cycle made it more difficult for them to address and negotiate these challenges. Rather than seek closure and resolution, many opted to simply ignore them. Moreover, as results from the IRP suggest, the unfortunate effect is that their children’s religious development suffered.

In the second part of this article, I will provide more information regarding the challenges that intermarried couples face as their children mature. I will also seek to offer some suggestions to assist parents in their efforts to facilitate marital and family religious well-being.