When Children Begin Maturing (Part II)
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT
This is the second installment of a two-part article. The first part featured an intermarried couple discussing some of their challenges. This part will detail more of the unique challenges that intermarried couples may face when their children begin maturing. The observations included in this section come from 376 participants were involved in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) that our Archdiocese sponsored. This information 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, a couple's focus will shift from a preoccupation with their own relationship to a greater focus on their children's needs. Many couples who have previously been nominally interested in religion show an increased interest in religious matters. These couples generally report being interested in their children’s religious well-being. The following comments serve to reinforce these observations. “Before the kids, we bounced around from my church to his church, and sometimes even visited other churches. We even omitted church attendance altogether for long periods of time. The rules changed when our children arrived and began to mature. About a year after our first child was born we realized that if we wanted our children to have a religious background we had to start attending regularly. That’s when we started going to liturgy on a weekly basis. Since then, you might say we’ve been regulars.”
One Church, Consistently
Many couples who were part of the IRP indicated that the transition from sporadic to regular attendance is not always quite that smooth. They repeatedly stated that their religious differences had a potentially detrimental effect on their children's efforts to develop a religious identity. In their eagerness to be respectful to both partners' religious backgrounds, many observed that they had not understood that children need time to bond to a specific faith group in order to develop a religious identity.
Participants stated that when parents fail to provide their children with a consistent faith experience in one church, this could prevent them from developing a strong religious identity. Striking a balance between their mutual desire to help their children develop a keen respect for both parents' religious traditions, while also helping them bond to one faith tradition, can be a tricky proposition.
“If I could offer newlyweds one piece of advice,” one participant stated, “I’d tell them that their children need to attend one church consistently. The simple truth is that parents want it all. They want to raise their children to have respect for both parents’ religious backgrounds, and they also want them to become religious. As far as I can see, one parent has to make some concessions and realize that the children need to go to the same church consistently. If they don’t, they will run the risk of making the same mistake we did. Our children never ended up bonding with a church because we never brought them to one church consistently.”
As children mature, they ask questions in an effort to piece their world together. As they observe their parent's different religious habits, they will naturally ask questions. Sometimes these questions can present real challenges to the parents. Typical questions may be: "Why doesn’t Mom receive communion with us?" or, "Why does Dad go to a different church and doesn’t come to church with us?" or "Why does Dad do his cross differently?"
When parents are presented with these questions, they may not be familiar enough with their own faith tradition or their partner's faith tradition to offer an adequate answer. In these instances, the answer is not to ignore their questions. Results from the IRP clearly indicate that parents must prayerfully seek age appropriate answers.
Feelings of Regret, Loss and Guilt
The parent who has agreed to baptize his or her children in their partner's faith tradition can end up feeling some distance between himself/herself and the children in this area of their developing lives. This is especially the case when the parent has a moderate to strong religious attachment.
This parent might also feel some degree of loss as a result of their decision to baptize the children in his or her partner's church. “I sometimes lament the fact that I can’t receive communion with my son. It makes me feel like there is some separation between us,” stated one father with some sadness. “But I guess that’s what we signed up for when we chose to get intermarried. Anyways, it’s the best that we can do right now.”
Spouses who have had their children baptized in their church can end up feeling some guilt when they become aware of their partner’s feelings. In these instances, ongoing discussion is necessary to ensure that these negative feelings do not impact couple and family religious and spiritual well-being.
“I know that Jill still has some regrets related to our decision to baptize the children in the Greek Church. We talk about this from time to time, and remind ourselves that because of extenuating family circumstances this is the best we can do. This seems to help for a while, but the misgivings reoccur.”
Extended family pressures are of minimal concern at this point in the family life cycle. Most couples have generally managed to develop healthy boundaries between themselves and their respective families. Nevertheless, some couples might experience some lingering extended family challenges related to their decisions to baptize and, or raise their children in the Greek Orthodox Church. In these cases it is important to identify the source of the problem and seek to remedy it without placing blame.
Sometimes clear boundaries have not been drawn and a couple must seek to establish them. At other times the boundaries must be respectfully redrawn.
Couples should be aware that some extended family members might attempt to challenge existing boundaries. They should remember that even though grandparents may be well-meaning, they need to stand together at these times, and respectfully remind extended family that they, as parents, will make decisions about their children's religious development and well-being.
Couples should remember that when intermarried families experience these challenges, most report working through them and emerging unscathed. Results from the IRP clearly indicate that prayer, pastoral guidance from clergy and Christian understanding go a long way toward helping couples reach a healthy resolution to these and other challenges.