During the growth and development of a child, lots of things change. Little girls will change from a passion for dresses to an obsession with belly-button rings. Boys will go from believing they will be professional baseball players to an interest in computer programming. One of the most enduring values, though, from early childhood into adulthood, is religious identification.
In most families, parents come from similar enough religious backgrounds that deciding on what religion to raise the children is a non-issue. But occasionally, parents disagree about the direction of religious education for their children. The issue becomes more complicated when, because of divorce or separation, parents are not raising the child together.
The first principle in handling such situations is to remember that parents do not choose a religion for a child: they simply choose the type of religious education that child gets. Of course, giving a child a certain background will increase the chances that he or she will choose that religion to identify with. After all, if your little one never hears of the Bahá'í faith, then it's unlikely that he or she will steer in that direction. But, particularly in an open society with religious freedom, by the time a child enters adulthood, he or she is exposed to many different ideas and people from different faiths. And, as they say, "It's a free country."
But because early religious identification does affect the ultimate spiritual path a person chooses, it's natural that this is a hot button issue with parents of different backgrounds. How to solve it?
First, respect your ex's point of view. Most people stay true to the religion they were when they married, so if you respected that point of view on your wedding day, you shouldn't dis it now.
Next, try to negotiate with your ex-partner. Things to consider are:
• Which religion will give the child more room to choose as he or she becomes and adult? The religion that believes that it is the "true" and "only" religion will make a child feel more conflicted during a time of personal choice. It's obvious that choosing a religion that is more tolerant of other religions will give the child more flexibility. The problem with this approach is that the parent who has the more dogmatic belief will fear that the child's soul will be in peril if he or she is not raised this way.
• Which religion is more consistent with the community in which the child is being raised? In some cases, a child may feel more integrated into his community if he or she shares worship rituals and beliefs with the children and adults around him. This may be problematic, however, if one religion views itself as having been persecuted by the prevailing religion-in that case it may be important to maintain a religious identity in order to preserve religious heritage as a minority.
• What role do the grandparents play? Often religion has more meaning to grandparents than parents. If one set of grandparents live closer, and are going to be greatly involved in the child's life, then their beliefs should be taken into account.
• Where will the primary residence of the child be? This is kind of a no-brainer; the custodial parent, if there is one, will be the one most likely to choose the religion of the household. It's not reasonable to expect that adult to celebrate different holidays for a child who is too young to choose a religion for him- or herself.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, despite being educated to believe in one religion, a child should have regular opportunities to learn about the other parent's faith, and should be encouraged to participate in its rituals.
Finally, remember that children begin to question religious identity their whole lives, and particularly as they enter their late teen years. This is natural, and may result in your child choosing to switch to a different religious identity. Like many aspects of parenting, you may not like it, but if you deal with it with a level head and an open heart, you'll end up being proud of your children — no matter what religion they choose.
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