Parents: How to Explain Differences in Faith

I can remember the controversy at my children’s elementary school over whether or not Christmas carols could be part of the holiday concert. The decision was no, although nonreligious holiday songs were acceptable.

Modeling respect for others’ beliefs

Growing up, we always had Christmas trees in the school lobby, rooms decorated with images of Santa, and even nativity scenes here and there. Clearly the times were changing, becoming more reflective of our diverse land, and honoring the importance of religious freedom.

In my elementary school, there were basically three faiths: Christianity, Judaism and atheism. I remember wondering how it felt for some of the non-Christian kids in our school, almost being forced to recognize Christmas as the “correct” holiday; and therefore, Christianity as the “correct” religion.

It wasn’t until my own children were in school that I realized how unfair it was to highlight one faith and perhaps leave children not of that faith feeling like outsiders. How often did such promoting encourage some degree of discrimination and even bullying?

At this time of year…

With all the stores being decorated for the holidays, and with the switch from saying “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays,” children can have questions about what is “the right faith.” Children can be confused that people can feel so strongly their religion is better than or more accurate than other religions. Some gift-giving traditions even promote competition between children.

These controversies—or at least feelings of confusion—actually provide opportunities for parents to have important discussions with their children.

Parents can explain more about their beliefs and the family traditions that help to express those beliefs. They can tell why families are free to worship and celebrate their faith in whatever ways they choose, such as gathering with friends and family who share their faith at their places of worship. They can decorate their houses and play the music they want their children to embrace and remember.

Because parents are the strongest role models for their children, they can combine modeling family beliefs with modeling respect for the beliefs of others. (For an amazing collection of ideas for teaching about respect, check out Pinterest-Teaching Kids Respect)

Older children can learn about the many wars fought over religious beliefs in which lives were lost when one group differed from another in faith.

Children can be invited to have discussions about the ways people express their religious beliefs and how some are persecuted because of them. Parents can share examples of ways that religious tolerance is being encouraged in many places around the world. For example, they might share the article in the Catholic Herald (August 2, 2013): Raise Young to Respect Other Faiths, Pope Says in Message to Muslims.  (See note at conclusion of article.)

This time of year offers parents many opportunities to educate and inspire their children, and to model respect for others while strengthening their own family members’ faith. It’s a time to explain traditions and to encourage respect for the rights of every American, and in fact, every human being, to freely experience their journey to determine if, when and how to celebrate their faith.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. When did you first become aware that not everyone celebrated your family’s holiday and traditions? How did you feel about this realization?  How did your parents explain the differences?
  2. Have you had discussions with your children about the beliefs and traditions that are a part of your holidays?
  3. How have you helped them learn about and be respectful of the beliefs and traditions of others? How can you use this holiday to further promote these?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

 [Note: For non-spiritual families, parents might want to check out that offers an article entitled “10 Commandments for talking to your kids about religion” with excerpts from Wendy Thomas Russell’s book,  Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. ]