It’s the time of year many nonreligious parents wonder if they’re doing wrong by their kids by leading secular lives. Religion is good for kids, some say, even if they’re not entirely sure why.
Santa vs. Jesus jokes aside, is it true? Do kids need religion?
I can’t say whether your kids need religion because the answer is so personal and culturally-specific. I can, however, tell you what my experience has been as a non-religious person who has chosen to make space for religion in our family life.
I’m Jewish. My mom is Jewish, of Eastern European descent (my dad’s not Jewish). Our only observance growing up was lighting Hanukkah candles, eating dinner at Nana’s on Passover, and knowing which celebrities were Jewish (Mr. Shatner and Mr. Nimoy!). No praying, no God, no synagogue, no Hebrew, no bat mitzvah.
I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in my school. The High Holidays, as Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are called, were curious calendar trivia to me. I knew they were important Jewish holidays, but I wasn’t sure what one did to celebrate them. Turns out you don’t celebrate Yom Kippur…you observe it by fasting all day and atoning for your sins. #yipee
Being non-religious has never been a problem for me, not then, not now. But when both of my kids turned four, they started asking about death. They each grappled with mortality and asked about heaven and about what happens after we die.
I suddenly realized I wanted to give them more than a lecture beginning with: Well, kids, some people believe… followed by a cursory survey of different faiths. I wanted them to know what their ancestors believed. It didn’t really matter that I didn’t believe all the details.
Even so, we didn’t do anything formal about it until my son was ten. Spurred on by his interest in a bar mitzvah, we joined a synagogue. We had recently attended my niece’s bat mitzvah — the first in three generations of our family — and he was deeply impressed and moved by the occasion (we all were).
Religion doesn’t provide answers to the big questions. It provides opportunities to ask the big questions.
My kids have been attending Sunday school ever since, and my son is studying Hebrew in preparation for his own bar mitzvah next Fall. I’ve learned about Judaism simply by being nearby; opening myself to history, spirituality, and ritual.
I’m still not religious, but at least I know more about what it means to be Jewish, and my kids do, too. When they move out into the world, they’ll have an identity to either embrace or push against. But at least there won’t be a question mark in the “religion” box.
Turns out, for me as a parent, the most valuable thing so far about religion hasn’t been that we now have answers to the big questions. It’s that we now have regular opportunities to ask the big questions.
2019 update: My son’s bar mitzvah was a turning point in his life. His speech brought the guests to tears, and the confidence he gained from the experience propelled him through middle school and beyond. My daughter never wanted a bat mitzvah or more formal Jewish education. But she is now researching on her own and embraces her Jewish and Indian roots.
A version of this post first appeared on Babble.com in 2014.
Photo by Tanner Mardis