Dear Dr. Debbie,
What are some suggestions for helping our children accept differences — particularly religious — among their classmates and our neighbors, and even some extended family members? Our oldest is 6, and I’m anticipating holiday-related invitations from his friends, many of whom belong to a religion that is different from ours.
Willing to Share and Learn
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While religion should be a very personal matter, holiday celebrations, coming of age ceremonies, and weddings are often marked by hospitality, even to those who do not share the beliefs behind the observance.
A Good Grounding
Very young children need to experience their family’s own religious beliefs and practices consistently enough that this becomes part of their identity. Minority religions, particularly, oblige a family to strengthen a firm connection to their faith’s ideology and customs. Otherwise, the mainstream media will confuse your children with its own brand of what everyone is assumed to be believing and practicing.
Parents’ responsibility for their children’s religious education can be shared with a congregation through activities for families and groups of children around the same age, or simply transmitted through family activities and discussions. This transmission of knowledge can be reinforced with picture books, puzzles, recordings of songs and other educational materials in your home.
Around age 6, children can understand that their family’s religious identity may be different from other families they know. The simple explanation is that a religion is something you get from your parents. By now, your son has probably figured that out anyway. An invitation to or from a friend to join in a religious based activity should be accompanied by an introduction to comparative religion.
While an explanation of a religious belief or practice is most authentic when given by its adherents, parents can serve as interpreters to their children. Friends and family members of other religions may be delighted to explain things to you, and likewise, you can offer a brief what-to-expect if you invite them to your family’s celebrations. Or you can rely on books and websites for reliable information about religious holidays, symbols and traditions.
When mystery and strangeness are explained away, it is easier to present religious differences to children as part of the diversity of the human race. Let your discussion be directed by your children’s natural curiosity. This may inspire you to ask more questions of your friends and family members, and do a little research at the library or on the internet to learn more about the world’s religions.
Arvand Sharma set out to unwrap the enigmas of religions in his book, “Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition.” The book was created in conjunction with the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in the hope that its readers find, “There is something charming rather than alarming about religious plurality.”
Our differences needn’t divide us. In fact, most of the world’s religions can be boiled down to: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As your child discovers the different ways there are of being religious, help him to see how each value or practice helps people to take care of each other and to be the best human being that we can be.
Show them that religious teachings can help one to be more compassionate, to engage in acts of charity, to be guided/protected/provided for by a higher power, to grow in spiritual understanding and commitment, to respect nature, and to resolve conflicts both with others and within ourselves to achieve peace.
Religions also spell out the duties of parents to their children and of children to their parents. A religion can weave its way through a family’s values and traditions from generation to generation, providing connection and comfort.
Benefits of Tolerance
When you teach children to appreciate another’s religious perspective, including the option to not belong to any religion, you help them to value others and to expect to be valued by others in return. Moving past differences, a child can gain all the benefits that a relationship with another human being can bring. He has a buddy to learn from, to teach, to play with and to share the complexities of growing up. Childhood friendships that cross lines of religious differences help them to be accepting of people with all kinds of differences.
Intolerance, on the other hand, or simply not addressing differences, is counterproductive in our multi-cultural communities and the ever-shrinking global village in which we now live.
The Anti-Defamation League, our country’s premier civil rights and human relations agency, created a video to help us imagine “a world in which the hate and violence that took the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, Daniel Pearl, Matthew Shepard and others did not happen. Imagine what these individuals could have continued to contribute to society if bigotry, hate and extremism had not cut their lives tragically short.”
When we teach our children religious tolerance, the future is more hopeful for us all.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.