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How Your Religious Beliefs (or Lack Thereof) Shapes Your Kids

Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.(This article is part of our series on self awareness)

Do you believe in God?

Do you rigorously practise your religion, or is it just a compass in times of need?

Are you vehemently against organized religion?

There are no right or wrong answers to the above questions.

Not knowing the answers, however is a cardinal sin.

Today, I want to touch up on a touchy subject – the role of religious beliefs in parenting. I am going to put my best effort to tread with care. I know I will probably still end up hurting some of your faith and beliefs. Please pardon me for that and take this post in the spirit it was written – to instigate some thought into what is it that you really believe in and how it shapes your kids.

A Journey In Search of Faith

I’ll come right out and say it – I am agnostic. I don’t believe in any established form of religion, but I do believe there is something out there that is bigger than me. I have no idea how to define this something but I accept its presence. I understand that some people call it God, others call it the spirit or paramathman, or even destiny.

I am a Hindu by birth, studied in a Christian convent and have had Muslims as close friends.

I was born and raised in India — a country which is secular, but religious beliefs permeate every aspect of everyday life. I grew up seeing religion being used in many different ways – from the common everyday folks who use it as a guiding star in their lives and to do good in the world, to the so-called religious gurus who use it as a business enterprise and the political leaders who use it to divide and rule. In the end, the rational part of my brain just cannot pledge faith to any of these established forms of religion.

And to complicate things, I have a hard-core atheist for a dad and another one for a husband.

But I am neither cynical nor strong enough to accept my father’s and husband’s view that religion/faith is a crutch for the weak, a business instrument for the conmen and a weapon for the corrupt. I need something to fall back on when life gets too hard.

So, in the end, I went with my mother’s choice in this matter. I chose to be an agnostic.

Through the most formative years of my youth, I defined and redefined my faith. I’ve gone to Hindu temples and Christian churches. I discussed religion with my Muslim friends and atheist friends. Finally, I filtered down a few of the beliefs that resonated with me and made them my own.

Having made a decision, to not quite be a believer, but still believe in something, has helped me tremendously in dealing with what life had in store for me.

Why is this important?

Because life has a way of throwing curve balls at you when you least expect it. And we need to know what our faith/beliefs are so we can deal with these situations that are beyond our control. And we need to pass it on to our children so they have a way to deal with situations in their life that are beyond their control when you are not around to help.

It is extremely important that you know what it is that you believe in. And to commit to raising your children with your belief system. And to prepare them with a strong foundation of your faith, standing on which they can choose for themselves what they want to believe in.

The Believer

If you have pledged allegiance with a particular religion, go all in. Learn as much as possible so you can raise your children in a faith-based environment. As your children grow up and develop their rational thought, be prepared to answer their questions and doubts in a clear manner that makes them choose faith — don’t just resort to “that’s just the way it is” kind of answers and expect them to fall in line. If you don’t know the answers, be prepared to find them.

Surround yourself with people who have similar faith as you. Find opportunities to talk to your kids about your religion, and for the love of God, make sure it is not a boring lecture. Every established religion has a set of stories or a mythological background – find interesting ways to read and talk about these stories. Practice, don’t just preach! Discuss the reasons of why you do what you do, so deep down they are inclined to follow in your path. Make sure the aim of sharing your beliefs and faith is a means to bring solace instead of becoming a source of tension.

The Atheist

Now, on the other hand, if you choose to be an atheist, more power to you. Sit back and think of what is it that you resort to when life gets hard? How will you prepare your children to deal with the hard things in their life? Is it something that is within their grasp? How will you answer their questions about handling things out of their control without having an omniscient, omnipotent “unknown” force to fall back on?

While I was growing up, my dad’s atheistic philosophy made a lot of sense to me. Except, it was no help at all when I found myself grappling with certain issues. For my kind of personality, atheism was not a feasible option. My husband on the other hand was raised by religious parents but developed his own philosophy of atheism. He is a very strong person down to his core, and atheism suited him just fine. If you choose to raise your kids with atheist belief system, be prepared to address the questions down at the level that they can comprehend. And do ensure that it suits their personality. If they need something to fall back on, instead of insisting that they need to get tougher, help them find a way to get there in small little steps and provide the necessary scaffolding to make it less scary.

The Agnost

Now, if you are neither here, nor there, that’s fine too. Just be aware of it, and be intentional and spend some time to think it through. You may not believe in God in the conventional sense, but you still believe in something. What is it? How will you pass on that belief in something to your children? Will you have some prayers? Will you visit religious institutions like a temple, church or mosque? How will you answer your children’s questions about God?

Even though I am agnostic, I still take my daughter to a Hindu temple every now and then — it is more of an effort to expose her to her cultural roots than for religious reasons.

And, I try to keep my answers about God simple -

“Mama, what’s ‘God’?”

“God is someone who watches over us and protects us when we really need some help”

“You mean like Cinderella’s godmother?”

“Yes, kind of.”

I know this will probably incense people of faith, but to me “God” is someone who helps me when I need help, and this is what I want to convey to my daughter in a way that she can comprehend. Is this accurate? I’m pretty sure it’s not :) But I am yet to meet someone who can give me a convincing idea of what God is, so as far as I am concerned, for a 5-year old, this will suffice.

And we have got into a habit of saying a prayer in the night before we go to sleep — it focuses on being grateful rather than on faith. To me, it’s the ritual that matters. And the spirit that goes with it.

If you have made up your mind, and fall in any of these categories, you are good. You just need to be clear about your choice and how you plan to pass it on to your kids.

On the other hand, if you are on the fence, you better make up your mind soon. Choose one way or the other — children need something to fall back on when things get tough to deal with. If you don’t provide them with something to believe in, they may choose something on their own. And their choice, based mostly on peer and media influence, may not be a choice you like.

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Take the next 2-minutes to answer these questions. Answer quickly and immediately. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. The aim is to become aware of where you are at and what you need to do next.

  • Are you a believer, an atheist, an agnostic or undecided?
  • Do you want to raise your child with your belief system?
  • If yes, what helps you stay faithful to your belief system (books, blogs, a place of worship, people in your life, communities that you are part of…)?
  • If no, what other belief system do you want to raise your children with?

I personally believe that writing things down helps formulate your thoughts. For instance, writing this article really helped me be clear about what my belief system is. And when I am in doubt I can always come back and refer to it. So, my personal recommendation is to try and jot your thoughts down. If you have a blog, put it on your blog (and send me a link, I will include it below for our other readers to look at). If you keep a diary or journal, write it in there. Write it on a post-it note, on your facebook wall or in the comments below. But write it down, so you can see who you are.

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Christmas is right around the corner as I write this. We have a tree in our house that is all decked out, under which Santa will leave some presents. We’ve read “It Was the Night Before Christmas” several times over. There is almost palpable joy and anticipation in the air.

Beyond these, Christmas has been an opportunity to talk to my daughter about all kinds of complex topics like giving, sharing and choosing to be merry. About the haves and the have-nots. About relishing the joys of big beautiful presents, and little silly things just the same.

I plan to use this coming week to keep observing my interaction with my daughter in the frame of my belief system. Am I giving her a consistent message? Am I answering her questions to be in line with my values? Am I leaving enough room for questions? Is my behavior in line with my words?

Go ahead and try it out in your own families. Observe what you say, and what you model in the context of what you believe in. Identify the weak spots, and read up a little to fill the gaps. Do family projects to explore your faith further. Get in touch with your elders to discover the roots of your faith. Solidify the foundation on which your kids can build a secure idea of who they are so they don’t have to rely on unknown, untested beliefs from their peers, or worse, the media.

How Your Religious Beliefs (or Lack Thereof) Shapes Your Kids by

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  1. Chris says:

    We have a two year old and seven year old. They are both being raised agnostic / atheist. My wife and I were brought up traditional Portuguese Catholics. Today we focus on science but still teach various religions (taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, etc) so that our children are aware and get to here the “stories.” We take a Unitarian Universalist point of view when teaching religion. We treat it as literature. We try to make sure that they know the stories are just stories that can teach lessons. Just as any other story. During tough times we rely upon each other, love, faith in humanity. We use meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, and rational thinking to get us through difficult emotions.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Sumitha says:

      Thanks for sharing, Chris! I was not familiar with “Unitarian Universalism”. I just looked it up and I find it fascinating. It’s definitely something that I will be reading more about – so again, thanks for introducing me to the concept!

  2. Geeta krishnan says:

    Excellent article, Sumitha. Great work by you.
    We are Hindu by religion and follow certain traditions and rituals at home consistently.
    In addition, we make it a point to visit our native place – family deity once every year.
    Locally we visit the Prabhadevi Siddhivinayak temple at Mumbai for every new purchase, before and after any travel / holiday and on all occasions which call for a celebration, such as children’s exam results, promotions to higher post in our jobs etc.
    Both me and my husband have tried to instil faith in the Almighty and help our children to understand the circumstances and situations in right and positive perspective. It’s a long, continuous, hardworking journey for one and all to become an enlightened soul.

    Your article is definitely timely and a great eye opener. The best thing I liked was – “write down so you can see who you are.” Too good.


    • Sumitha says:

      Thanks for your encouraging words, Geeta. I really appreciate it!

      Your comment about the way your practice religion reminds me of a very good friend. While she is not pushy, she teaches faith to her kids in a way that they *want* to follow. Not only does it calm and guide her and her family, when I visit her for some of the poojas, I find solace too! Keep up the good work! Faith, instilled the right way, is one of the best gifts parents can give to their kids!

  3. Syed says:

    Great article. Religion and culture have been a big part of both my wife’s and my upbringing, and we will definitely pass that on to our son. Being able to give answers that are thought provoking instead of dogmatic are very key. I feel confident I will be able to answer his questions, but I do have some people much smarter than myself on speed dial just in case!

    • Sumitha says:

      Thanks for sharing Syed, you made me smile :) I can bet that no matter how smart you are, your kids will be smarter and will throw you some curve balls making you reach out to that speed dial. Looks like you and your wife are clear about your beliefs and how you will raise your kids – I wish you the best in your journey!

  4. Janel says:

    This post is so relevant to my current dilemma. I was at bible study the other day and a question popped into my head, “What will I teach my daughter?” Like you Sumitha, I believe that I am agnostic. I do believe in a force greater than us but not in the same form as Christians. Now you may wonder why would an agnostic go to Bible Study? This bible study focuses so much on self-development that I would be truly missing on powerful teachings if I didn’t attend. But this is where I find myself so confused. Should I teach my daughter to read the bible even though I don’t fully believe in all the teachings? I wish that my belief system was written in a book. It would be so much easier to transfer to my daughter.

    Although, I’m also not sure if I truly have a firm belief system. It seems like my older beliefs are replaced with newer beliefs all the time. Different life experiences seem to change how I view things.

    Sorry for the rambling but this post truly hit home for me. I really do like the idea of every night praying in the form of gratitude and not for our wants. Thank you for this, I truly needed it.

    • Sumitha says:

      I was indeed wondering why someone who is agnostic would be in Bible Study :) It is really nice to hear from someone so open to knowledge and learning… thanks for sharing!

      I see what you mean about not having a firm belief system, and how it morphs from day to day as you deal with new experiences. What I have found so far is, taking action on something that really resonates with you will build your belief system for you, one step at a time. The nightly prayer for instance just came about quite by accidet, but it has made gratitude an integral part of my belief system now. Every Christmas, I give a few gifts to someone less fortunate, and I’ve started to notice that, generosity has now become a part of my belief system (even when it’s not Christmas). Some things stick, others don’t — what does are what define you!

  5. Clinton Rogers says:

    [Note from Sumitha: Clinton sent this to me by email. What he says is very insightful and thought provoking. So, I decided to add it here as a comment, so everyone can benefit from reading it.]

    Hi Sumitha

    I really hope you get this email. Thank-you for sharing your religious views and writing this advice to parents I found a lot of wisdom and good advice in it. I am a Christian myself but I don’t like to force that on anyone, I do like a really thought provoking read and this is what I found in your email. I would like to add something for you and maybe others to think about and this is not a “Christian belief” it is something we should all be asking. What is the truth? I really don’t think we should just look at religion or belief as whatever suits me or someone else and if time and resources permit we should look into the subject and find out which one has more credibility. It may have answers that would define our very purpose and the meaning of life itself which is more important than what just suits me and makes me comfortable. Taking drugs would make me feel good and make me comfortable but in the end I would have wasted my life and missed the plot and if I did not stop the drugs… died young. Similarly our beliefs should not be about what I want to believe but rather what is the truth.

    Obviously being a Christian I believe it to be the truth and I have read the bible and other books which have lead me to believe this. I would like to share the titles of some of these books with you but I would also like for you to share any other titles of very good books for other religions or belief systems with me. I hope this email finds you well & I wish you a very happy holiday and a wonderful 2014.

    John Ortberg – Who is this Man?
    Ravi Zacharias – Can Man live without God?
    Josh Mc Dowell – The new evidence that demands a verdict. (this is a difficult read and probably more as a reference or study book but has a lot of thought provoking content)


    • Sumitha says:

      You make a very good point, Clinton!

      Here’s my view of it. An organized religion to me, is a story built around the truth. At the root of any religion is a person/persons (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Early Brahmins and so on) who found this truth and decided to share it with the world. But it is hard to get people to understand and follow the path of truth and so they built a story around it. Over the years however, the stories started to take on more significance and buried the truth underneath. I find it hard to believe/follow these stories. The truth underneath, from what I understand, is almost universal no matter what religion you look at. And a whole lot simpler than most people think – faith in something bigger than yourself; love, kindness and tolerance; gratitude…. these are some of the things at the core of every religion. This is what I was going at – find a way to express each of these that resonates with you and make it your own.

      Of course, that is from my agnostic perspective. A person of faith would find this in the realm of his religion. An atheist would find a way to express these same things without the support of believing in a higher force.

      I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this! And thanks for sharing the book titles!

  6. Johnny Leavy says:

    Agnostic. That may be an accuate description of my belief system, mostly influenced by Buddhist & Zen philosophies. I was raised in a Christian household, my mother a Catholic and my father a Jew. As a child these beliefs suited me well, however as I grew older they did not align with my adveturistic and free-spirited lifestyle. I began searching for a deeper meaning, one that would surpass what I viewed as the commercial teachings of mainstream Chirstianity, and I found that Eastern philosophy really rang my bell (or gong, as it were.)

    On my journey I have come to adopt a perspective that although religion can be shared, it cannot be “taught.” Teaching implies sharing knowledge, and religion is based in belief – which in turn relies on faith. Beliefs based on what you’re told hardly hold water when compared with beliefs grown from a person’s experiences. But, for some people being taught what to believe suits them just fine, and there are plenty of good people in the world that illustrate this.

    For my kids, I share with them what I believe when asked “the tough questions” but I also encourage them to forge their own path; to question everything and search for the answer that feels correct. An quote from Andre Gide comes to mind:

    “Believe in those seeking the Truth, doubt those who have found it.”

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Sumitha. This brings into focus an awareness needed to help my children develop their own lives.

    Best Wishes for the 2014!

    • Sumitha says:

      I love your perspective, Johnny — Thank you for sharing! It’s so true that faith and belief cannot be taught and has to come from within, from ones own experiences and outlook of life. And I love that quote too… sums it up so well.

      How old are your kids? With my daughter, who is 5, it is hard to let her forge her own path just yet. So, my goal is to answer the questions as best as I can and hope that I am leaving enough room for her to build her own belief system as she grows up.

      Thanks for the warm wishes, Johnny! I am so looking forward to 2014…. We are having a very relaxed end-of-the-year break with friends and family and I’m so pumped to leap into the next year and get things going — it’s going to be a pivotal one in my life for so many reasons! :) Best Wishes for your 2014 as well!

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