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I grew up in a strictly kosher home in Long Island, New York. We observed the Sabbath and lived a five-minute walk from the synagogue where my father was the pulpit rabbi. Although my life was spent observing Jewish traditions and customs, I was exposed to other religions. My family lived in an Italian-Catholic town, and my best friend and next-door neighbor was raised in an observant Catholic family. We helped trim our neighbors' Christmas trees and they helped decorate our sukkah, the temporary hut used during the fall holiday of Sukkot. They sat at our Passover seders and we painted their Easter eggs.
Looking back, I think that we got along well with our Catholic neighbors because we were all accustomed to religious rituals and all they entail. Some of those rituals are similar, even if they're practiced differently -- fasting, feasting, and prayers are observed by all religions -- so more joins than separates those who observe different faiths. Of course, there are religious and observant families who don't feel comfortable reaching out to others of different faiths, or who have similar faiths but different points of view. My upbringing taught me that it's possible to lead an observant lifestyle in the secular world while remaining flexible and adapting to differences. It can be a struggle, but it can be enlightening as well.
There are no definitive guidelines for observant families to teach their kids about other religions, but the more positive and engaging parents can be when talking about another religion, the more likely kids will be interested and understand another person's religious experience. "A lot depends on the age and temperament of each individual child," says the Reverend Stuart Baskin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tyler, Texas. "Parents, family friends, teachers, and religious leaders teach by their attitudes. If they talk in distrustful terms, children will learn the same attitudes."
Parents raising a family in a religious home can follow these strategies to help kids respect other faiths.
Understand Your Own Spiritual Values
Before talking about and comparing other religions, it's important that your child understand your family's religious background, and its ethical and spiritual values. "With different theologies leading to different practices and celebrations, it's an education for kids, as long as parents can approach it with a curious and respectful attitude instead of saying, 'Our way is right and their way is wrong,'" says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist with a background in Judaism and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
Don't leave it to your kids to figure out religious leanings; initiate a conversation. "Your family's religion is part of the history of the family and is part of the fabric of the family," says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a psychologist in New York. "But you also need to say to your child that all religions have things about them that are great, and we celebrate that because it's part of who we are and who other people are."