Q. My husband and I are from different religious backgrounds and haven't participated in an organized religion since we got married. Now our children are starting to be aware of friends who go to church and are asking questions about God and religion. What are the ramifications of just doing our own thing as a family? Are there any books that talk about how to handle this?
-- S.B., Providence, R.I.
A. Families that have faced this challenge say it's loaded with tough, complicated and vitally important questions that often take years and plenty of deep discussion to work through.
Dealing with such fundamental religious issues can be an enriching experience that leads to unexpected gifts along the way, they also say, not just for the children but for parents as well.
"In a way, it's a blessing to be faced with this," says Joan C. Hawxhurst, editor of an interfaith journal called Dovetail: A Journal by and for Jewish/Christian Families, in Kalamazoo, Mich.
"It's easy to go through life without ever being forced to search like this. Think of it as an opportunity."
Families tend to follow one of several paths, according to readers who have been through this and experts in the field. They say parents should start by sorting through their own feelings and hopes for their religious lives. They add that children who are old enough ought to be involved early on, both to make them feel a part of things and to usher them into the changes that religious involvement will likely mean for them.
Some families resolve the issue by choosing one primary faith while promoting at least an understanding of the other. Some families become equally involved in both religions, sometimes alternating between the different services weekly or monthly while celebrating all the holidays and traditions.
"Some families want their children to become familiar with the meaningful traditions of both sides, just as if it were an international family dealing with two cultures," says Polly Berrien Berends, a therapist and spiritual counselor in Hastings-on-Hudson, and author of several books, including the newly revised "Whole Child/Whole Parent" (HarperPerennial, $16).
Still other families will develop an individual approach to faith, drawing elements from both parents' religions in a sort of home schooling approach.
This tends to be the most difficult path, because the families often go without the community support and expertise that can come with involvement in churches or temples, says Maria Harris, an interdenominational religious consultant from Montauk, and the author of "Re-shaping Religious Education" (Westminster John Knox, $13).
"Parents need all the help they can get," Ms. Harris says. "Belonging to a wider community can take some of the enormous pressure off."
To order a free pamphlet, "Don't Light the Menorah So Close to the Christmas Tree: Coping With the Winter Holidays in an Interfaith Family," call Dovetail Publishing toll-free at (800) 530-1596. You can also request a free catalog listing books, tapes and other resources.
Can you help?
WORKING MOM'S DILEMMA: "I have a 2-year-old who has suddenly started having problems when I come home from work," says Denise Ott of Dallas. "I stayed at home until just before her second birthday. When I come home, she whines and cries about everything. When it gets to the point that I have to scold her for this behavior, she gets extremely mad, screams at me and tries to hit me. Can you please give me some advice?"
Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. If you have advice, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2322 Hales Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org