Do Your Kids Need Religion?

Our holiday mantle

Our motley crew of holiday decorations includes a Star of David, a menorah, Buddha, various Hindu goddesses, Santa stockings, nutcrackers and Ultraman.

It’s the time of year many barely-to-nonreligious parents wonder if they’re doing wrong by their kids by leading mostly secular lives. Religion is good for kids, some say, even if they’re not entirely sure why.

Santa vs. Jesus: joking aside, is it true? Do kids need religion?

I can’t say definitively whether your kids need religion, of course, 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 (hello, 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 bits of trivia on the calendar. I knew they were Jewish holidays, but I wasn’t sure what one did to celebrate them. Turns out you don’t celebrate Yom Kippur…you fast all day.

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 their mortality, and mine, in their own very different ways. I suddenly realized I wanted to answer them with something more than a lecture that began with: “Well, kids, some people believe…” followed by a 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.

We joined a synagogue when my oldest was ten, spurred on because of his interest in a bar mitzvah. We had attended my niece’s bat mitzvah — the first in three generations of our family — and he was deeply impressed and moved by the occasion (as were we all).

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 a lot about Judaism simply by participating with them, and opening my mind to a wider conception of religion, 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” slot.

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, and people with whom to discuss them.

I’d love to know what part (including none) religion plays in your family life. Do your kids want answers about your family’s spiritual beliefs?

Asha Dornfest is the co-author of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less and publisher of Parent Hacks, a site crammed with tips for making family life easier.

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