Raising Kids Who See Many Faiths, and One Truth

The 14th Dalai Lama

This morning’s New York Times has an op ed by the Dalai Lama: Many Faiths, One Truth. As a boy, he says, he felt his own religion was superior to all others. He goes on to track his realization that the importance of compassion is a is common ground among us all. His point is that harmony among the major faiths is an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence, but his recollection of his childhood belief that his own religion was the “right” one made me consider my own kids.

Granted, they’re being brought up in what’s probably best described as an incoherent spiritual mishmash (and one that bears little resemblance to the life of a man who was recognized as his religion’s spiritual leader at the age of two), but it’s worth asking the question: am I raising them to “respect, admire and appreciate other traditions?”

And how exactly do you do that?

For kids, especially young ones, much of religion centers on ritual (which is to say, Christmas presents, Hanukah candles and the end of the Ramadan fasting at Eid). The schools my kids go to mark each of these festivals, but any increase in understanding may be cancelled out by the fact that in recognizing the holiday, the school also unintentionally underlines which kids “are” which religion. I’ve never seen this have a negative effect, but if, as Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman say in their book NurtureShock, kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism (even the Dalai Lama himself), then all we’re doing with our politically correct school programming may be highlighting the differences, without talking about the ways in which we’re all the same. And I have to admit I’ve never really thought about doing things any differently.

But I’m going to start.I think I’ll take a cue, again, from Nurtureshock, and just be blunt. Bronson tells a story about how his son categorized the kids in his preschool by skin color after a celebration of Martin Luther King Day, and how he responded by actually telling the child that skin color only looks like a difference between people, and isn’t a reason to chose people to be friends with. He later found research to support what he’d done–it turns out that  race is something that needs to be addressed directly, or kids form their own conclusions about its meaning.

I can be just as simple about religion, and take those holiday celebrations as a chance to say clearly that no single religious tradition–or lack of tradition– makes one person better than another. The Dalai Lama brilliantly choses to share examples of how every major religion emphasizes compassion, and how religious leaders and historical figures of every faith see compassion as central to being a good human being. Different beliefs about where that respect for compassion and service to others are far less important than the shared belief itself. I hope that’s something that any kid can take to heart.