Sunday, February 12, 2006

Change, Children and Hard Choices

I’m not quite ready to post about the saga of my relationship with my children. I have four children, ages eleven through eighteen, and have been divorced for about two and a half years. For one thing, the story still has no ending. For another, I’m not sure that I can convey all of the essential nuances of the story without exceeding the patience of my nascent readers. Probably sooner, rather than later though, you’ll find a first installment of this epic, which plays such a central role in my life.

But as I’ve been reading and writing here, I’m increasingly aware that others also share the dilemma of how and when, if ever, to tell children of our religious doubts or disbelief. For me, as I’m sure I’ll get around to writing, the choice was made by my ex wife, rather than by me. So I claim no privilege of being a shining example of proactive honesty and consistency.

As I can personally attest, parents changing their beliefs can be extremely traumatic to children. In addition, there are some very real consequences which children must deal with when this happens, and all of us have strong responsibilities and instincts to protect our children. Also, each situation, indeed each child, is very different and has its own nuances and specifics, so I am certainly not presuming to have advice which is relevant or appropriate for all.

Having said all of that, I would like to point out a few issues which may be less obvious to those who have not ‘gone public’ with their families.

First, if you have the goal of a long term relationship with your children that is based on mutual love, respect and understanding, you must at least give them the tools to respect and understand you. The religious community tends to view those who become non-religious as having made an immoral choice. The common view is that people leave because they are drawn by the earthly pleasures of the world, because they do not want the hassle of being observant, or because they have some other ulterior motive. Sure, they may tell themselves that their choice is based on rational thought or on a search for truth, but this is merely a rational, they have been seduced by their evil inclination. At the very least, they are considered to be morally inferior. After all, they were not drawn by some lofty moral ideal, they simply rejected a religion which, at the very least, is highly moral.

It is very possible that you will be the only voice in the lives of your children who will offer a different picture. It is only you who will be able to tell them that your choices are legitimate, moral and honest. Whatever your motivations are, you are the only one who can convey their legitimacy. You don’t have to debate beliefs with you children, but you will have to be willing to be comfortable telling them, when appropriate, what your beliefs are. The longer that you avoid this, the longer that you pretend to believe what you do not, the more you reinforce to your children that not being religious is a shameful, immoral position. You are one of the strongest forces in your children’s lives and they have a very strong motivation to connect with you. In the end, they will still love you, but it will be much harder to respect your actions and understand you if you do not give them some context with which to do so.

Second, be aware of the role which age plays in the ability of children to accept and integrate drastic changes. As a rule, the younger your children are when you let them know, the easier it will be for them. Younger children accept the new situation simply as the reality of their life. Religion does not have all of the same meanings to them as it does to you. This does not mean that they will be immune from any confusion or pain, and as they grow up and mature, they will have to re-experience and re-integrate, but it will still be far easier. The older children are, the deeper is the sense of betrayal. They have more of a sense that you, and they, have been living a lie. The full implications, both practically and religiously, of your position will be more meaningful and more traumatic.

Lastly, consider the legacy which you are passing to your children. If they know that you are not religious, or that you are skeptical, despite how difficult that may be now, it inherently gives them a choice and empowers them. One of my motivators in how I ultimately dealt with my situation was to decide which message I wanted to pass to my children. That they had to adhere to orthodox practices at all costs, even if they did not believe, and that they had to stay in a marriage at all costs, even if the relationship had failed beyond repair. Or, that they had the choice, the authority, and the responsibility to believe what they believe, to act in a manner consistent with those beliefs, and to ultimately stay or not stay in a relationship.

Ask yourself this question. If you were the child, what would you prefer that your parent did, pretend to believe in something that they did not, or be honest with you and consistent with themselves?


Blogger e-kvetcher said...

It's a tough decision because you are trading very tangible things, a happy family, a tight-knit community for an intangible ideas of truth, belief, etc...

Keep writing, this is very interesting!

February 12, 2006 11:21 AM  
Blogger Chana said...

I think this all depends on the age of the children.

For the sake of this example, let's talk about grandchildren. Let's assume they have a grandfather who is non-religious.

The parents of those children are raising them to be religious. They raise them to wear kipot, to eat kosher, to go to a religious school, and so on and so forth. Imagine that the grandfather comes over. He is not wearing a kipah. He does not make a bracha over his food. The children are confused.

Perhaps in his presence, perhaps after he leaves, the five-year-old says, "Daddy, why doesn't Grandpa wear a kipah?" His association has always been that non-Jews don't wear kipot.

"He doesn't wear a kipah because he decided not to be religious."

"But he's Jewish!"

"Yes...but, he decided not to be the kind of Jewish we are."

"Oh." The child thinks about this. "Can I decide not to be Jewish, too?"

"No, so-and-so."

"But how come? Grandpa doesn't wear a kipah, why do I have to wear a kipah?"

The parents are at a loss for words. How are they supposed to explain that Grandpa made a well-informed logical decision at his point in his life not to remain religious, but they expect their children to remain religious? That sends a double message.

You write that the younger a child is, the less sense of betrayal they feel. This is true. But it would seem to me that one ups the sense of confusion and double-messages that this sends.

Even if you believe one is making a moral, informed choice in deciding not to remain religious, how do you explain to a five-year old that you expect a different choice from him? Or if you don't expect it, will you suddenly undo everything that you have taught him to respect?

In this scenario I am giving over the example of a grandfather rather than a father precisely because of the double-message. It is possible the father can tell the child that the child has the choice to be religious or non-religious, as he so chooses. But at what age? And when?

This is not to say that children should be estranged from their grandparents. This definitely should not be so. However, for the sake of consistency, in this scenario I think that the parents would be within their rights to insist that the grandfather wear a kipah/ make the blessing (so long as he is in front of them/ in their presence.) Because children are impressionable when they are young, and they can be very confused by different messages, especially by very close family relatives.

I see this as being different than/from an issue of respect.

Now, you might ask me, well, what happens if you have Christian/ Catholic relatives, who desire you to say a Grace before the meal when you have become Jewish/ an Orthodox Jew? Perhaps it would be best to avoid the situation wholly, and try not to eat over. Or to remain silent.

But it would not be correct to, in the presence of the children, blatantly argue or contradict what the parents are teaching them. You cannot start talking about why a Grace before meals is wrong, or the like. It undermines the parents' authority.

When the children are already older- I'm thinking twelve and up- it makes sense to explain your position, to tell it over, and so on. But when children are young, when they are five, they will be utterly confused by a Grandpa who drives to their house on Shabbat while their parents tell them strictly that this is forbidden.

This is the same type of confusion a child faces when he learns something in school (to keep kosher) for instance, but at home his parents don't keep kosher. Double messages all the way through.

When a child is old enough to understand (which depends on the maturity of the child) one can explain. But so long as you expect the child to take a different path (which is not necessarily what you did expect) it is unfair to tell them to do one thing while you yourself practice another.

And at what age can you really grant a child religious liberty/ ability to decide? At the age of five? Probably not...

I don't think, "Do as I say, not as I do," is a good message to send. So this all revolves around that...

February 12, 2006 12:48 PM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

D&D: You make an excellent point about morality. I have thought long and hard about this. Children raised as orthodox Jews consider the keeping of shabbos and kosher to be moral issues of the same caliber as stealing and adultery. I can not ignore this fact in my own life, and I don't think that children have the capacity for abstract thought required to sort through these issues until they are much older. I should add however that my children know that I have a very skeptical mind and that I am not as religious as they are.

February 12, 2006 11:05 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


As someone who has to explain away both my parents and my in-laws to my children, I disagree with your assessment.

Just to give a little more detail, neither my parents or in-laws are idealogically secular with any kind of chip on their shoulder, so they don't come to my house to have big religious debates. If they are there for Shabbos dinner or lunch, they will put on yarmulkas, but other than that they don't really try to fake it in any way to "protect" my kids.

My oldest is seven, and when he was about five, he asked some questions like "Why is Grandpa not wearing a kippah, or why are these people driving on Shabbos?".

We told him that there are many kinds of Jews, and some don't do things the way we do things. That doesn't mean that we don't love them, but we still do things our way and they do them their way. My son was perfectly fine with that explanation. It was really along the same vein as, "Jordan's parents let him drink Coke, but we don't want you to. We are your parents and you will do what we say!"

Now, I don't know what will happen when the kids get older, but I suspect it won't really be that big of a deal. Even though we live in an orthodox community, it is still fairly diverse - not Mea Shearim by any stretch of the imagination. I think the kids will be OK.

February 12, 2006 11:39 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


The question is not whether to be religious for the sake of the children. If you’re religious, you are, if your not, your not. There is only one ‘you’, not one person who is acceptable to the family and one who is acceptable to yourself. My point is simply that the strong instinct to shelter children from this knowledge has some fundamental problems.


Well, E-K has it right. Younger children are very flexible and accepting. Telling them that we do things differently from grandparents is not confusing. Having a parent act differently from the way which they are taught and raised to behave is much more difficult. However, the same principle applies as far as age is concerned.


I think that just letting them know where you stand is most of the issue. They may not fully appreciate how skeptical you may be, but at least you’re giving them some information. It is very legitimate to say, “I don’t believe that doing xyz is a problem, but Mom/Dad and I have agreed that this is the way that were going to run the household, because that makes everyone most comfortable.”

February 13, 2006 12:53 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

I think one of the important life lessons that children can learn from the sort of situation you describe is that there are many different types of behavior, and while parents set the rules in their own house and for their own children (which may differ between parents if parents are divorced), not everyone follows those rules, and one can't expect everyone to follow those rules. One can want them too, and one can decide to shun people who don't follow one's rules, but really, there will always be those who differ. Within Judaism, within Christianity, within Islam, amongst atheists, and even, heaven forfend, amongs Danes (which is really tough, since we're all perfect, so how could we differ? ;) ).

It's a lesson everyone has to learn sometime, and I don't think it hurts kids if they learn it when they're young. And no matter how homogeneous the beliefs presented in a home, there is always the chance a child will say: "Hey, I just don't buy this." What to do then?

February 13, 2006 10:19 AM  
Blogger Ger Tzadik said...

I sort of ended up going in the opposite direction because I couldn't decide how to convey God, morals, and standards of behavior to my future children without resorting to my parent's religion...which would have felt fake, and eventually have had to resort to going back to gnosticism at the best. I was searching for something I could have real faith in.

February 13, 2006 10:36 AM  
Blogger Chana said...

Okay, I neglected to mention my premise/point: I meant a grandfather who had formerly been religious (and had a longstanding relationship with the child) and then became non-religious/ secular rather than grandparents who had always been secular.

February 13, 2006 5:10 PM  
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