How to Raise Kids in an Interfaith Family

An illustration with people celebrating different religious winter holidays

Verywell / Mira Norian

“So what are your kids going to be?” is a question my husband and I were repeatedly asked when we told friends that we were ready to have kids. Both my parents had converted to the Nation of Islam from Christian Baptist roots, and I had grown up in a blended religious extended family. My husband was raised African Pentecostal, but his mother had—for a time—practiced Islam and he studied at an Islamic college for his undergrad degree. If any two people could find a common ground in faith, we knew it would be us, but we didn’t have a clear game plan for our kids.

Our approach has been to talk about God without specific nomenclature and, since neither of us feel connected to organized religion, to keep faith practices at home. We have the kids participate in the practices that each of us actually does—Ramadan with me, and Christmas with dad.

For now, they’re too little to ask why we don’t eat pork or wear hijab, so we use the time to delve into podcasts about the culture of religion and to practice pithy retorts to the frequently asked, “Won’t they be confused?” For us, loving someone who has different ideas about the unseen world is natural, even predictable. After all, it is a testament to the old adage that “opposites attract,” but the face of marriage in America hasn’t always been this diverse.

When it comes to having kids with a partner who practices a religion different than your own, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to blending faith and customs, especially for your children.

What Is an Interfaith Family?

An interfaith family is one where members of the family have practices or religious traditions that differ from one another. We often think of these families as ones where the parents are themselves of different faiths, but an interfaith family can easily evolve over time as children differentiate their views from their parents. Also, a couple might originally have different faith systems, but one individual may convert to the religion of the other, creating a single faith nuclear family, but an interfaith extended family.

Interfaith can represent any religion, including Judeo-Christian faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as others, like Hinduism, Jainism, Baha'i, Vodun, and more. Even animist, ancestral, and metaphysical cosmologies can define a person’s faith system. Recent studies have shown that many people are not necessarily religiously affiliated, so atheists and nonbelievers can also blend in a family setting with those who do believe in God.

Faith, like family, isn’t static. So, there’s quite a lot of diversity when we blend both.

What Religion and Marriage Looked Like in the Past

Over the past several decades, the religious makeup of families in the U.S. has significantly transformed.

While religion used to be central to family life and marriage, it has become less prominent over time, according to the Survey Center on American Life. Prior to 1972, approximately 81% of couples were of the same faith, while just 3% were non-religious. In the past decade, that has changed to just over half of couples sharing the same religion and 16% in non-secular marriages.

In a 2016 Pew Research Center study, roughly 21% of adults were raised in households with two people of different religions. Although they note that millennials are more likely to have been raised in households with mixed religious identities than previous generations, every family approaches faith differently.

Some families choose to expose children to multiple practices and let them decide, in their own due time, which they choose to continue. Other families adhere to one faith system for children, although individual parents differ in their own beliefs. Particularly, atheists and agnostics might take a completely secular childrearing approach. Further still, people who practice syncretic religions that blend ancestral faiths with religions of the book can have an even wider variety of attitudes.

How Real-Life Families Blend Religion

When Emma Gordon, a Christian mom of three from California married her husband of Hindu faith, blending cultures and religions was something she fought for. "We've been married for more than 15 years," Gordon reflects. "Although we have different cosmologies, we still share the same unique and common values with understanding.” 

Gordon’s kids practice Hindu religious activities, such as the Deepavali, Karthikai Deepam, Pongal, and other festivals. “I do enjoy and participate in those practices, too, and when it comes to Easter, Christmas, and other church activities, they join me to celebrate including my husband," she says. "With this unique value and understanding, we don't make it a turn-by-turn routine for our children. We let them be free with their choices.”

On the other hand, when Andrea McKinnon of Burbank, California married her husband, who's Catholic, they decided to raise their three sons Jewish, following McKinnon’s faith. Her husband, although raised devout Catholic, identified with his religion as his culture more so than spirituality. Although he did not want to convert himself, he supported it as the primary religion for their kids.

“I practice faith in terms of rituals—all Jewish holidays including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover seder and food restrictions, and Hanukkah traditions,” McKinnon explains. “However, going to temple on the high holy days slowly stopped a few years after our youngest had his bar mitzvah.” 

How to Talk to Your Kids About Religion

Broaching the subject of faith with your children can seem daunting and complicated. There’s no manual at the ready to help explain what religion means. But books, such as Wendy Thomas Russell’s “Relax It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids about Religion When You’re Not Religious” and Dale McGowan’s “Parenting Beyond Belief,” can be a good place to start.

Amy Armstrong, LISW, of The Center for Family Resolution in Worthington, Ohio says that "Young children, up to the age of around 11 or 12, think in concrete terms about the world around them. The concepts of faith, spirituality, philosophy, and moral development are learned as practices or habits picked up through what is modeled by their caregivers, but not through their own theoretical or abstract reasoning."

She explains that children can learn different sets of rules, even when the rules do not apply consistently from one caregiver to another. For kids ages 4-11, it is best to expose them to different adults believing different things about God and our purpose in the world. Armstrong says at that age, kids can synthesize a holistic view of a person and how faith practices vary across people. They may even demonstrate a preference to participate in some habits or rituals simply because they enjoy the practice itself, or they like being with that particular individual. "Once a child is more able to understand abstract concepts, around the age of 11 or 12, parents can share more of their faith history and personal convictions," Armstrong advises.

It may seem common to introduce the idea of God (or lack thereof) around holidays, but remember that religion can also come up around times of loss and grief. Explaining that a pet or loved one “has gone to Heaven,” or another form of afterlife can potentially be entry points to larger conversations about cosmology and faith.

Remember, faith isn't static. Often people's relationship to faith will evolve over time, so accept that everyone in your household may have a shifting sense of spirituality over their lifetime. The important thing is to keep the lines of non-judgmental communication open. As your child grows, reiterate that you share bonds of love and respect, no matter how different your beliefs about God and the universe may be.

What Does This Mean for Everyday Life?

With an interfaith family, certain boundaries and expectations may need to be communicated to extended family or friends. That said, Armstrong notes that boundaries are best executed as statements of what we are committed to doing, not as expectations of what others should do.

People in various faith practices may feel more at ease when practices are stated or explained in the affirmative. "For example, a faith boundary may be, 'in our household we take off our shoes when we first come in the door, or we have purification rituals to wash before we pray,'" she elaborates. Her advice is to state the boundary without passing any judgment. This may be easiest to do when inviting others to enter your home or to observe your faith celebrations that already have a structure, because extended family and friends can experience how much these practices mean to your family without having to fully participate themselves. Simply watching how much your family values integrated faith systems will offer newfound respect and a commitment to supporting the balance you've created.

In my household, my husband and I established rules of engagement around religion. We decided that our toddlers can participate in anything they’re invited to, but that we will accompany them and explain what it all means. For their first baby blessing, we had the call to adhan whispered in their ear (as is customary), and a Christian family member also said a prayer.

Now that they’re more independent, my children know they’re not allowed to eat pork, and our closest friends know not to have it on offer when we’re visiting. We deliberately chose a secular school that does not discuss religion at all, so that we can have control over how it is introduced to them. For now, we haven’t had any major clashes or questions, partially because we’ve been proactive about explaining boundaries to friends and grandparents. We also have chosen to live in large metropolitan areas that are very diverse, so they never feel they have to “fit in.”

McKinnon does things differently with her kids. She says that they did not have any rules or boundaries.

"Everyone knew that Judaism was the dominant religion in our home," McKinnon reflects. "Our boys identify as Jewish but know and say that their Dad is Catholic. My in-laws and extended non-Jewish family were included in every opportunity: preschool seders, performances, bar mitzvahs. My mother-in-law participated in all three ceremonies alongside my parents.”

As for gift-giving, her parents send Hanukkah gifts and her husband's family does Christmas gifts. "We are very inclusive and accepting of both sides of the family," she says.

A Word From Verywell

Having an interfaith family isn’t necessarily a complication, but rather a natural outgrowth of people of different generations, beliefs, and backgrounds coming together through mutual understanding.

Having conversations with your partner starts with being proactive and honest about what’s important to you and hearing them out when they share their views. When raising children in households that adhere to multiple faiths or cosmologies, expect that children under age 10 will replicate practices without much understanding of the abstract concepts behind the rituals or habits. Tweens and teens typically absorb dissonance better, because they can grasp higher-level analysis and imagine beliefs beyond their own personal experience. As your children age into adulthood, they also may want your renewed support to integrate diverse friends and partners, who also bring new views.

Remember, each individual’s beliefs may change over time, so it is best to raise topics of faith with equal parts love and communication. Whether atheist or devout, faith is always a tightly-held perspective and it’s important to be respectful when hearing dissenting views. Parents of different faiths can present a united front when it comes to expressing unconditional love, regardless of whether their kids practice both, one, or none of their parents' faith systems.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. One-in-Five U.S. Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes.

  2. Survey Center on American Life. Emerging Trends and Enduring Patterns in American Family Life.

By Nafeesah Allen, PhD
Dr. Nafeesah Allen is a migration scholar and multicultural communications expert, who transformed trauma from pregnancy discrimination into a new relationship with parenting, wealth, and serial entrepreneurship. Leveraging over 15 years of editorial experience, she has a passion for crafting diverse stories that challenge what we think we know about identity, money, and cultural iconoclasts. She is an expat wife and the proud mom of third-culture kids.