From the moment parents find out a baby is on the way, they make an endless number of decisions about how they will care for the new arrival. Hours are spent considering whether to breastfeed or formula-feed, to use cloth diapers or disposable, not to mention the hand-wringing that attends the question of who will care for the child while parents work! The discussion about what it means to raise a, for example, Jewish, African American, Indian or Latino child in American culture often does not occur until much later. Whether a family is actively part of one cultural group or religion, an interfaith family or minimally connected to a religious or cultural group, the choices about how we want to include culture in family life should be deliberate and intentional. How do we, as parents, help our children develop cultural identity?
The first step is for parents to be clear about their goal: We cannot pass on to our children that which we have not clearly defined for ourselves. If we marry someone of the same religion or culture, it may seem likely to eliminate these conflicts. “We are both Jewish, or African American, or Christian, so there is no need to discuss how we are going to raise the kids.” What we fail to recognize is that, as with any group identity, we all have our own unique experience of what it means to be part of a particular religion or cultural group. Interfaith families, on the other hand, typically have these conversations much sooner, as they are well aware that they grew up with different traditions.
As we think about how to incorporate culture and religion into the lives of our children, it is important to explore our own childhood experiences. Which rituals and traditions brought you joy and which did you avoid? How did you feel connected to your cultural identity or religion as a child? When we have explored these questions ourselves, it becomes much easier to pass along those traditions and values to our children.
Many parents wonder when to begin teaching their children about religion and culture. While it’s never too late, beginning early is recommended. We begin reading to our children long before they are able to read because we know they must be exposed to literacy experiences at an early age in order to read themselves when they are older.
The same is true for culture. Our 2-year-olds notice differences in people and begin to categorize them by race, gender and culture. Think about how much toddlers love sorting colors and shapes. They make sense of their world by seeing how things fit into categories. By age 5, most children acquire their first notions of God, even if that word is never spoken at home.
As children grow into adolescence, rituals offer families a way to stay connected. They give teens a sense of belonging to a group, which is so critical at this point in their lives. Opportunities to include culture and religion in the home occur at every stage of development. The next step is to look at how we can make this work in our own unique families.
Repetition is critical
Many parents rely on routines because they provide a sense of structure and order in the active lives of children. Children learn and thrive when they know what is coming next and can practice the same things repeatedly. Like routines, rituals also give us a sense of security in a chaotic world. Rituals elevate routines to something bigger; they offer a context for why we act, believe or value the things we do. They connect us to our past, our future, and help us identify who we are in the present. Using rituals and routines is a natural way to pass cultural and religious identity on to our children. Pick those that resonate with you as a parent and begin there.
Practice what you preach
Children learn more from our actions than our words; therefore, we must be mindful of what our children see us do even more than what we tell them to do. Sending children off to learn about a certain religion in Sunday school but not practicing those rituals and traditions in the home sends a mixed message to our children. We must model what we would like them to value when they are adults.
Share your own experiences
Children love to hear stories about when their parents were children. Share with them how your own family did things, what you liked and even those aspects you did not enjoy so much. Explore your cultural identity together. Read books, listen to music and try new foods. Visit different cultural centers or congregations to see all the different ways there are of being part of that group. Even learning about other cultures gives us a place to discuss what is similar and different from our own culture.
Create a plan of action
How and when will you do it? Repetition is critical for learning, so be thoughtful about things that can be done daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. Ideally, we have some rituals and traditions that can fall into each of those categories. These rituals don’t all have to be as big as a Passover Seder or midnight Mass. Simply saying “Good night” in another language at bedtime is a nice way to include a bit of culture in your family’s daily life.
Helping our children develop a relationship with their culture is a priceless gift. In our fast-paced lives, a sense of belonging and history helps us stay connected to our past and create a sturdy bridge to our future. Take time to explore your own beliefs and focus on the values you want to pass along. Culture is a wonderful way to teach, model and practice those values in the home.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2013, and updated in December 2019.