Spirituality in Your Interfaith Family: Drawing on the Five Senses
In an interfaith or multifaith family, family members may not agree on a single set of religious beliefs—on a theology, creed, or dogma. But that is no reason to avoid giving children the opportunity for spiritual experience. It is a gift to introduce children to beloved religious or cultural traditions from all branches of your family. For children, the tastes and sounds and smells of these traditions will leave lasting memories, creating bonds of affection with extended family and positive feelings about the religious cultures in the family. Whether you give them a religious label and formal education in one religion, or two, or more, or none, children can still benefit from multisensory interfaith education in the home.
Below, I describe some of the ways that you can use sensory experience to create spiritual memories for interfaith children. The ideas are drawn from my new book, The Interfaith Family Journal, a workbook filled with writing prompts, interactive exercises, and creative activities to support any interfaith family in finding their own best pathway, whatever that may be. The Journal maps out a five-week process, in which you go through the five chapters with a journaling partner. Here, I extract from the Journal three ways to engage the taste buds, noses, ears, eyes, and fingertips of children in learning about family religious history and culture.
1. Foodways. Scientists tell us that smell is the most primal of the senses, and that a scent can trigger some of the strongest memories. That’s why the tastes and smells of holiday foods from childhood—whether Christmas cookies, fried potato pancakes (latkes) for Hanukkah, or savory harira soup to break the Ramadan fast in Muslim homes in Morocco—have such a powerful effect. In interfaith families, children may eagerly anticipate foods from two or more cultures or religious categories, without becoming the least bit confused about it. Encourage Nana or Grandpa or Auntie to invite your children into the kitchen, to hand them a spoon, to pass on family culinary secrets. In this way, beloved elders feel that their cultural knowledge is appreciated, no matter what religious decisions you make for your children.
2. Music. Scientists also tell us that singing together has a powerful effect, bonding the group that sings together, and improving overall mood. For children, learning songs of the religious cultures from though-out the extended family is another way to create lasting memories together. Teach your children your family’s Christmas carols or hymns, or Yiddish folk songs, or Hindu or Buddhist or Sufi chants, or secular labor songs. Education pioneer Maria Montessori described young children as having an “absorbent mind”: they delight in learning songs, even in unfamiliar languages. Of course, it is important for parents to agree on whether they are okay teaching children the words of these songs, which may have religious content. Some families might prefer playing instrumental music to singing choral music for this reason.
3. Objects and Photos. If you have ever had the honor of distributing or packing away the belongings of a departed parent or grandparent, you know that objects and photos sometimes lose their meaning and context when uncoupled from family stories. Yet the look and feel of these objects—a soft and worn prayer rug, a tiny gold filigree cross, a sepia photo of a child from long ago at a coming of age ceremony—can have particular fascination for children. While your beloved elders are still with you, invite them to tell your children the stories that go with these objects. Where did the object come from? How long have they had it? How did they feel in that photo? How has the world changed? If it’s not too intrusive, this would be a perfect time to take video or audio of these stories with your cell phone, or take notes. Be sure to take still photos of children with their beloved elders. And be sure to label the backs of photos—the identity of the people may be obvious to you, but your children may not remember who is in those faded photos when they are adults. Names—and stories--get lost through the generations.
Through the use of the five senses, you can instill in children the feeling that being part of an extended interfaith family is a joy and a privilege, a rich and stimulating environment, rather than a problem. Encouraging extended family to share the foods and music and objects from beloved religious cultures will enable children to create these memories and strengthen the bonds of affection. And through these moments of sharing tradition, you can encourage a child to feel empowered as an interfaith ambassador and bridge-builder.
Susan Katz Miller
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal (2019), and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013). She is a former Newsweek reporter, and her work has been featured on The Today Show, on NPR, and in many other outlets. You can find her blog at onbeingboth.com, or follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.