Guiding Children Through Religion

Some parents feel responsible to shape their children's religious foundations while others prefer to let kids explore faith for themselves. Host Michel Martin explores the complications of spiritual parenting with Asra Nomani, professor of journalism at Georgetown University; Kara Powell, author of Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids; and Regina Brett, author of God Never Blinks.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

This week, we want to talk about how parents can guide their children in matter of faith. Now, this might seem a no-brainer. For many people, it's a basic obligation of parenting to steer a child's moral and religious foundation. But for many Americans who are themselves seekers, it's not an easy question.

According to the respected research organization, the Pew Research Center, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives, and many of those do so more than once.

So the question becomes: How do you insist that your child follows your path when you may have veered off the path that you grew up on? We wanted to talk more about how parents handle matters of faith when it comes to their children. So we've called upon Asra Nomani, she's one of our regular moms and regular contributors to our parenting segment. She's a professor of journalism at Georgetown University. She has one son.

Also with us, Kara Powell, author of the book "Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids." She's a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and the mom of three; and Regina Brett is the author of "God Never Blinks." She's a columnist for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She has a daughter, two step-sons and two grandchildren. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ASRA NOMANI: Thanks, Michel.

REGINA BRETT: Thanks for inviting us.

KARA POWELL: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So Kara, I'm going to start with you. I think many people understand that followers of Judaism, for example, believe that it's very important for their children to carry on their faith and culture because so much was lost during the Holocaust and so forth.

So I know a lot of people are interested and understand that idea, but I think it's important for people to understand that people from many different religious backgrounds feel that it's important and would like their children to carry on their faith tradition. So I'd like to ask you: Why is it important that your children, as you put it, have sticky faith?

POWELL: Great question. Well, the data you quoted from Pew also holds true with folks from Christianity. Somewhere between 40 to 50 percent of kids who grow up in Christian families and are active in Christian churches drift from the faith.

And why we studied that is because, as parents and leaders, we would desire for our kids, while making their own faith choices definitely, we do not them to feel like they are forced to make any religious beliefs, and that's actually been one of the themes in our research, is how important it is for kids to feel like they're choosing their own religion. We wanted to give folks the tools so that they could effectively and intentionally and organically impart the faith to their kids.

MARTIN: But is it important to you, as an Evangelical Christian, that your children follow in that tradition? Would you be disappointed, for example, if they were to embrace, I don't know, Judaism or perhaps more liberal religious tradition in Christianity? Would you be sad?

POWELL: I would be sad. I do pray for my three children that they would follow the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus Christ as expressed in Christianity.

MARTIN: Because?

POWELL: Because I think God has made us as spiritual people, and there are all different ways to live out that spirituality, but I think Christianity has a unique power and possibility that I've experienced myself and I hope for my own three kids to experience also.

MARTIN: Asra, you have talked many times about your commitment to Islam. You are an observant Muslim. But you are also a seeker. Is it important to you that your son follow in your faith tradition or not?

NOMANI: You know, 14 generations ago, my family converted from Hinduism to Islam on my father's side, and that's been in the legacy in our family. When my son was born, I wasn't sure because 9/11 had just happened, and our colleague and friend from the Wall Street Journal, Danny Pearl, had died in the name of Islam.

I didn't know, but a year after his birth, on his first birthday, I gave him the Muslim naming ritual that usually is done days after because I thought I had made an intentional choice: I'm going to raise him Muslim.

A few years later, I went and talked to a class, and they asked me how I'm raising my son, and I said oh, I'm raising him Muslim. But I went home that night, and I realized, you know what? I spent my adulthood getting out of my system so much of the doctrine that I was given as a child in Islam. Why am I going to do that to my son? Why am I going to teach him doctrine that I don't even fully believe?

And I had this conversation with my mother then, when he was four, and she said: Oh Asra, like we're talking about, why don't you want to pass the tradition on? She'll say she doesn't...

MARTIN: Fourteen generations is nothing to sneeze at.

NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: The fact that you even know that is very profound for many of us whose ancestors had been lost to history.

NOMANI: Right. And I told my mom and maybe this would offend people, and I, but it's just how I felt, which was mom, if I was a crack addict I wouldn't want to give my son the addiction. And to me a lot of times religion can be just like that.

MARTIN: But you still embraced the faith though.

NOMANI: I can't get it out of my system. I can't get the hardwiring out. But I want to free my son. I want to free him to express his spirituality and express his sense of faith in whichever form it takes. And so we have Nordic god statues at a meditation table we have in his room. He considers himself the sole practitioner of Greek mythology in the world. But I want him to see the philosophy of life.

MARTIN: So you see your job is parent in part not to pass on your own faith tradition but to expose him to as many traditions as possible so that he can then choose.

NOMANI: And he doesn't even have to choose.

MARTIN: Or none.

NOMANI: Exactly. Because I reject this premise that as parents we need to impart a religion upon our children. I believe very fundamentally that we want to teach them an ethos and character. We all have very high ambitions and there's so many paths towards that end.

MARTIN: Regina, what about you? As I understand it your parents were devout Catholics, that's the tradition in which you were raised. What about your children?

BRETT: Devout, I would say devout times 10. I grew up in a small town - they have 11 children. I have five sisters, five brothers so it was, you know, if you looked at our house growing up there was a three-foot high crucifix over the TV set. We had a statue of Mother Mary about four-foot high in the bedroom. Under every pillow are rosaries and my niece would say it's like a church exploded in the house. And it kind of was growing up. And for me being Catholic was who I was and who I am just like I'm Irish and Slovak. It's just so ingrained in us.

And when you come to this country you have your faith. You have no other identity. You're not even an American yet so you hold on to being Catholic. That's your identity.

MARTIN: Well, what about for your kids?

BRETT: Well, I got pregnant at...

MARTIN: If you don't mind my asking.

BRETT: No. No. No.

MARTIN: And grandchildren too. You have...

BRETT: I have two grandchildren. I'm probably the elder here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRETT: The grandma. I have a daughter who is 33. I had her when I was 21. I got pregnant and wasn't married, and it was a big crisis in the family. I mean I'm this good Catholic girl. I'm going to Immaculate Conception Church and I'm on the parish council and I end up pregnant. It was like whoa. But that Catholic faith gave me such a grounding. It helped me to choose life to make the decision to have her and to keep her and to raise her.

And I had her go to Catholic school like I went. But at some point I realized I was passing on the faith just because it's the only faith I knew and I ended up putting her in a public school. And I remember going to her winter concert in third grade and they had a song about dreidels and it was kind of like Jewish kids would sing about dreidels, and I didn't know anything about being Jewish. And then a young black kid got up and sang a Negro spiritual and it was beautiful and it was nothing I'd ever been exposed to. And I realized I had been passing on to her one thing and cutting her off from all the other interesting religions and ideas and concepts. And I thought it's time for me to allow those things into her life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In this week's Moms conversation we're talking about spiritual parenting, how guide children in matters of faith, particularly if you are yourself a seeker.

Our Moms are Regina Brett, that's who was talking just now. Kara Powell. She's a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. And Asra Nomani. She's one of our regular contributors in our parenting roundtable and also a professor of journalism at Georgetown.

You know, Asra, I'm going to go back to you just because I think some people might be offended and hurt by your earlier comment that this is like crack. Why would I pass that on to my child? So I'm going to give you, ask you to sort of amplify that again if you would.

NOMANI: What I really see out there in the world is that religion, oftentimes institutional faith, is just used with these ideas of power and control over people. And that's what really bothers me and concerns me about passing our children this allegiance to a religion that is so oftentimes misused. And I know that religion can be whatever we make it out to be. But my sensibility about the world really, you know, we have become dogmatic in the name of religion. We've become so emphatic and it's causing some conflict.

Even for my son on the playground. He has theological debates basically at the swing set where, you know, the name of God is invoked and Shibli, my son, says back to a child well, you know, there are many gods in this world. And the boy that he's talking to says no there aren't. There's only one, Jesus is God and that's all there is. And, you know, there's a struggle because that's the kind of dogmatism that we oftentimes have on all sides I know, and it can come off as being disrespectful sometimes. And I'm trying to teach him just as I'm trying to utter even in my own words right now, respectfulness about faith. But yet, you know, I do have the jaundiced eye about the way religion expresses itself.

MARTIN: Kara, you have a very different view, needless to say. Your book is about practical tools for passing on one's faith tradition and helping it stick, particularly through those teenage years. Talk a little bit more, if you would, about that.

POWELL: So what we are trying to do with our Sticky Faith work based on our study of over 500 kids who've graduated from Christian churches across the U.S. is to paint a different picture for what the faith is and for how parents can pass on the faith. One of the research findings that has changed my parenting every day, every day I parent differently and better because of our research, and one of the main ways is even how I talk with my kids about my own faith beliefs.

You know, I think I used to think it was much more my example that spoke volumes. And it's true. A parent's example of character and prayer and all we've been talking about is paramount. But what a lot of parents are failing to do is also share about their own spiritual journey in natural and organic ways.

So, for instance yesterday, I went back-to-school shopping with my three kids. We tumbled into the minivan for the drive home and I wanted to put on a song that was meaningful to me. So I put on a worship song, a song that talked about how God has changed our lives. And before our research I would have just put the song on and not talked about it at all. But because of our research I put the song on and then I said to my kids, guys, would you like to know why I chose this song and why it's meaningful to me? And they said, yeah, sure, Mom. So I told them. So I think part of what, regardless of our faith tradition, our opportunity for us as parents is to share, both from our past as well as our present, our spiritual highs and lows.

MARTIN: Regina, what about you? I know that it's always tricky when you're talking about your kids, particularly adult kids because, you know, on the one hand you want them to have their privacy. On the other hand we're dying to know, you know, how did it turn out now that you started...

BRETT: How did it turn out? I actually...

MARTIN: ...exposing her to more traditions beyond your own.

BRETT: Well, it's interesting how it turned out for Gabriel, my daughter. And I talked to her before the show today because I want to make sure she was comfortable. And she said when she was 13, and I remember this moment, she had done the sacraments. You know, you're baptized, you have your first confession, your first communion, then you're confirmed around the age of 13 or so. And I remember her coming to me and saying Mom, I don't think I can choose this religion and be confirmed.

And at first I was shocked because, you know, I was so Catholic and it was so much a part of our lives, and we went to church every Sunday, and we did everything. She said, you know, I don't think I can choose this church that doesn't welcome gay people as much as I would like it to. That doesn't give women a position of power that I think it should. And I thought wow. I taught her these values of respecting everybody and loving everybody and empowering the marginalized so how can I argue with her rejecting some of the church because of those great values that brought her?

It was kind of this twisting of the religion in a way because it gave her this wonderful foundation to build on. And the foundation was pretty much one of my lessons in my book, "God Never Blinks" is all that truly matters in the end is that you love, not just obey the rules. So when she came to this turning point it was really because she wanted to be a more loving person. So...

MARTIN: But were you hurt? Were you sad?

BRETT: You know, I wasn't hurt. I was it made me question my own faith. I thought well, Regina, how can you be part of a church that doesn't allow women to be ordained priests, that doesn't welcome with open arms the gay community. And it made me question things that I never questioned before, and get to more of that spiritual essence of what I believe so it isn't just about the rules and the regulations, so to speak.

MARTIN: But she never did get confirmed.

BRETT: She did not. What's funny is she has two children now and she wants them to be baptized Catholic. She got married in the Catholic Church. She has relationship with God that's kind of separate from the actual church.

MARTIN: Well, obviously this is a rich topic and one that is lived, right? It's not just a one-time thing so we have to conclude somewhere. I just wanted to ask each of you what is your best advice to others who are hoping to pass on spiritual tradition but are - perhaps have questions about the best way to do it? And obviously each of you is coming from three different perspectives, which we very much appreciate. And Asra, I'll start with you. The question I think many people would have for you is what are you going to do if Shibli's choice when he grows up is to become a fundamentalist, you know...

NOMANI: Muslim.

MARTIN: ...mullah...

NOMANI: Yeah. He

MARTIN: ...who tells you why aren't you covering your hair? Why aren't you covering your face, and why do you have so much to say and...

NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...all this business about integrating the mosques. Why don't you stop, Mom?

NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: What are you going to do?

NOMANI: I will probably feel that same sadness that, you know, any other parent feels when their children don't live by the values that they seek. And, you know, the one thing that I do believe is that the thing that has kept me strong too and that I think we all seek out of faith is - many times is practices and traditions that we get. And I say even in our lives I try to have some meditation with him. I try to teach him the kind of practices that I think all of the religions express in their different ways.

And so he proved to me the other day that he had learned a thing or two because I was sitting on the sofa getting stressed out about something or the other. And I am now, you know, an official YoKid certified instructor because I want to teach my child some meditation practices. And I thought he wasn't paying attention as we went through the bunny pose and the warrior pose, but sure enough as I'm sitting on the sofa frustrated one day, he comes over and says Mom, just breathe deep into your belly, okay? Just breathe real deep.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NOMANI: All right. And so I felt like he got that practice. In that moment I felt like okay, everything is going to work out fine.

MARTIN: And he's kind. And he's kind.

NOMANI: Mm-hmm. He's very kind.

MARTIN: Yeah. Regina, what about you? What's your best advice for those who are on this journey?

BRETT: You know, I think the number one thing for me is I've learned God is love and where is the love in this. And everything that happens in life where is the love in this, where is that as the directional compass point. And one thing too is let your children teach you about God. You know, I think we think sometimes we're the ones that teach them about God. But in some ways they're so fresh and so direct from that source that maybe they're here to show us who God is and what God is.

MARTIN: Kara, final thought from you. And obviously, you wrote a whole book about this, so I apologize...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...for trying to get you to give one final thought, but give us one final thought.

POWELL: No problem. You know, what we've seen in our Sticky Faith research is how important it is for moms and dads, stepmoms, stepdads, to share honestly about their spiritual journey past and present. We don't have to gloss over things but as developmentally appropriate share about highlights and low lights. One of the churches that we've been working closely with asked 20 kids it they knew how their parents decided to become Christians. And zero of the 20 kids knew how their parents became Christians, knew about that process. And so to me that's just a wake-up call for all of us, regardless of what religious tradition or creative tradition we are following right now, to simply talk with our kids, ask questions and listen.

MARTIN: Kara Powell is the author of the book "Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids." She's also a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. She was kind enough to join us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. Regina Brett is also with us. She's the author of "God Never Blinks." She's a columnist for the Plain Dealer. She was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. And Asra Nomani is a professor of journalism at Georgetown University. She is also the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." She was kind enough to join us in our studio in Washington, D.C. Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us.

NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.

POWELL: Real pleasure.

BRETT: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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