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Parents need to figure out how to talk to their children about lots of things, including religion. But according to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of Americans now don't affiliate with any religion at all. The numbers are even higher for those under 30. Deena Prichep reports on what that might mean for raising children.
DEENA PRICHEP: On the weekends, you won't find 8-year-old Eli and 5-year-old Isaac at church or synagogue. They're hiking in the Montana woods or coming up with some pretty original artwork.
ELI FREEMAN: I'm drawing a bunny on a motorbike carrying a cake to a party.
PRICHEP: Their mother, Emily Freeman, identifies as culturally Jewish on her father's side. But neither she nor her husband, Nathan, grew up with much in the way of religion. They talked about this early on but didn't really discuss how it would affect their parenting.
EMILY FREEMAN: I think we put it in the big basket of things that we figured we had so much time to think about.
PRICHEP: But then they had kids. And the kids came home from their grandfather's house talking about Bible stories.
NATHAN FREEMAN: He feels like these lessons encapsulate a blueprint for how to move through life. And so, of course, why wouldn't we want our children to have those kind of lessons alongside them as they travel through the world?
PRICHEP: Nathan and Emily want their kids to learn about love and compassion, but they ended up having some hard conversations with the grandparents because when the boys were so young, the certainty of those stories felt like indoctrination.
E. FREEMAN: They trust everything that you tell them about how their body works, about how the world works, how a cake suddenly becomes a cake from a bunch of ingredients on the counter - you know, like, everything.
PRICHEP: Kids want to understand how things work, including things that are far more abstract than cake. And typically, parents have answered some of those questions with religion.
CHRISTEL MANNING: There is what sociologists call a life cycle pattern to religion.
PRICHEP: Christel Manning teaches at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut and studied unaffiliated parents for her book "Losing Our Religion." She says teenagers, as you'd expect, rebel against religion.
MANNING: If I'm single, and I have a certain spiritual or secular outlook - right? - that's my personal thing.
PRICHEP: And typically, as people get married, they return to the fold.
MANNING: When I form a family, then there are other people who become stakeholders in this process.
PRICHEP: Now that pattern isn't holding up. But the kids may be all right. The data's mixed. Some studies show that children growing up in a faith community experiment less with drugs and alcohol, and some show that kids raised without religion are more resistant to peer pressure and more culturally sensitive. Going it alone involves a bit more uncertainty, but for many unaffiliated parents, like Emily Freeman, that's OK. In fact, it can be really valuable.
E. FREEMAN: Growing up, there was a long period of my kind of early adulthood where I was like - I felt like there were these answers. Like, where should I live? And what should I do? And who should I be with? And what's the answer to this and that?
PRICHEP: For some people, religion can provide these answers. For others, it's a sacred space to explore not knowing. And parents like Emily Freeman try to help their kids find their own voice in the conversation about belief, about what's right, about their values as a family.
E. FREEMAN: They don't spend all day wondering why zebras have stripes. We just look it up on the phone, you know, and, like, boom. Wonder done. And so, you know, I love this idea of sort of giving them open-ended, unanswerable questions, you know, and saying, you know, who knows? You know, and people you love can believe different things than you do, and that's OK.
PRICHEP: And Freeman says helping her kids find their way through the wonder of it all, even when it's uncomfortable, is part of the job of parenting. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
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