A few years ago, a fairly typical family scene occurred at our dinner table. Engaged in a rousing song of her own creation, our 6 year old daughter refused to settle down for our mealtime prayer. It wasn’t a malicious act, simply a silly one. You know, like when you’ve got the giggles in church and just can’t stop.
“Let’s finish the song for now then you can sing more after dinner.” I said. She quieted—until I began our prayer. “Thank you Lord…” was interrupted by the sounds of humming and clapping to “if you’re happy and you know it.”
“Ok, let’s try again.” I said, then started over. This was met with a childish shriek, the fun turned to anger as her comedic talent went unappreciated by her boring parents.
“That’s enough.” My husband interjected. “This is prayer time.”
“I DON’T WANT TO SAY PRAYERS!!!” She escalated toward a tantrum, fully into her six-year old boundary testing.
You’ve all been there, right?
The surprising part of this story isn’t that there was a conflict between child and parents, it’s that there wasn’t a conflict between the parents themselves. Since my husband and I navigate a mixed-belief marriage (I’m religious, he’s not) there’s often curiosity about how we handle these day-to-day parenting moments when questions of faith are on the line.
I wish the answers were sexier and something I could market for big money but the reality is simple: we navigate these issues with respect and love. The difficult part of this advice is that “respect” looks different to each individual. Until I started talking to other mixed-belief couples, I thought that our way of handling religious issues was the only way. This wasn’t because other ways were wrong but because it didn’t even cross my mind that other ways existed. We had been doing things our way, and happily, for so long that I truly didn’t know that others had found different solutions—or different struggles.
For Hannah and Toby, the question of prayer is a trouble spot. Toby, who grew up in a conservative religious tradition but left it as an adult, worries about his children being taught to pray. For him, this triggers memories of a faith life that he found oppressive. For Hannah, prayer is a central part of her life.
For much of their marriage, they had an easy solution. Hannah prayed, Toby didn’t. This difference has come to a head as the couple has had children. Toby is uncomfortable with family prayers before meals, even if he doesn’t have to participate. When pushed on the topic, he will quickly become defensive, even antagonistic. For Hannah, thanking God for even the simplest of meals is an important spiritual practice—and one she wants to pass on to their children.
In their case, solving this disagreement with respect looks very different than the way my family has solved the question. For some time, Hannah was the one who gave in, setting aside the idea of blessing the meal in order to preserve family peace. As this decision began to weigh on her, she began to look for other solutions. We brainstormed some possibilities:
- Alternate prayers at meals. This is a classic “sharing” style solution, one that many interfaith couples use. For my Jewish/Christian family friends, on one night a traditional Jewish prayer is said, on the next, a traditional Christian prayer. For a mixed-belief family, it may be as simple as saying family prayers at one dinner and skipping them at the next
- Find a non-religious “blessing.” At Thanksgiving, I created a list of non-religious meal blessings. As extended families and friends gather, I think the responsibility falls heavily on Christians to make others feel welcome. This isn’t the time to press our beliefs on others with words, it’s the time to show a deep-seated love and welcome in the spirit of One who ate with all the people. A mixed belief couple I know uses a similar approach at every meal. They take the time to give thanks but there is no reference to God, Jesus or religion. Still, this simple act of giving thanks centers them both in the realization that even the food we take for granted is cause for gratitude.
- Make prayer a priority in a different way. Use bedtime, bath time or the drive to school as a prayer time with children, leaving the non-religious spouse out of it. Any of these daily times can become imbued with the same significance: giving thanks for the simple necessities of life. This is how we do bedtime prayers. When I put our daughter to bed, there’s prayer. When my husband does the good night duties, there isn’t.
- Create a family prayer routine, for example at mealtimes or bedtimes, but let the non-religious spouse participate (or not) as they feel comfortable
I offer these solutions in part as ideas for those who are wrestling with this and looking for ideas–I get asked a lot about the nuts and bolts of mixed belief families. However, I also offer them with another purpose in mind: to reaffirm that there is no one right answer. In any marriage, the process of resolving conflict is far more important than the resolution itself. In this, as in the myriad of other religious practices families navigate, the route we take is a greater predictor of success than the destination we reach. So if prayer is a sticky subject in your house right now, as it is for some, then by all means, try a few different things. But whatever you decide, do it in a spirit of love and grace and you won’t go wrong.