Many children attend worship services with their parents, and some even experience their first religious ritual in infancy. This week’s clergy discuss whether — and when — children should be able to decide for themselves what faith to follow.
The Rev. Charles A. Coverdale
Senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Riverhead
Parents have a responsibility, at the very least, to give their children an introduction to church life and the religion that they themselves embrace as adults. But at some point, it becomes more important for a young person to have a say about his or her own faith choice. At our church we accept children in our Sunday school, but we try to wait until they are at least 12 or so, to allow them to make their own choice and commitment to be baptized. We believe that as children are developing, they should be given a chance to learn about their faith so that they can participate as more fully informed disciples. They may also choose to take a different religious path. Young adults and even middle-aged adults sometimes come to us and say, “I joined the church through my father and mother, but I want to get baptized again because this time I know what I’m doing.” When you get a chance to choose later on, you can ask questions about your faith, so you are making a much clearer, more adult choice than when you are a child.
Susie Heneson Moskowitz
Senior rabbi, Temple Beth Torah, Melville
The job of a parent is to set clear guidelines and limits for a child. This helps the child to feel secure and to know who he or she is and what is acceptable behavior. It is important that children have a clear sense of self. To that end I believe that parents should pick a religion for the children and the household. Even if one of the parents practices a different religion, the choice of what the kids are, should be made for them. Some people choose both, but that has inherent conflicts as many religions have contradictory teachings, even in faiths with similar values. It is better for the adults to make a clear choice even before the kids are born. So that might play out this way: “You are Jewish like Mommy but we are going to help Daddy celebrate Christmas because he is Christian.” Or, “We are going to a Ramadan celebration at your aunt’s house and we will celebrate with them, just like they come to our house to celebrate Passover.” As children grow, they will embrace or reject many of the things their parents have taught them, but that does not give parents the right to abdicate the responsibility of choosing for them from birth to around 18.
A child should never be in the position of choosing between Mommy and Daddy; that needs to be a grown-up decision. In a world in which religion is one of the ways we find our path and self identify, I would never want a child to feel like a “nothing.”
The Rev. Rick Saladon
Associate pastor, Living Water Church, Riverhead
Just like children are not free to decide what school they want to go to, or which pediatrician to see, there are certain things it’s not in their best interest to allow them to choose. Until a child reaches an age of responsibility, it’s their parents’ responsibility to educate them and make choices. If they live in your house, they should go where you go. There does come a time, around age 16 to 18, when you’ve got to let them go. You need to let them make their own decisions, and not penalize them for it if they don’t believe the same things that you believe. They may still be living in your house when it’s time to let them go to start making decisions such as what they believe. What if you are a die-hard conservative and your child wants to be a liberal? It’s along the same lines. You’ve raised your child, you’ve taught them how to think, now you’ve got to let them think they way they want to think. If you’ve raised your kids right, when they make that decision, you don’t have to agree, but you have to support them. It’s different, of course, with different children, and a good parent will have intuition about when it’s time to take a step back and give the child more space. If you are Jewish and they are exploring Buddhism, it’s a good idea to not only let them do it, but to talk about it with them. Be part of their evolution, of their discovery of what’s out there after you’ve laid the foundation.