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A Leap of Faith
Some Parents Who Shy From Religion Want Their Children to Taste Its Psychological and Spiritual Comforts

By Stacy Weiner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

For many years, Varun Gauri rejected religious services, practiced no rituals and spurned all mainstream notions of God. But these days he's busy dipping his daughter's toes in various spiritual waters, from a religious preschool to services at a number of local churches. Gauri says he wants to offer Yasmeen the moral foundation and spiritual guidance he believes religion can provide. Perhaps above all, he wants his daughter to enjoy religion's potential for providing solace. Recently, the 5-year-old expressed a deep-felt desire: "I wish people wouldn't grow old and die," she said. Religion, Gauri hopes, "can help her find some ways of living with that kind of loss."

Like Gauri, many nonreligious parents -- whether they've eschewed belief or practice or both -- find themselves seeking the psychological, spiritual and moral blessings they hope a religious background can bestow on their offspring.

Less-than-devout Americans may be surprised that millions of folks share the same pew. Sixty-four percent don't attend religious services even once a month, according to a 2003 Harris poll, and 21 percent don't believe in God or aren't sure a deity exists. Forty-six percent live in a household where no one belongs to a place of worship, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted through the City University of New York. And 12 percent don't identify with any faith, the Harris poll found.

But at some point, a number of parents seem to flock to religion. In 2002, for example, the percentage of fathers who attended church at least once a month was nearly twice that of men who had no children, according to data from a major demographic study. At least some parents likely were motivated by a kid-centric quest.

Such parents may seek the sense of community or emotional security they hope religion will provide their kids; they may want a sense of purpose or tradition; and they may be looking for ethical or spiritual influences to mold their children's lives. For some, a religious education simply means giving their kids a better shot at understanding a cultural force that they consider both powerful and pervasive.

Whatever the reasons, nonreligious parents may face a number of humbling questions. Are they willing to trade sleepy Sundays for 10 a.m. services? Is it a good idea to start down a spiritual path when their hearts aren't in it? And what should they say if their 4-year-old looks up at them wide-eyed and asks if there really is a God?

Attending Church, Weakly

Asked if she believes in God, Koralleen Stavish says, "I just don't get it." But years ago, at a relative's christening, an idea hit her: With no experience of religion, how could her kids make up their minds about it? Or, as she quips, if they didn't study religion, "how could they reject it properly?" So she joined a Lutheran church and enrolled the kids in Sunday school. She even started attending services pretty regularly, despite her discomfort mouthing prayers she didn't believe.

Still, the sacrifice was worthwhile, says Stavish; church has been a bit of mental-health balm for her kids. "Most families are probably like mine, a little scattered," with two working parents and lots of kids' activities, notes the Takoma Park mother of three. Kids like having "an order to their week," she says. "Security comes from routine."

Perhaps security also comes from believing in a big man in the sky. That seems to be where Victoria Stavish, 4, is leaning. "She sings some [religious] songs when she's scared," her mother explains. "Hey, she's only 4," says Stavish. "She's wrong about a lot of stuff."

Victoria's brother Christopher, 18, is pretty sure he was wrong about his early belief in God. Still, he doesn't regret his religious education. "I think it put a lot of moral values inside me," he says. "I think I care more about people because of it. . . . And I'm less likely to do things that would be considered real sinful." What's more, Christopher thinks it likely he'll find himself back in church someday -- maybe, he says, when he has kids of his own.

While religion may not be for all kids -- therapists say some find it too restrictive -- a few studies show it may play a role in preventing teen suicide, depression and risky behaviors. In addition, religious affiliation can solidify identity and cut confusion, says Lee Schneyer, a Bethesda psychologist specializing in children and adolescents. "Most kids at some point will have the experience of someone asking, 'What are you?' as in, 'Are you Christian, Jewish, Muslim?' " says Schneyer, who has discussed the issue with many parents. "It doesn't feel very good to say, 'I don't know,' or 'Nothing,' " he argues. "It's difficult for a child to say, 'I'm agnostic.' "

But there's scant empirical research on the psychological effects of religion on children and none on what happens when nonreligious parents sample religion for their kids' sake, according to Annette Mahoney, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and one of the country's few research psychologists specializing in religion and families. If parents contemplate such a move, Mahoney and others say, it should come with some careful forethought.

Parents might want to check out a religious school or place of worship in advance to avoid a fundamental clash with their own beliefs. A couple might sidestep a stricter sect if they're concerned their child will worry about God's punishing her parents' irreverent ways. If their kids later want to increase the family's religious observance, parents should be prepared to work toward compromise.

And what if a youngster asks point-blank if Mommy and Daddy believe in God? Mahoney recommends answering honestly but age-appropriately; complex theological musings could frighten a child who wants only a simple reply.

Considering such potential pitfalls, some therapists advise conflicted parents to explore alternative routes to spirituality. Nonreligious parents needn't worry they are harming their children, insists University of Utah clinical neuropsychologist Sam Goldstein, co-author of "Raising Resilient Children."

"Can you raise a strong child, a child with a resilient mind-set to deal with whatever stress and adversity comes their way day after day without religion? The answer," he says, "is a resounding yes." His advice: Teach kids to problem-solve, foster a sense of security through unconditional acceptance and encourage communication. As for instilling morals, parents should above all make sure they model the values they hope to teach, says Goldstein.

Answered Prayers

Like her husband, Varun Gauri, Ayesha Khan did some soul-searching and concluded that she wanted religion's bounties for their daughter Yasmeen and their year-old son, Sharif. At the top of Khan's wish list: a sense of community and spirituality.

Over the years, says Khan, she's seen religious community serve several of her friends -- mostly Jewish -- with its sense of shared history, support and belonging. "We no longer live among extended families and extended communities," she says Khan, 42, who is legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And, she notes, "there really aren't intergenerational institutions that offer quite what religion does in our society."

Khan also believes that spirituality -- with its sense of purpose and meaning -- is key to her children's emotional well-being. And she's convinced it would be a lot tougher for them to develop spirituality without the structure and guidance that religion offers.

So she and Gauri are dishing up a religious smorgasbord: Islam from one grandma, Hindu from the other, a Quaker school, a Buddhist retreat and a bit of evangelical Christianity via their former nanny. As Khan acknowledges, "Only time will tell if we were creating great confusion or great enlightenment."

But for Martha Saccocio, a stay-at-home mom in Northwest Washington, the benefits of her kids' religious education are already clear. A few years ago, when she chose Unitarianism for its openness to different visions of the divine, Saccocio didn't know how wise her choice would turn out.

This year, her 8-year-old daughter -- who feels nearly certain that God doesn't exist -- has been harassed repeatedly by some of her public school classmates. They've said they can't talk to her anymore because she doesn't believe in God, and they've insisted that she surely is going to burn in hell.

It's been pretty tough, says Saccocio, who is agnostic. "Still, it's been a big help that [my daughter] already had some familiarity with religion and understands this concept that there are lots of ways that people worship God." What's more, Saccocio feels grateful that their Sunday school was very supportive when they brought the problem up there.

And in a twist that other doubting parents have experienced as well, Saccocio has found her own solace in services. "It's that time when you know you can sit quietly and not have 10 voices talking at you at once," she says. "You get to spend an hour being reflective about your week. It's a chance to think about what you've done and what you want to do to be a better parent -- and a better person." ยท

Stacy Weiner last wrote for Health about couples who sleep in separate beds. Comments:health@washpost.com. Join professor Annette Mahoney for a Live Online chat today at noon on www.washingtonpost.com religion and children. For tips on finding spirituality outside the pew, see washingtonpost.com/health.

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