Our child’s grandparents are Israeli, Syrian, German and Irish — how do we include their traditions without forcing the ideas on our child?

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Photo by John-Morgan, used under Creative Commons license.
My husband and I just found out that we’re going to have a baby in the somewhat near future! The major people we’ve shared this news with are our families, but this is where it gets a little complex. Both my husband and I come from ethnically and religiously mixed homes. My husband is the child of an Israeli Jewish dad and Syrian Muslim mom. I am the daughter of a German Quaker and an Irish Druidic Pagan.

All our parents practice their faiths. They are also all immigrants whose first languages are not English. They are all thrilled to be grandparents, but they also are all of the belief that our child should be raised in all of their cultures! We’ve already received baby foreign language tapes for Gaelic, German, Hebrew AND Arabic!

While we’re thrilled they feel so happy, it’s awfully complex for us. We don’t want our child to grow up confused about his/her own background or feel obligated to explore all paths if there’s one they prefer. How can we tell our parents we want our child to pick his or her own path without making our parents feel excluded — what kinds of strategies work for parents who have such varied backgrounds? — Ashley

Comments on Our child’s grandparents are Israeli, Syrian, German and Irish — how do we include their traditions without forcing the ideas on our child?

  1. My mother had the same problems when raising my sister and I. She is of Mexican heritage and my father is of Serbo-Croatian. Both sides asked if my parents were going to teach them their native language. My parents had decided to raise us as “typical American children” and not try to force any language lessons on us. If we wanted to learn the language, then that was our decision to make and no one else’s. If the grandparents/aunts/uncles made a fuss about “denying the children our heritage” my parents simply said, “OUR CHILDREN, OUR RULES”.

    • Except that not teaching a language to a child is not ‘letting them choose’ its giving them the dominant lanugage only in this case english. If you really wanted to let children choose you teach both and let them slide over to one or the other as they are adults. Its fine to want to raise your children speaking only english, but don’t disguise it as a children’s choice thing, this process actually takes away choice as languages are much harder to learn the older you get.

      • My mum actually regrets not teaching me Polish when I was very young. She refused to, but the older you are the harder it is to learn, and unfortunately there aren’t a lot of options where we live for beginner-level Polish classes. I would love to learn one day.
        It was actually a huge issue for our family, because my Babcia had dementia for most of my life, and forgot how to speak English, which meant I really wasn’t able to communicate with her at all. We also have found some relatives over in Poland who don’t speak English, so again, all of my communication with them is through mum.
        Everyone has to make their own choice for their children and do what works for them, but I would say that even if you teach them another language when they’re young, they still have a choice on whether or not to use it when they’re older.

        • Same here. My mum didn’t speak to us kids in Polish growing up, which both she and I really regret now. I’ve been to Poland twice in the past 5 years and feel a real connection with the place, but there’s a huge barrier with the people(especially with my Polish relatives)because I don’t speak the language. It’s really sad. So I’m all for teaching kids about all aspects of their various cultures and heritage, including the languages. That way, as the children grow, they can choose what parts of their heritage they want to identify with.

  2. For one thing, while your situation may be especially complex, ALL new families must create their own family culture. So this is a “problem”:/”opportunity” that almost everyone faces. No matter what your background, I think everybody has things from their own upbringings/cultural backgrounds that they want to share with their own children, and things they want to do differently.

    Surely your own parents must have dealt with this issue themselves? For example, if your husband’s parents are Israeli and Syrian, they definitely had to navigate this issue! (I say this as someone who is part Syrian, though Syrian Orthodox, myself.)

    I am sure they understand that English (I am assuming this is the common language for all of you?) will be spoken in your home. That said, it can’t hurt to let your child listen to tapes/stories/songs in different languages, or let grandparents speak to the baby in their native languages. I grew up hearing one grandparent sing in German, and another one curse in Arabic. It didn’t confuse me.

    Food is a big way that people experience/share culture. I knew that depending which side of the family we were visiting, different foods might be served. My parents incorporated the ones we all happened to like. I think experiences like that can only broaden a child’s horizons.

    One thing I did observe with a tri-lingual (English, German, Spanish) family whose children I cared for, is that the parents made a real effort to pick names that were pronounceable and understandable to all grandparents involved, like Anna or Emma … and I thought that was thoughtful and sweet. But not necessary; the grandparents will surely be excited for you no matter what, and if they can’t pronounce the name you pick, they will be quite capable of making up their own cute nicknames 🙂

    • I agree! We are very lucky that we live relatively close (a bus ride) away from both sets of grandparents. The vast majority of our child’s language education will probably come from them! We both can speak both languages that we were raised with, but we obviously choose English at home (most of the time). I think what will be important is that the language stuff will probably be a process – they won’t speak everything all the time, and they won’t speak everything equally well. Even today, my Gaelic/Irish is not the greatest, while my German is pretty flawless. That I don’t think can be helped. I guess I was working under the impression that if they cannot do all things equally, or take an equal interest, that will result in hurt feelings. I think I need to let go of that and let my parents know that too. Not picking up a language, or a custom, or a religion isn’t a rejection of family members per se, but its tricky to remember that sometimes.

      And regarding the food – my love for my mother-in-law has been written in stone after she introduced me to Middle Eastern cuisine. So I absolutely plan to make food a big part of things!

      As for the names, we’ve picked a Hebrew first name (either boy or girl), since my husband has one and we’d like to carry on the traiditon. We’ve toying with the idea of 3 middle names – German, Arab, and Irish. But it’s been a tough sell to some!

      • It sounds like you have a great handle on things and I applaud your efforts. I just want to throw in as someone who has worked with multilingual immigrant families,and as a once bilingual youngster myself, kids who are frequently exposed to more than one language from the start tend to talk later than their peers and mix up words/languages. That is 100% normal. With that said, they also have a great advantage over there peers since they will internalize the sounds from all of those rich language roots and will be much more likely to be able to learn more languages with common sounds and rhythms as they become adults.

        It’s just something to know when you get to the child talking years and for all the grandparents involved to remember when they are looking to see which languages the kids gravitate to.

        • To elaborate: Those kids seem to start talking a little later and will mix words up as they have the same number of words in their vocab as their peers but it’s all in different languages which they still need to process which ones go with which language. But then usually they hit a breakthrough point (IME about 1st grade age) where they suddenly know a lot MORE words than their peers, because they will know as many as to be expected of their age in their primary language and then a healthy dosage of words from any secondary languages they’re learning. So as Natasha says, it’s just something to know ahead of time so you can be prepared and not concerned.

      • Yeah with the names, my parents took that approach and I HATE it!
        My name doesn’t fit on anything and spelling them all out over the phone is a nightmare.
        I love embracing all aspects of my heritage but in my job I will have to explain my names at least 4 times a day, 5 days a week… I thought about getting my name changed but I don’t want to upset my parents and I don’t know how I could ever identify with another name.
        Chani Emily Francisca Lawrence Martinez!

  3. I think it’s important here to remember that there is a difference in “culture” and “religion.” Yes, all the grandparents have different cultures AND different religions, but you can take one without having both.
    Why not enrich your child’s life by teaching them about their heritage, different cultures, food, traditions, and languages? This can only serve to enhance their life! As far as the different religions go, THAT is a decision you as a parent get to address. Teach your child about your belief system or lack there-of, and about others’ when the time comes, and let him or her make their own decisions and ask questions when they have them. You would be doing just as large a disservice to him or her by excluding all this lovely heritage as you would by forcing any belief system on him or her.

    Good luck and congrats!

    • Laura,

      Our challenge is that both my husband and I did grow up profoundly religious – and we want our child to be too! My husband was raised in a Jewish-Muslim home that emphasized the common roots of the faiths and treated G-D and Allah as the same entity. I was raised in the Quaker-Pagan tradition (because, weirdly enough, the faiths ARE theologically compatible). And I think your suggestion might be tricky, given that it can be VERY hard to separate religion and culture (especially in the case of somebody like my mom, where Druidism basically grew out of and reflects the Irish culture and vice versa).

      Our major concern has been that our child might get confused. Paganism, Quakerism, Judaism and Islam facially do seem to all conflict in serious ways. I was concerned that if the child is simply taken to the events, sacraments and other traditions without actively seeking to relate them all to each other, we might have an issue with confusion. But we decided very early that religion is going to be a critical part of our child’s life. It’s more a discussion about how to integrate faith and religion in a non-confusing way.

      • The advice I’ve seen work for many interfaith families is that you decide, up front, which religion you are raising them as. They are Jews. Or Christians. Or whathaveyou. And they will be bar mitzvahed or babtised according. However, Mommy/Daddy/Grandma is something else, and these are all the cool things her religion does, and his church friends, etc.

        I was raised Jewish. However, our family loves Christmas, as it is my Dad’s favorite holiday, and I always enjoyed a good Easter egg hunt. But when deciding where I’d go to Sunday school and what I should call myself and who would be officiating at my life cycle events, I was Jewish.

        As I grew up I became more Jewish. However, I could just as easily have become Christian. I had plenty of exposure to the faith and positive feelings towards it. Nothing called me in that direction, though, and I am happy with how I was raised.

        Even if you’re child is Muslim with Irish traditions, I think that would be fine as long as they have a baseline identity. Christianity happily adopted the traditions of other cultures and reworked their meanings to match their faith. Your family could do this as well.

        • I am personally wary of the baseline faith argument. My husband was raised in a very expressly Jewish/Muslim home. I actually was worried about whether that would work for a while. But he assured me that he really thrived in that system. His parents took great pains to do the research and came to the conclusion that, largely, Judaism and Islam are highly compatible in terms of beliefs. Judaism and Christianity have more of a struggle due to the Jesus question. I have my master’s in applied theology, so this is something I have a great interest in. (I know its also worth pointing out that my husband perhaps had an easier time of it since, under the traditional Jewish laws, he’s not Jewish at all due to being born to a Muslim woman).
          In the same vein, my parents never had an issue with religion since Paganism and Quakerism are actually compatible (you can actually meet Quaker Pagans).

          I think the “baseline” idea works best in households where theological imcompatibility exists (that’s why I think it works so well in Jewish-Christian homes very often). But we’ve already rejected the baseline idea upfront. Because it most likely will not become an issue for us. We want a religious home, but we really don’t want to give our child a set religious identity. This is mostly my idea, since I was raised a home that strongly emphasized NOT giving a child any particular faith.

          • I like your thinking about this Ashley. I want to say, my parents chose the do-nothing route with their mixed heritage/ mixed religion route and I didn’t like it as a kid. It bugged me that they said we were Jewish, because they never involved us in any Jewish community and the holidays were not well-explained. I thought it was really weird that we had to do Xmas if we weren’t Christian. I was just the kind of kid that liked concrete rules, structure, systems. It was confusing that they were wishywashy about it. As an adult, I wish I was raised in a faith community. Tried UU and it pushed all my buttons- not a fit. Since I never was taught Hebrew and don’t really understand the rituals of judiasm I feel like an outsider there too.
            So I guess I would say, just go for it, include your child in your religious life, they will make sense of it their own way, and you will too along with them. You can expect some challenges- but- better that than cutting off a limb of your history and identity. You can say, mom does this, dad does that, you are so lucky and get to do it all! When you come of age, if you want to stop doing one of these things, you can. But this will always be part of you. What specific conflicts are you anticipating, I am curious?

          • Mrs Trouble, I think the conflicts we’re anticipating will be predominantly from the outside. My major objection to the idea that a child should identify with one faith is that, well, not all faiths embrace it. I was raised Quaker/Druid. Both are faiths that don’t have many rituals for children in the faith. My meetinghouse has rules that say that kids are part of the community and welcome, but that the process of becoming a Quaker really happens once you are old enough to formally join the community as a matter of choice. In my mom’s coven, children are part of it, but aren’t full members until they are old enough to choose to do so.

            I admit up front it was sometimes a struggle to confront things that looked, facially, so different. I think the first part is making a point to expose kids to both faiths (or more) in a mixed home. If one is emphasized more than the other, it makes perfect sense why the child would be more drawn to it. I am lucky that my parents were so equal in sharing. It also helped that neither faith community ever did any kind of pushback against the other – nobody at the meetinghouse ever gave me a hard time for going to the coven, and the coven never said anything about the meetinghouse. That was nice.

            I also think that a big challenge will be explaining differences. One of the reasons we feel ready to do this is because both my husband and myself have theology degrees and are sorta religion-nerds. Interfaith families will inherently, I think, need to confront questions. And since religion will be a major part of their lives, those questions will come up a lot. We are in a decent position to explain a lot of stuff, which is a privilege. Overall, I think most of the challenges we’ll face will be likely to come from outside, rather than in. Children, in my experience, are far more open-minded, tolerant and thoughtful than we give them credit for. The trick will be keeping that going as they age!

          • I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist church by a witch for a father and a non-religion-ist for a mother. The UU teachings come from many faiths including all the ones you mention. It gave me a place to call a spiritual home and identify as being UU while navigating what the teachings of my ancestry were, and if I wanted to add a modifier (UU witch, UU Jew, UU Christian, UU Muslim, UU druid, UU atheist) then I could do that and still be within the teachings of my “church.” It gave me a lot of room to grow and be spiritual in my own way, without feeling as if I was rejecting the faiths of my family. I had a lot of Sunday Schoolmates who came from divorced families and came to my church every other week, went to the Jewish temple or the Catholic/Episcopalian/Southern Baptist/etc. church in between. Our faith allowed that with no conflict, and it was a great learning experience for all of us to hear about how other faiths worship and celebrate (in fact there’s an entire year of sunday school devoted to just such a curriculum, going to and learning about other faiths).

            For your family’s struggles with this question, I can’t suggest this solution strongly enough.

      • Have you thought about looking into a Unitarian Universalist Church? They incorporate the teachings of all religions into their practice so this might be a good choice to allow your child to see how all of his/her religious backgrounds can come together.

        • We considered UU churches, but they all seemed, at least to us, a little lacking in that they were so diverse, they didn’t seem to form as cohesive of a community as we liked. We agree that for us, part of the appeal of religion is the unifying behavorial and theological teachings and standards of being in a faith, including the rituals. I have nothing personally against the UUs as a group, because they are very nice. We just tried it and found that we’d prefer raising a child without a formal religious affiliation and then letting them choose once they’re old enough.

          • Maybe it’s just the one(s) you went to, because my church definitely had rituals we did on certain holidays and a Coming of Age program similar (in philosophy) to the coming of age rituals in Jewish and Catholic faiths. Of course, the joy and bain of UUism is how every church can be so different yet unified under the same seven principles. I’ve been to some pretty heavily Christian-centered UU churches that were pretty scary to me, and a couple that were really fruity and flighty and so not spiritual.

  4. I’m just really happy for you that they bought you the tapes – some grandparents might want you to shell out the dough yourself. 🙂

    I don’t see any harm in playing tapes for the baby – having unusual background sounds will only help with language acquisition later in life. Even though my family only spoke English at home, listening to my grandmother speak Russian and Polish helped me learn to better emulate other accents later. Even though I ended up studying Chinese (much to Nana’s horror).

  5. Wow! What a great opportunity for your child to be exposed to such diverse cultures! The difference pointed out between religion and culture is an important one, I think. I would invite all of the grandparents to share their culture in a very personal way by sharing special meals and family practices. How much religion is a part of that is a parenting decision that only you and your partner can make. I can say that, while I don’t agree with many of my children’s grandparents’ religious views, I have taught them to be respectful and curious.

    The boundary that we have set up with our parents regarding religion is that we encourage them to share their beliefs and stories with our kids, but that we will do not approve of any kind of pressure or statements that are derogatory about other beliefs. We have been pretty clear that if this is happening, the grandparents will not be allowed unsupervised time with the kids. Our kids are now 15 and 8 and this has worked very well.

    One fun way for the grandparents to share language would be to request that they make a gift of some of their favorite children’s books along with tapes of them reading the stories in their language. This gives them a change to share important cultural stories as well as language.

    It has been my experience that grandparents often compete with each other for attention, interest and influence regardless of the cultural similarities or differences. I try to remember that this comes from a place of love and a desire for the well-being of their grandchild as I set boundaries.

    Best of luck as you begin this great journey!


    • I love the idea about books and gifts – that never occurred to me. But I do think that would be a great idea. I like to think that language and culture and religion could be a great way to create a bond between my child and his/her grandparents, so that is a great idea.

      (And I just found out that Amazon has an awesome section for Dr. Seuss in a variety of languages. Score).

  6. I think we all grow up with a mix of traditions and cultures, but it isn’t really confusing, because it is all we know. Getting a clementine in my Christmas stocking seems perfectly normal to me, but to my Mom’s side of the family it seems kind of weird, but my Spanish grandmother passed that to my dad who passed it to us. I think you could just explain that while you will of course expose your child to their family culture, you will do so in a way that suits your family unit.

  7. I grew up with different cultures (Mum part spanish, Dad english) and religions (parents atheist, grandparents christian and catholic), my parents decided that we could choose what religion we felt was right (which was none in the end) and they tried to instil a basis of being good and not discriminating against others. I think it worked well, we never felt overwhelmed and we knew that whatever we believed would be accepted, my grandparents didn’t feel the same way but they would take us off to the villages in Spain and to churches and cathedrals and show us what it was all about and it gave us a great perspective on life and different cultures and beliefs.
    I am sure whatever you chose will work out well, remember that this is your baby and it isn’t up to anyone else.

  8. I grew up with grandparents of varying backgrounds. On my mom’s side, me grandmother was English/Catholic Irish, and my Grandfather German and Welsh, and followed a druidic faith. My fathers side grandpa was German and Protestant Irish, and my grandma Norse. All had Scottish thrown in somehow. I grew up with English as my primary language, because it’s what my mom spoke. My dad knows German, but won’t speak it. My grandpa spoke Gaelic with me, and my neighbors taught me Italian! Sadly I’ve forgotten most Gaelic, because I haven’t had anyone to speak it with in over 10 years. My mom never made me go to church, or study with Gramps, but when I asked, she would tell me what she believed. When I sought out information she would help me find it. She made it clear to me from the beginning that it’s my life, it’s my choice, and that I should listen to what was said, but then make my own decision. Ultimately, I ended up following my own path, a weird combination of Druidism, and Taoist beliefs, and have focused on learning Japanese and sign Language. I think my mom did the right thing by telling my grandparents to share my heritage with me, but don’t guilt me into following their footsteps. That I would be loved and accepted no matter what path I chose. I know where I come from, and because of that, I have a better idea of where I’m going.

    I say, go with your gut, and let your child know that no matter what, you will love them, and respect them, even if you don’t understand them.

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