Rishi Mehta and Nora Saperstein decided before they even had children that they wanted to integrate both Rishi’s Sikh religion and Nora’s Jewish religion into their family life. When their twin daughters turned 13 years old—the age at which Jewish children typically participate in Bar or Bat Mitzvahs—Rishi and Nora put together a coming-of-age ceremony that combined elements of both Sikhism and Judaism.
“It was a very public sort of community-based way to make our kids feel part of the multiple communities they were part of,” explained Rishi.
In the months leading up to the event, Rishi and Nora worked with their daughters to study important tenets of both religions. Rishi noted that the event pushed him and his wife to learn and think more about their own faith traditions than they had since childhood—and also allowed Rishi to learn more about Judaism and Nora to learn more about Sikhism.
Stories like Rishi and Nora’s are increasingly common because the number of children growing up in multiethnic and multi-faith families has been skyrocketing in the United States. Gallup recently reported that 94% of Americans now express approval of interracial marriages—a shift from nearly universal disapproval in just over six decades. It is no exaggeration to say that the millions of young adults leading diverse families today are carrying out a version of parenting that many of their grandparents and great-grandparents could hardly have imagined.
Yet despite this growing diversity among American families, there is surprisingly little research on parental socialization in multiethnic and multi-faith families—the practices by which parents share values, practices, and beliefs from their cultures or faith traditions with their children. Moreover, a number of the studies that have been conducted focus on negative outcomes, such as the lower likelihood of parents in multi-faith families successfully transmitting their religious beliefs to their children or the ways in which the parental role can become a “catalyst for conflict” among adults leading multiethnic families.
Over the past year, our research team has conducted more than 120 interviews with parents leading multiethnic or multi-faith families and young adults raised in multiethnic or multi-faith families—including with Rishi, Nora, and their twins. Our goal has been to identify ways in which these families navigate differences and draw upon both parents’ faith traditions or cultural backgrounds to support their children’s character development. Here is what we’ve discovered so far about how families can combine cultures and faiths to thrive in the 21st century.
Melding differences creates new value
In his 2019 one-man show Springsteen on Broadway, musician Bruce Springsteen observes that “the primary math of the world is one and one equals two,” but that “the essential equation of life is 1 + 1 = 3”—in other words, two pieces coming together to form something even greater than their sum.
Many of the parents and young adults participating in our study described the opportunity to incorporate the values of two different cultures or faith traditions into their families as just such a case of one plus one equaling three.
For the coming-of-age ceremony they designed, Rishi and Nora both identified six to eight values that they believed were fundamental to their respective religious traditions, and that they felt their children would benefit from learning about and reflecting upon more deeply. The core Sikh values they chose included honest and hard work, sharing with others, remember God, and be gentle and act with humility. The core Jewish values they chose included welcoming guests, respecting differences, and pursuing justice.
In the coming-of-age ceremony, Rishi and Nora’s daughters each prepared and delivered a short speech in which they shared thoughts about the relevance of these core values in their own lives and the world they lived in. Rishi and Nora had also invited friends and family members attending the coming-of-age ceremony to come prepared to share a story about how they have sought to live out one of the Sikh or Jewish values. In asking their guests to share these stories with the twins, Rishi and Nora hoped their daughters would benefit from the wisdom and experiences of the assembled friends and family.
Looking back on the ceremony, Nora observed: “It reflected who we as a family are far more than something that sort of runs in parallel with [both religions].” Her husband and daughters likewise expressed their belief that the coming-of-age ceremony exemplified their efforts to meld Rishi’s Sikhism and Nora’s Judaism into something new and unique to their family. In so doing, they offer an example of a family blending the principles and values of their respective faith traditions into something even greater than their sum—one plus one equaling three.
Rishi and Nora’s family is representative of a number of families we interviewed who sought out ways to incorporate the value systems from both parents’ cultures or religions into their families. Interestingly, a smaller number of parents we interviewed were so attuned to the benefits of exposing their children to multiple cultures that they actually sought out additional cultural systems, beyond their own, to integrate into their families’ traditions and practices.
For example, one of the young adults we interviewed, Yousra, had an Egyptian father and Chinese mother who actively introduced their children to their own languages and cultures, but also chose to send their children to schools that immersed them in French and Italian language and culture. The cosmopolitanism of this family and others we interviewed felt in many ways like a natural extension of the 1 + 1 = 3 approach to thoughtfully mixing cultures.
Strengthening empathy and conflict resolution
Writer and activist Audre Lorde once observed: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” In numerous interviews, parents and young adults echoed Lorde’s emphasis on the importance of honoring difference.
Take the Zeitawi family, for example. One might describe Connie and Abdel Zeitawi’s childhoods as mirror images of each other. Connie is a Polish American woman who spent her childhood and adolescence in Colombia. Though her family is not ethnically Latino, she describes herself as Colombian at heart and deeply influenced by Latin culture. Abdel Zeitawi grew up in Israel as an Israeli citizen, but, as a Palestinian and Muslim, his feelings of connection to Israel felt complex and tumultuous.
Connie and Abdel met in the United States as young adults and formed a multiethnic family with the birth of their two children, Ramy and Lisa.
Lisa is now in her late 20s. She told us that she acquired powerful values from both sides of her family, such as her mother’s deep valuing of family connection and interaction, and her father’s insistence that even very small children can do chores and contribute to the operation of the household. However, she also observed her parents having to work through ways in which their cultural values differed from one another when it came to parenting.
Both Lisa and her mother described Abdel’s Palestinian family as embracing a patriarchal culture that expected men and women to play very traditional gender roles, and offered much greater autonomy to boys than girls. Lisa described her father expecting her older brother to help him outside with chores, such as mowing the grass, whereas she was expected to contribute to cooking and cleaning inside the house.
Lisa’s mother, Connie, added that her husband also had different expectations for his children when it came to romantic relationships. According to Connie, their son received the message, “Go ahead, you know you’re a boy, you can do whatever you want, but Lisa, you’re not going to date. You can go in a group with friends, but you’re not going on a date.” Lisa added that when she did go out with friends, her father “did not want me wearing a tank top or you know shorts that were too short. It was always a little bit of a fight because he just wanted [me] to be like more conservative-looking.”
According to Connie, these inequitable expectations created a lot of contention with her husband. However, she explained that she approached these disagreements from the perspective that “you can’t break family bonds because of [differences in] culture” and that such cultural beliefs “are ingrained, so you have to accept that and just find ways to work around that if you want to make it work.”
Ultimately, the family found their way to a middle ground where Lisa engaged in many of the dating behaviors typical of American teenagers, but she and her mother honored her father’s preference to remain uninformed of the details. “Sometimes, ignorance is bliss,” said Connie.
Whether or not this compromise would work perfectly for other families, what Lisa took away from watching her parents work through these differences in their cultural values was that people can love and respect each other while still holding divergent beliefs, and that those divergent beliefs can be recognized, acknowledged, and negotiated.
From growing up in a multiethnic family, Connie Zeitawi observed of both her children: “I think they’re way more open-minded. They have a better sense of acceptance of people who are not exactly like themselves—both religion [and] culture.” As Lisa looked ahead to her own upcoming marriage to a Greek American, she believed her multiethnic family also offered her a useful blueprint for contending with differences in values that may arise in the union of their two cultures.
Synthesizing competing perspectives
Other young adults participating in our study described ways in which the values introduced by the different sides of their families offered useful guidance and insights, even when those values seemed to be in conflict with one another.
Twenty-one year old Kimiko was raised in the United States by her Chinese mother and white American father. She described her mother’s actions as driven by a “collectivist idealism” while her father was guided by an ethic of individualism.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began leading to supply shortages, for example, her father’s instinct was to purchase as much toilet paper as he possibly could, even if it meant circumventing a store’s per-person limits. In contrast, her mother didn’t want the family to purchase any more than they absolutely needed “for the benefit of civilization.” Kimiko described herself as possessing both of these impulses because “it’s like, I know that I could get away with a lot of things, and, often, like I’m very conscious of the fact that, like, I don’t want to do that.”
Kimiko generally regarded her mother’s collectivist orientation as a healthier one for her to take on than her father’s more individualistic philosophy; however, she also noted there were times when she benefitted from adopting her father’s impulse to go after something she personally wanted rather than deferring to others. Kimiko acknowledged other benefits to growing up in a family that introduced both of these value systems. “I’m one of those people who, when I hear a story or something like that, I always wonder what the other sides are,” she told us. “I always try to think about where other people come from.”
Twenty-year-old Sophie also described learning from the distinctive value systems of her African American mother and Italian American father.
Sophie’s mother, Camille, pushed her daughter to pursue academic excellence because she felt keenly aware of the educational opportunities denied to their relatives and ancestors. Sophie’s father, Jerry, took a very different view of elite education. He had grown up in a working-class Italian American family that valued education but was highly distrustful of elitism. He was proud of the multiple degrees he had earned at relatively little cost from public colleges and universities, and the successful career he had been able to build upon a modest foundation. When his wife urged their daughter to apply to the most elite universities in the country, he expressed concern about his daughter turning into an entitled young adult who looked down on people with less prestigious institutions on their resumes.
Ultimately, Sophie turned down the elite private university that admitted her in favor of one of the top public universities in the country—a decision that represented a middle ground between her parents’ positions on higher education. In reflecting on this decision, Sophie observed of the tonier institution: “I just decided it wasn’t a good fit. Especially in high school, I was always striving for that sort of level, and then when I achieved it, when I got in, I realized that I didn’t actually want to do that.” Similar to Kimiko, Sophie described herself as benefiting from synthesizing the distinct sets of cultural values that her parents had introduced to her.
While these insights might seem most valuable to parents in multiethnic and multi-faith families, we believe educators can learn from them, as well. Over the past 25 years, teachers have put more emphasis on culturally relevant and sustaining educational practices that treat young people’s cultural knowledge and ways of being as assets to be valued and nurtured in school. For educators working with increasingly diverse student bodies, the efforts of multiethnic and multi-faith families can offer valuable insights about how to draw upon and integrate the multiple cultural systems their students bring with them into their classrooms.
In an increasingly diverse world, parents and educators alike will benefit from asking: What opportunities are there for us to acknowledge and share our different value systems with our children rather than trying to conceal or paper over these differences? In what ways can we show our children how those differences can be enriching and enlivening? These are questions we are only just starting to answer—and that makes this an exciting time to ask them.