The more religiously committed parents are, the more they want their children to grow up believing and practicing the family’s religion. This is especially true of parents who are religiously traditionalist or conservative. The desire to pass on the faith to offspring in a world that does not seem to support that goal can put great pressure on religious parents not to “fail.”
Most religious parents know that the number of non-religious Americans has grown in recent decades, especially among youth. They know that their culture valorizes autonomous self-definition, expects some degree of youth rebellion, and exerts forces they view as undermining religion. Every religious parent has heard stories about children of faithful parents who grow up to neglect or reject religion. That can be heartbreaking, and the worry that it may happen with one’s own children can be a burden.
After spending two decades studying the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents and emerging adults, I turned to studying religious parenting. As a sociologist, I sought not to produce a “how-to” book, but to understand how American religious parents approach the task of handing on religion to their children. Nonetheless, my years studying intergenerational family religious dynamics have produced clear findings, which suggest implications for parents interested in the religious formation of their children.
The good news is that, among all possible influences, parents exert far and away the greatest influence on their children’s religious outcomes. Stated differently, the bad news is that nearly all human responsibility for the religious trajectories of children’s lives falls on their parents’ shoulders. The empirical evidence is clear. In almost every case, no other institution or program comes close to shaping youth religiously as their parents do—not religious congregations, youth groups, faith-based schools, missions and service trips, summer camps, Sunday school, youth ministers, or anything else. Those influences can reinforce the influence of parents, but almost never do they surpass or override it. What makes every other influence pale into virtual insignificance is the importance (or not) of the religious beliefs and practices of American parents in their ordinary lives—not only on holy days but every day, throughout weeks and years.
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