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How to Pass Down Your Faith to Your Children

Any Christian parent has likely experienced some amount of anxiety or worry about passing down their faith to their children. This difficult task is made even more so amidst a culture that grows seemingly more hostile towards people of faith every day, and targets our children through social media and education.

After interviewing over 200 religiously-affiliated parents, Dr. Christian Smith has co-authored a book on this topic, along with Dr. Amy Adamczyk. Dr. Smith is a professor of sociology and the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, and he joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss this new book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion onto the Next Generation.

“There’s a number of things that the empirical research shows make a difference,” says Dr. Smith. Along with having both parents invested in faith formation, “talking to children during the week about matters of religion,” as opposed to just one hour a week in church on Sunday makes a big difference. “It really communicates to children that the parents care about this, this matters for life.”

An important factor all religious parents need to consider, according to Dr. Smith, is the “glass ceiling” of faith parenting. This glass ceiling is a level of faith above which children are “almost certainly no going to rise. That is, children are not going to turn out to be more religious than their parents.” Rarely if ever do children rise above this glass ceiling.

For parents, this should empower them, urges Dr. Smith. “Parents need to know they really matter. […] There are a whole set of things we know parents can do and do do that are much more effective than not.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Christian Smith share more insights and advice on passing down your faith to your children.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: How to Pass Down Your Faith to Your Children

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Ever wonder if there’s a magic formula for passing along a heritage of faith to your children?

Well, Dr. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, has co-authored a book about this. The title is Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion onto the Next Generation. Well, he’s here to talk to us today about this very important topic, which is every Christian parents longing for their own children.

Dr. Christian Smith, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: Thanks for having me on.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright. So to start off, talk about how on earth you would conduct research for a book like this.

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: Yeah, so we did in-depth personal face-to-face interviews with 235 religiously-affiliated parents all around the country. They were from all different religious traditions—all the major Christian traditions and also Buddhist Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and some not religious. We also analyzed four different existing survey data sets that had surveyed parents that had questions about religion in their children.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Very extensive, it sounds like. Any surprises?

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: Yeah, we were surprised; there are a few things that I can mention. One is that these are parents who are connected one way or another to a religious congregation. We intentionally sampled some that are really involved and some that are much less involved, but the first surprise was how much religious parents really do understand themselves to be the primary formers of their children, socializers of their children religiously. A lot of people in ministry think that most parents just want to drop their kids off for Sunday school and then they go to the coffee shop, but almost all the parents we interviewed really understood, “It’s my job. It’s my responsibility.”

Second one, it’s not a surprise, but it really hit us strongly: a lot of parents feel really caught between wanting to form their kids in their faith, but they’re really terrified, or they’re scared at least that their kids will rebel. They don’t want to push it too hard. They don’t want to be overbearing. And so unlike a lot of other areas in life—like homework and sports and practice—when it comes to faith, parents are very reluctant to be too heavy handed. Also parents, that ones we talked to, almost universally have pretty low expectations of their congregations, but most of what they wanted from their congregations are pretty worldly things. It doesn’t have to do with doctrine or the afterlife or relationship with God; it mostly has to do with a friendly place, a nice community, there are programs for kids and the kids will have friends there.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So have you seen the cultural shifts that we’ve been experiencing the last few decades revolutionize the role of parents?

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: Yeah, overall what we argue in the book is that religious culture has gone from where the local community, the congregation, or the parish is sort of the center of faith formation to a much more individualistic plug-in/plug-out model where the household is the place where faith formation really takes place and the parents are the most important pastors and so on. I think this is partly driven by a lot of factors that I can’t get into here, but also the advent and the widespread takeover of digital technologies, handheld devices, cell phones, social media, and all; they make it really hard for parents to sort of navigate these waters because there are just so many other distractions. Also kids have so much more access to any amount of information about any religion or any spirituality or anything they want right at their fingertips. They don’t need to rely on an authority, and nobody’s sorting out if that information is legitimate or valid or makes any sense. So it’s a different world technologically for parents to try to take on this task.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: But I’m assuming from the title of your book that you feel like there is hope for us. So tell us what some of the takeaways are that you’ve heard.

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: So again, the first thing is parents are the most important factor in how their kids will turn out later in life religiously. A lot of parents, especially of teenagers, may not believe that. We have a cultural script that say after age 12, maybe parents don’t matter; teens don’t listen to their parents. That’s actually not true. Parents are a tremendous influence and they’re much more important than youth group, peers, media, school, whatever, in how their kids turn out. But what really matters is that parents are themselves authentically committed to their faith, practice it regularly, are involved in their religious congregation, talk to their children during the week about their faith and issues of religion and why it matters to them, and try to set up relationships between their children and other responsible adults in the congregation so that their children actually know other people in their churches. It’s more of a sense of community than just you show up, you worship, and you go home.

So there’s a number of things that the empirical research show make a difference. We spelled them out in the book. One of the things that emerged as one of the most important of all that we wouldn’t have guessed up front is talking to children during the week about matters of religion. So the difference here is between families that are just living their lives, and one or two hours a week, they go to church; that’s when they do their religious thing and then it’s over and nothing else during the week ever addresses it or engages it or raises questions. That doesn’t really work very well. It’s the parents who are successful in passing on their faith to their children who tend to talk about their religious faith and practices and ethics and what it means and why it’s valuable to them and why they hope their children will carry it on in various ways.

It’s not preaching, right? It’s not a lecture. It’s just family discussions. It just comes up naturally for those kinds of families who will pass on their faith. So making an effort to raise questions or topics or talk about things other than the “religious hour;” that’s a huge factor. It really communicates to children that the parents care about this, this matters for life, this has implications for things, and so on. So that’s one of the most powerful factors there is.

Having two parents together, a united front in this, also makes a difference. When there’s just a single parent or when one of the parents says, “You’re in charge of the religion thing. I’m checking out. I’m not going to be involved in that,” that greatly reduces the probability that children will carry on the religious practice in the future. And another way to put that is the involvement of fathers is really important. If it’s just left up to mom to take care of that religious Sunday school stuff, that fits kind of a script like, “Oh yeah, Mom’s in charge of hearth and home, and Dad has other priorities.” And especially for boys, that sends a signal like, “Oh, this is something that doesn’t really matter in the family. Mom is checking off boxes.” But if a father and mother are both together, there’s kind of a united front…”No, this is who we are. This is our family. This is our household. This is our commitments.” That’s much more likely to keep children in the faith as they get older.

There’s also something else called channeling, which we could talk about if you want to too. But channeling does not mean like being a medium for somebody else’s spirit or what they would say. In this case, if parents proactively and intentionally try to set up opportunities and relationships and connections for their children, that will be good for them. So introducing them to other adults in the church or inviting other church families over for meals or thinking of summer camps where their kids might go with other kids from their congregation or service trips and so on. So the parents can reinforce their messages and their practices by intentionally channeling their children into the right directions, into the right relationships, into the right experiences. The idea of channeling is it’s not overbearing; it’s not forcing. Sometimes it’s not even obvious to the child that the parent has arranged it, but it just requires being proactive, being thoughtful, being intentional about what would be good for my kid and sort of arranging that in a way that it happens without it being forced.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. Well, you’ve been talking a lot about parenting style, that we don’t necessarily lecture and all these other things. So how does parenting style impact the lasting influence of parents’ faith on their children, do you think?

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: Yeah, this is another very important variable and it’s independent of how religious and committed the parents are. And that is how well they get along with their kids and how they approach parenting their kids. So obviously parents who have strained, unresolved anger, alienation in a relationship with their kids, everything else they can do, it’s going to be probably short-circuited by those troubled relationships. So simply strengthening relationships with children, getting closer, getting more bonded, spending time working through whatever bad feelings there may be from the past. So that’s in general. Then more specifically, in psychology, there’s this theory of parenting styles and there’s four different parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and disengaged (or just not even connected). What’s clear from the analysis is it’s authoritative parents who are the ones, not the others, who are most likely to pass on their religious faith.

So what does authoritative mean? It means a combination of having standards, expectations of children, being in an authority, saying, “Here’s what we expect here. Here’s how you need to be.” And having consequences if kids don’t live up to that. So the kids know their parents are expecting something of them and it matters. At the same time, however, combining that with warmth, openness, closeness, availability emotionally and relationally. So that combination really helps children feel invested in their family, to feel bonded to their parents, to want to do well, to learn how to do what their parents want of them. That is the parenting style authoritative that is most likely to succeed. If you’re a parent, and if this is a little too much in a short time, your listeners can just Google “parenting style authoritative authoritarian,” and it’ll all come up. So being an authoritarian about it, that works, but it doesn’t work as well as being authoritative, and parents who are just disengaged or permissive let their kids do whatever. Even if they’re close to them, that really doesn’t work at all.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned in your book the “glass ceiling.” What do you mean by that, as far as parents and children?

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: In our public discourse, normally that’s applied to things like women moving up in executive positions and so on. It’s glass because it’s not official, it’s not visible, but it’s hard to rise up above that. We use that metaphor to describe the level of the practices and commitments and beliefs—and the seriousness of that—of the parents. So to set the glass ceiling above which their children are almost certainly not going to rise. That is, children are not going to turn out to be more religious than their parents. So if parents want their children for whatever reason to be seriously Christian, say, they need to be seriously Christian. And probably their kids, or some of their kids at least, will be less religious than them. They won’t even reach where their parents are for various reasons in the culture and challenges of being young these days.

So I think the takeaway from all this is parents need to know A, they really matter. That should empower them. B, they can’t control it; it’s not determinative, but they have a significant influence. C, there are a whole set of things we know parents can do and do do that really are much more effective than not doing them. But we can’t sort of hope, “Oh well, I’ll do a half-hearted effort at this, and hopefully my kid will turn out as strong as I am or even stronger.” It’s not going to be that; there’s a glass ceiling above which the kids won’t rise almost certainly. Maybe 1%, but not through their family. They do through, say, InterVarsity or religious groups on campus or some friends that they meet, but that’s a very rare experience.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Wow, that’s a pretty sobering statement for us all. Is there a timeframe where our influence as parents just stops mattering to our children?

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: So I did a previous study called the National Study of Youth and Religion and I published a bunch of books on that, but we followed teenagers from age 13 to 17 for 10 years until some of them were in their latter twenties. And then that study ended. So technically, from my data, we can only say it definitely matters into the twenties. Even including not just their religion, but their risk behaviors, et cetera, their performance in life; it makes a big difference. Other studies, however, show this stuff carries through lifelong. For most people, what gets formed early in life—people’s morals, people’s political beliefs and so on—it gets formed early in life and it carries on and sticks through life. Of course, people marry into a different kind of religion, many things can come up that can change. But the fundamental trajectory of people’s lives is formed early, and we have every reason to expect and some studies have shown will carry on for the rest of their lives.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright. Well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Dr. Christian Smith, where can we follow your work and get a copy of your new book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion onto the Next Generation.

DR. CHRISTIAN SMITH: So this is published by Oxford University Press. Probably for most people, the easiest way to get it would just be to go online and search for the title on Amazon or somewhere else. And if you’re interested in that, there’s a number of other books that we’ve done related to this. So there’s a lot out there to dig into if people are interested in it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Christian Smith, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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