6:00 PM June 16, 2010
Parents matter in the religious lives of America’s youth.
This finding was clear to sociologist Christian Smith as the principal investigator for the National Study of Youth and Religion in 2002-2003, the most detailed study ever done on teens and religion.
And it was clear in a 2007-2008 study following teens into emerging adulthood.
“What the best empirical evidence shows … is that even as the
formation of faith and life play out in the lives of 18- to
23-year-olds, when it comes to religion, parents are in fact hugely
important,” report Smith and Patricia Snell of the Center for the Study
of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.
Of the many influences on emerging adults, “One of the most powerful
factors was the religious lives of their parents—how often they
attended religious services, how important religious faith was in their
own lives, and so on,” they write in their new book, “Souls in
Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.”
We live in a culture where mothers and fathers hover over their children
in school, on athletic fields and even on social media sites such as
Facebook. Yet why do so many parents take a hands-off approach to
religion and spirituality?
We live in a culture where mothers and fathers hover
over their children in school, on athletic fields and even on social
media sites such as Facebook. Yet why do so many parents take a
hands-off approach to religion and spirituality, setting youth adrift in
crucial areas of moral reasoning and finding meaning in life?
The question raised by Smith and others is worth considering.
Not only does research show religious teens have in general more
positive outcomes in areas from mental health to compassion for others,
but there also are larger implications for the nation of raising a
generation lacking a moral framework for addressing issues of right and
wrong, good and evil.
All of us on life’s road must have a code that we can live by.
Teaching not their children
Ubiquitous commercials on television encourage parents to monitor
their children for signs of drug and alcohol abuse or other potential
But many institutions today, including no small number of houses of
worship, have given up on reaching teens and young adults with
discussions of universal moral truths.
Parents, in turn, are responding to the growing cultural movement
that tends to be more open and respectful of different belief systems,
but wary of lifting one way of approaching truth and meaning over
In the name of individual autonomy, say Smith and Snell, “the
usually most crucial players in teenagers’ lives disengage from them
precisely when they most need conversation partners to help sort
through these weighty matters.”
The assumption that parents are irrelevant in the religious lives of
teenagers – replaced instead by peers – is a myth, research shows.
Yet the assumption that parents are irrelevant in the religious
lives of teenagers – replaced instead by peers – is a myth, research
Several studies have shown that the religious behaviors and attitudes of parents are related to those of their children.
In research using data from the National Longitudinal Study of
Adolescent Health, sociologists Christopher Bader and Scott Desmond
found that children of parents who believe that religion is very
important and display their commitment by attending services are most
likely to transmit religiosity to their children.
Autonomy had the opposite effect, Bader and Desmond reported in an
article in the journal Sociology of Religion. Children subjected to
fewer rules attended church less often and attached less importance to
In the National Study of Youth and Religion, having highly religious
parents was one of the strongest variables associated with youth being
highly religious as emerging adults.
In addition, other important factors such as frequency of prayer and
Scripture reading and having religious experiences are normally
influenced by parents’ belief and examples, study researchers said.
“In the long run,” Smith and Snell say, “who and what parents were
and are for their children when it comes to religious faith are more
likely to ‘stick’ with them, even into emerging adulthood, than who and
what their teenage friends were.”
The good that they do
The research is significant for individuals and the larger society.
On a personal level, religious young adults had consistently more
positive outcomes than the least religious emerging adults in nearly
every area, including relationships with parents, physical and mental
health, educational achievement and avoidance of drug and alcohol abuse
and potentially problematic sexual activity.
Religious young adults also did better in areas measuring giving and
volunteering, moral compassion, having a purpose in life, feeling
gratitude and resistance to consumerism.
All of these areas, Smith and Snell note, also have consequences for the collective well-being of the nation.
“The question is never whether adults are engaged in religious
socialization, but only how and with what effect they are doing so,”
according to Smith and Snell.
The uncomfortable truth, as the nation takes a day each month in
May and June to celebrate the roles of mothers and fathers, is that
many parents are abdicating their responsibility to teach their
*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service. This
article originally appeared as an Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.