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  • The balance between parents’ profound desires for children to remain faithful and their simultaneous desire to honor their children’s agency showed up repeatedly in our national American Families of Faith project. Tweet This
  • Many highly religious parents experience disappointed dreams for their children who choose not to keep the faith. Tweet This
  • Religious parents are in a unique position to offer a foundation of faith to their children during childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood as influential guides. Tweet This
Category: Parents, Religion

A bone-deep hope, vision, and prayer of many highly religious parents is that their children will be true to the faith that they have cherished. A collision course is currently set because the percentage of religious “Nones” (those reporting no religious affiliation) and “Dones” (those who have left religion) has measurably increased among the rising generation. As a result, many highly religious parents experience disappointed dreams for their children who choose not to keep the faith. 

The reality is that, even if they wanted to, parents do not have the power to make an emerging adult child remain faithful. However, parents do have potent influence. We’ve written that “when a teen’s parents are actively involved in religious faith, it is significantly more likely that the teen will be actively involved in a life of religious faith as an emerging adult and middle-aged adult.” However, increased odds are far from a guarantee.

Even after presenting their own faith to their children, many religious parents see their children’s religious (and other life) choices follow another path. Pew Research Center recently estimated that “31% of people raised Christian become unaffiliated between ages 15 and 29.” These are daunting statistics for parents who deeply value their faith and hope to see their children follow in their footsteps. 

In the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, parents are instructed to teach their children to love God with all their hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-8). But the Hebrew Bible also extends the universal invitation, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve …” (Joshua 24:15). This balance between parents’ profound desires for children to remain faithful and their simultaneous desire to honor their children’s agency and choices showed up repeatedly in our national American Families of Faith project, where we interviewed about 400 highly religious parents, in significant depth.

As we probed deeper into parents’ wishes to have their children remain in their religion, we discovered different ways parents navigated this significant struggle, as we reported in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Here are some keys.

Parental desires for the passing down of faith. The nearly 400 religious parents we interviewed exemplified a deep commitment to their respective religions and most expressed their perception of multi-faceted “blessings” their faith has brought into their lives, in spite of acknowledged challenges. Hundreds of empirical studies by both medical and social scientists indicate connections between higher levels of religious involvement and moderately to significantly higher levels of mental health, physical health, and longevity. 

Shared religious involvement in marriage is also correlated with benefits including lower divorce rates and higher marital satisfaction and quality. Given an array of both measurable and more transcendent benefits and “blessings” reported, it is little wonder that most highly religious parents hold a deep desire for their children to remain committed to the same faith that has greatly benefitted them in their lives.

Further, a number of parents described the importance of religious continuity as a “responsibility” of parents to promote, if the child is willing to receive it. 

Meet children where they are. Rachel, an Orthodox Jewish mother we interviewed, described the value of flexibility in establishing religious expectations unique to each individual child. She said:

Somebody once said to me in a very nice way, 'You have to have some … damage control, and at the same time, you want to also awaken in [your child] the feelings for positive things.' So, in other words … choose your battles. And each child, the Torah tells us that you have to educate the child according to his will. I think a major parenting tip there … you can have family rules, but you have to know that within the family, you’re going to have so many individuals. And every rule has to be custom-made to the individual as well.

“Lived invitation” instead of preaching. Randall, a Black Christian father, spoke of persistently living his beliefs day-to-day and addressed this challenge as he strived to set an example for his children. He said:

You’re trying to be an example. You remember your mistakes, and [your kids], they’re gonna make mistakes, [but] you just try to live according to your faith. You try to live out your faith in front of them. It ain’t easy all the time, because sometimes things do get to you and they see it, they do not see the Christian side [of you] … [and] I have to think, 'What kind of example am I setting?' … I have to live out my faith, and sometimes it ain’t easy ….

A Muslim mother, Angie, said of her husband (originally from Jordan):

It doesn’t matter how much the father talks to the children [about religion], the children will learn from what the father does. … If my children see my husband go to the Mosque every night for prayer [which he does] he is setting an example. I don’t have to “teach” it. They are seeing it.

Such comments seem to echo Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.” 

Children’s religious choices. Although diverse parents in the American Families of Faith project shared many reasons why it was important to them that their children follow in their faith, most also recognized that the decision was ultimately up to the child. This recognition of personal religious agency is taught throughout the Abrahamic faiths. For example, the Quran teaches: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.” Proverbs 22:6 (KJV) reads, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” In spite of the hope offered to parents of faith here, there is no promise that many youth will not depart—at least for a time. 

Understanding and reconciling with children’s choices. Parents, especially those with teen and emerging adult-aged children, frequently discussed how they felt about the religious choices of their children and how they as parents were responding to their children’s different levels of religious commitment. For many parents, these interpretations were characterized as an ongoing process of understanding and acceptance, or even peace, regarding their children’s agency.

Not only were the interviewed parents supportive of this expression of agency, but they demonstrated respect for their children’s agency through learning to listen to their children’s ideas, expressing trust in their children, and by making ongoing efforts to develop strong relationships with their children. 

Even when children’s choices conflicted with the parents’ own dreams and expectations for their children, many parents conveyed a belief that it was important to accept the religious choices of their children. 

A Balancing Act 

Religious parents are in a unique position to offer a foundation of faith to their children during childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood as influential guides in their children’s lives. Laying a foundation of faith may be accomplished through parental religious teaching, expectations, lived example, shared spiritual and religious experiences, and relational warmth—balanced with an allowance for the children’s agency and respect for their opinions. 

The crucial process of finding a balance in the combination of passing down religious beliefs and accepting children’s religious choices confronts almost every religious family. Some research indicates that balancing these two responsibilities grows ever more difficult as cultural values shift and a societal emphasis on individual choice increases.  

In perhaps the definitive book-length study on parent-child religious transmission, the late Vern Bengtson summarized, “Families do matter in determining the moral and religious outcomes of young adults, and they matter a great deal.” An irony is that Bengtson himself, recounts in the book’s preface, “I was to become the weak link in [the] chain that had connected generations through faith.” This lived experience brought pain and tension to his family relationships with his faithful parents. Decades passed, as did his parents. Then, Bengtson reveals to his readers:

On Easter Sunday three years ago, I wandered into a church service. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the music and beauty, and bowled over by recollections and revelations—utterly ‘surprised by joy,’ as C.S. Lewis described his own later-life religious experience. I came back. So these days I’m in church every Sunday, singing away in the choir. 

Vern’s final prefatory and personal words in his magnum opus regarding his return to faith were, “I think my father and grandfather would be pleased. I hope my mom would too.” When Bengtson left this life on November 8, 2019, as a returned prodigal, his life illustrated that a parent can always continue in faith, hope, and love.

Loren D. Marks* and David C. Dollahite are professors in the BYU School of Family Life and co-directors of the American Families of Faith Project. Professor Marks is also a Faculty Fellow of the Wheatley Institute.