The Power of Parents on the Path to Faith

April 29th, 2013
This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

Kyle Longest is part of a research team that is conducting an extensive, ongoing investigation of the religious lives of young people. Under the primary direction of Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame, the National Study of Youth and Religion has followed more than 2,500 adolescents from their teenage years into their early twenties. By surveying these young people at different stages of their lives, the researchers are developing a comprehensive picture of how adolescents manage and interpret religion, and the factors that shape this process as they make the transition into young adulthood.

The National Study of Youth and Religion was motivated, in part, as a way to address several misperceptions about adolescents that have been propagated by popular media and news outlets. Perhaps one of the most egregious of these myths is the idea that once children become teenagers, parents don’t matter. This seemingly widespread belief claims that eventually children stop listening to their parents and start listening to their peers, and perhaps to non-family adults, such as youth pastors, coaches, and employers. Accordingly, parents are led to believe that by the junior high years they have done all they can do to directly shape their children, and at that point the best they can do is guide their children into pro-social peer groups and organizations.

Although widespread, this myth simply is not true. When using nationally representative data, we find that parents are in fact one of, if not the, most influential factors impacting a whole host of consequential behaviors—from church attendance to marijuana use. Even when stacked up against their friends and other adults, parents continually show up as one of the central determining factors in shaping young peoples’ lives.

This pattern is never more true than with their religious lives. The primary impact comes less from what parents are saying and more from what they are doing. Parents who think religion is very important and who go to worship services very frequently are much more likely to produce teens and young adults who are highly religious. When we looked at it a slightly different way, we found that having highly religious parents was virtually a necessary condition for being a highly religious young adult. In other words, teens can’t out-religious their parents. Parents’ religiousness essentially sets a cap on how religious the child is going to be, even after that child turns into a young adult. Despite popular messages to the contrary, parents are the lynchpin in determining the religious paths teenager take into young adulthood.

Interestingly, when parents are not religious, their role can be substituted by other adults from teens’ congregations. We asked teens how many adults they felt they could turn to if they needed support and how many such adults were a part of a religious congregation they attended. As the number of those religious supportive adults increases so do the chances that teens will maintain or increase their religiousness into young adulthood. Although some of these adults may serve in official roles, such as youth pastors or clergy, other evidence from our survey suggests that most often these supportive adults are informal relationships the teen has formed with adults in their congregation. Many are extended family, grandparents being one of the most prominent, while others are simply adults in the congregation who have taken time to develop meaningful relationships with the teen. Again the key is that these adults, like parents, are not explicitly teaching or training the teen to be religious, rather they are providing a blueprint of what it means to be religious, which the teens can then follow when they become young adults.

Another way to understand the religious paths of teens is to examine those factors that do not matter. It is important to keep in mind when discussing these less important factors that they are very important to certain teens. So the proceeding discussion should not be taken to discount the value that these factors have for individual teens, but across all teens they matter less than parents and other supportive adults. I have already noted one such factor: the teen’s friends. Compared to several other factors, having more or fewer religious friends does not influence teens’ religious lives in the transition to young adulthood. Friends may matter for more immediate behaviors, but in terms of establishing long-term patterns of religiousness, their influence tends to be significantly overestimated.

The second of these less important factors may be even more surprising. Teenagers’ own attendance at religious services does not have much effect on their religious development during the transition to young adulthood. Moreover, there is some evidence attending religious services frequently without internalizing the value of religion can actually have negative consequences for teens. Although I try to avoid normative claims, I’m going make one here: if I were talking to parents who were concerned about how religious their children are, I would stress that it is much more important that the parents themselves attend religious services, than trying to force their teenage children to go. Just seeing parents attend church instills a set of values that influences religious behaviors and beliefs as a teen moves into young adulthood.

One of the more controversial factors that our study has identified as being less important in shaping teens’ religious lives is participation in a youth group. Several different analyses showed that attending a youth group more frequently does not alter the trajectory of teens’ religious paths. I would note a caveat to this claim: establishing relationships with supportive adults in the congregation is an influential factor, as discussed above. To the extent that these relationships stem from teens’ participation in youth group, then attending is important.

For most teens, however, participating in a youth group does not lead to being more religious in young adulthood. There are several potential explanations for this null effect. First, it may be that only the most religious teens attend youth group. These teens are most likely to possess and exhibit other factors that also lead to high levels of religiousness, such as having religious parents, praying frequently, and seeing religion as important. If this is true, then attending youth group would not show an independent affect. Second, many teens are attending youth groups for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. Such teens probably attend youth groups to spend time with a romantic partner or friends. One would hope that youth groups would be able to encourage these non-religious teens into a more religious path, but this does not appear to be the case. Finally, it may be that, as with attendance at religious services, such “formal” organizations do not have the power to establish long-term religiousness in teens. Although many people hope and rely on these external organizations to simply imbue teens with a particular outlook or set of behaviors, our data suggests that closer and more informal ties are more effective at fulfilling this function.

What does all of this mean for people interested and invested in shaping teens’ religious paths as they move into young adulthood? The importance of parents cannot be overstated. It is that parents understand that they are creating an environment that provides the model their teens will use when they become adults themselves. It is not enough to simply tell teens that religion is important, rather teens need to see how one leads a religious life. Many of the young adults we interviewed noted that they saw religion as something that they would return to when they settled down and started their own family. What this religious picture looks like will depend, in large part, on what they experienced in their own households as teens. Clergy and church youth leaders simply do not have the same opportunities or ability to model and create this enduring framework.

Another way that parents can help teens’ religious lives is by teaching them how to use religion. Another of the other prominent religious factors influencing a host of outcomes is developing an internalized importance of religion. Teens who say religion is very important in their daily lives and that they draw upon religious resources when making difficult decisions are the most likely to maintain or increase their religiousness into young adulthood, as well as being the least likely to engage in deviant behavior as teens and young adults. Such an internalized religion can be fostered by parents having serious discussions with their teens about how religion should apply to their daily lives, using real examples and situations that are salient to the teen. This type of dialogue is more than a catchy phrase on a wristband and needs to be continually addressed. When a teen is facing a tough situation, parents need to see that as an opportunity to explain why and how religion can help, rather than hoping that the teens have simply picked this up from weekly services or a youth group meeting.

Clearly these conversations are easier said than done, but when parents recognize and appreciate the importance they hold in shaping their teens’ lives, the more apt they will be to capitalize on that role. Doing so can lead to teens valuing the importance of religion and understanding how they can use it when facing decisions in their life, both of which substantially increase the likelihood that they will become highly religious young adults.

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