from Lewis Center for Church Leadership, article by Ann A. Michel
New research on how parents pass faith to their children provides strong evidence that talking with children about faith in the context of daily life is powerfully important. Ann Michel of the Lewis Center staff reports on this and other findings in Handing Down the Faith by Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk.
Parents are the most powerful influence in determining if their children will continue in their faith tradition when grown. Not clergy. Not Sunday school teachers or camp counselors. Not peers or the media, youth programs, or service trips. Much research has documented this leading role of parents. Less studied are the critical questions of how parents seek to pass down their faith.
How do parents transmit faith to their children?
Several factors seem to contribute to the likelihood that a child will embrace their parents’ faith. One is parenting style. Parents who combine high expectations for their children with a high degree of involvement, communication, and warmth are more effective in transmitting their religion than are parents who are more permissive, disengaged, or authoritarian. Another relevant factor is the strength of the parents’ personal religious commitment.
But Smith and Adamczyk identify an even more important factor. They say the single most important practical takeaway from their research is that it’s not enough for a parent to passively model faith by “walking the walk.” They must also regularly talk with their children about their walk, what it means, why it matters, and why they care.
Conversation is key.
Even more important than what the parents have to say is how they say it. The key is talking regularly about religion in the course of ordinary daily life in a way that is neither hands-off or overbearing but rather open, inquiring, and child centered.
Talking frequently about religion not only signals to children that it is important to their parents, it also provides immersive training in the language of faith. Smith and Adamczyk say that religious language is not mainstream America’s first language. And learning a second language always requires practice. If children only hear religion talked about an hour or two a week, they never become fluent enough to feel comfortable as adults in religious communities that speak what is essentially a foreign language.