Parents take the lead in handing down and talking up the faith

Religion Watch recently interviewed John Jay College sociologist Amy Adamczyk about her research on how parents transmit religious faith to their children. Adamczyk is the co-author, with Christian Smith, of the new book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation (Oxford University Press, $29.95). The book is based on interviews with religious and non-religious parents as well as analysis of survey research.

RW: One of the striking findings of your book is the importance of religious conversations between religious parents and their children in how the faith is handed down to the next generation. Can you explain this?

Adamczyk: We found that religious conversations between children and their parents were really important for transmitting religious belief. The most successful parents did not compartmentalize religion-related discussions with their children to a certain day of the week or particular activity. Rather, they would make talking with them about their practices and beliefs, what they mean, and why they are important, a normal part of everyday family life. The most effective parents did not try to give their children some sort of sermon or force an artificial conversation. Rather, they would mostly be themselves, regularly talking with their children casually about religion.

Two-way conversations were also an important aspect of this engagement. A lot of parents told us about how their own parents would sometimes preach to them about religion, which they did not like or find effective in strengthening their own religious beliefs. Rather, the most successful parents gave their children a chance to respond and ask their own questions. These parents would not shut down conversations that questioned religious beliefs or inquired more deeply. Rather, they would actively engage children on their terms and find opportunities to talk with them about religion.

RW: You and your co-author, Christian Smith, look at several parenting styles for passing on the faith and find that a “general authoritative” style is among the most effective. But that is something different than just a strict religious upbringing, right?

Adamczyk: Our research examines four different parenting styles and assesses how they are related to religious transmission. We find that the “authoritative” parenting style is the most successful. You are right that this parenting style includes strict parenting, where parents have clear demands, standards, and expectations. These parents also tend to have a lot of emotional warmth, support, and affection. It is the combination of strictness and warmth that seems to make the style so successful for passing on religious belief. These children know that their parents care deeply for them and hold them to high standards precisely because they love them. They also know that when they fail to meet their parents’ standards, they will encounter consequences, though their parents will never withdraw their love. These parents set clear standards and expectations for religious engagement, while also providing a lot of love and support so children are more inclined to embrace their parents’ religious beliefs. “Authoritative” parenting also results in children feeling more comfortable engaging their parents in religion-related discussions and asking questions.

The other parenting styles, which are not as successful for transmitting religious belief, include the “authoritarian” style, where parents are more cold and distant, and also demanding and strict. Parents who have a “permissive” style tend to offer a lot of closeness and empathy, but have many fewer boundaries or expectations than the others. Finally, parents who are classified as “passive” do not exhibit much affection, warmth, clear expectations, or standards. They often do not have much sense of what is happening with their children and are mostly disengaged.

RW: But these parenting styles are not necessarily tied to specific religious traditions?

Adamczyk: Regardless of the religious tradition, we found that parents who tended to have an “authoritative” style were more successful at transmitting their religious beliefs, whatever they were. In addition to all of the religious parents we interviewed, we also talked with two dozen parents who were not very religious or identified as atheist or agnostic. We also assessed survey findings for parents with various levels of religious belief. We found similar patterns, whereby children who experienced “authoritative” parenting and had less religious parents were less likely to become religious later in life and more likely to have a similar lack of religious belief as their own parents. In other words, parents with an “authoritative” style tended to be more successful in passing on their religious or nonreligious beliefs, regardless of what they were.

RW: Another key finding of the book is how parents don’t have high confidence in their congregations playing a big role in forming their children’s faith. What do you think is behind this development? Is it the growth of religious individualism or helicopter parenting?

Adamczyk: We thought this finding was really interesting and maybe especially useful for congregations as they think about how to better support families. Even as most parents today are working full-time, we know that they spend as much, if not more, time with their children than they did 40 years ago. Most of the parents we spoke to wanted to be involved in every aspect of their children’s lives. They saw themselves as coordinating all of the influences that they wanted to shape their kid, including religion-related forces. Indeed, we interviewed very few parents who felt that religious congregations were primarily responsible for instilling religious belief in their children.

While congregations were not seen as having the primary influence, parents still saw them as providing a lot of value. Congregations can sponsor events that children want to attend, making it easier for parents to get them involved with religion. They often include fellow adherents who can look out for their kids when parents are absent or can offer an alternative adult perspective. Additionally, congregations can help channel children into networks with similarly religious peers. Finally, they provide a formal religious education. Before dropping their children off for religious instruction (e.g., Sunday School or Bible study), some parents told us that they would tell their children, “I am going to ask you what you learned afterwards.” For these parents, religious classes provided an additional opportunity to talk with their children about religion, as well as formal religious education.

RW: Peer networks, especially through social media, have been seen as assuming importance in teen religion, but you find parenting is still important, even for older children?

Adamczyk: Throughout our interviews, we found that parents tended to have the most important influence on their children’s religious development, clearly larger than their peers. While we interviewed parents with children of all different ages, whenever possible we tried to recruit those who had older children, as these parents tended to have a more realistic perspective about the challenges of transmitting religion. Even for older children, parents still had the most profound effect.

Additionally, for the parents we interviewed, the extent to which their own parents created a positive religious experience was huge for the intergenerational transmission of religious belief. Eighty percent of the parents we interviewed said that they were shaped (in both good and bad ways) by the religion-related experiences enacted by their own parents, and 70 percent of them were following the religion in which they were raised. Chris Smith, my co-author on the book, also found in his separate research on adolescents and young people that parents had a major influence. At times it may seem like peers have a greater role, and they do have an effect. But all of the findings point to parents having an outsized influence on the transmission of religious belief.

RW: Immigrant parents often have difficulties passing on the faith to the second generation undergoing Americanization. How are they doing in this regard, considering the above dynamics?

Adamczyk: Like the others we interviewed, immigrant parents strongly wanted to pass on their religious beliefs. But, to do so, they often had to work harder in a range of different ways. Depending on their specific religion and where they lived, one major challenge was finding a nearby congregation that they enjoyed and that provided the desired culture for their children. For immigrants who are Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, these communities are not prevalent and in some parts of the United States can be difficult to locate. So these parents often had to physically drive further to connect with them, and they had less congregational choice than American Protestants and Catholics. We also interviewed dozens of Hispanic parents, most of whom are Catholic and recent immigrants. They, too, would sometimes struggle with finding a congregation that they really liked and that offered Spanish religious services.

Immigrant parents also tended to worry more about their children finding friends with a similar religious background. They were anxious about their children feeling particularly odd or strange because of their minority religion, which was a concern shared by some Mormon and conservative Protestant parents as well. Immigrant parents were also contending with a very different culture than the one in which they were raised, though a lot of the non-immigrant parents we interviewed also felt that things had changed substantially from their own youth. For some immigrant parents, the children’s grandparents were a significant source of support, not only in helping to raise their children, but also in passing on various religious traditions.

RW: How do you think the older children of the religious parents will do in passing on their faiths to their children? Will they follow the parenting styles that they were raised with?

Adamczyk: There would be good reason to think that once the children that were discussed in our book grow up, if they adopt an “authoritative” parenting style, mixing strictness with lots of love and support, and if they try to have open, two-way discussions about religion, they will be likely to pass down their own beliefs, whatever they may be. Additionally, it is important that parents are authentic and realistic about their beliefs as well. We interviewed a lot of parents who only wanted to pass down a moderate level of religious belief and did not want to “overdo it.” Of course with the transmission process there are no guarantees, and other experiences and situations (e.g., parents divorcing, parents supporting two different religions, challenges in finding a similarly minded religious congregation) may disrupt parents’ best efforts.