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Trying to raise successful kids? Experts say you shouldn’t forget about faith

Busy family schedules often leave no time for religion. That may be a bigger problem than parents realize, experts say

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

In America today, being a parent is much like being a talent manager. Moms and dads shepherd their aspiring sports star or Rhodes scholar from school to practice to private lesson, all the while looking for additional opportunities to maximize their child’s potential.

“Parents are emphasizing personal achievement and skill-building for their kids. ... They’re looking for ways to build-out a resume, whether for college or future career success,” said Daniel Cox, director and founder of the Survey Center on American Life.

As part of this push, moms and dads often deemphasize activities that don’t lead to individual acclaim, like worship services or family dinners. When you’re heavily invested in building measurable skills, you quickly run out of time to do anything else, Cox said.

“It’s not OK anymore for kids just to hang out and goof around. They have to be learning something,” he said.

In addition to creating a lot of stressed-out kids, modern parents’ fixation on achievement is reshaping families’ relationships with organized religion. Young adults today heard less about faith from their parents during childhood than previous generations and spent less time in church, according to a new report from Cox’s survey center.

These findings help explain why members of Generation Z (34%) are more likely than millennials (29%) and members of Generation X (25%) to be religiously unaffiliated. Research has long shown that the quantity and quality of childhood religious experiences predict how religious someone is as an adult, Cox said.

The irony of this outcome is that religious engagement often provides a more reliable path to a happy, successful life than travel sports leagues or piano lessons. Faith communities can give young people social connections to lean on for the rest of their lives, Cox said.

“We should not coerce people to get involved in religion. But at the same time, we can’t ignore all the benefits that come from being involved in a religious community,” he said.

Time crunch

To be fair to modern parents, finding the time to attend worship services and other church-related events didn’t use to be so hard. In the past, sports leagues, in particular, typically avoided Sundays, and event organizers of all stripes generally understood the significance of religious commitments.

Today, amid rising religious disaffiliation and the professionalization of youth sports, that’s no longer the case. Families who don’t want to miss worship services end up having to say no to some opportunities or deal with pushback from a coach.

“We’ve heard a lot of, ‘Well, how about your kids come after church?’ or ‘What if I pick them up?’” said Megan Hill, a mom of four who has written about her experiences juggling youth sports and church events.

Under these circumstances, even parents who care deeply about passing down their faith can end up prioritizing secular commitments over religious ones. Dave Rogers, a dad of three now-grown children, said he and his wife had to learn to live with the discomfort of balancing competing demands.

“Whether it was right or not, we decided games would trump anything except a special service at church, like Easter or Mother’s Day,” he said, adding that games on the afternoon of Mother’s Day were still OK.

Hill and her husband, on the other hand, drew a hard line from the beginning. They told their kids that Sunday was for spending time with God and God’s people, not for going to work or playing sports.

“We basically said, ‘Not on Sundays.’ ... We drew that line from the time they were little,” said Hill, who is managing editor for The Gospel Coalition.

This mindset has led to decisions that shock their parenting peers. For example, one of their sons recently missed his basketball team’s biggest game of the season.

“He played in every playoff game except the championship,” Hill said.

Benefits of faith

Despite her belief that religious activities should take priority, Hill understands why many families choose a different path. It’s hard to deny that time-intensive sports or work or academic commitments help set young people up for success later in life. It’s also true that faith-related activities are more difficult to brag about on college applications or resumes.

“For some reason, activities are kind of discounted when you attach a religious label to it,” she said.

Still, Hill believes that religious engagement can equip kids with the same skills that families seek out from secular sources. At church, just as on the soccer field or basketball court, young people learn what it means to be part of something bigger than themselves and how to make sacrifices in the service of others.

“Many of the skills that we associate with sports participation are skills that you learn in church, as well,” she said.

Through involvement in a religious community, children also gain strong ties to their neighbors, ties that can sustain them through life’s most difficult moments, Cox said. That’s especially notable at a time when loneliness is on the rise.

“Religious communities offer a feeling of belonging and connection that is wholly unique,” he said.

Parents shouldn’t forget about those potential benefits when they plan their families’ weekly schedules, Hill said. She takes pride in showing others that it’s possible to prioritize religious activities while still committing to secular clubs and teams.

“I think it’s been helpful to other people in our church to see us do it and see it as a possibility for them,” she said.

Rogers agreed that it’s important for families to prioritize their most important religious commitments and alert coaches and other leaders about what those are. But parents should also remain open to the possibility that secular activities like sports can benefit kids’ religious lives, he added.

“Through being a goalkeeper and helping lead the defense on the soccer field and being a shortstop and directing the infield, my oldest son learned how to direct a team and maintain control” under pressure, Rogers said, noting that those skills served his now-adult son well on a recent Sunday when he filled-in for the music leader at their church.

“When something went wrong, he was able to correct stuff and get it done right,” Rogers said.