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How parents pass their religious beliefs on to children, knowing they may walk away

Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the biggest challenges for religious parents hoping to pass down their faith might be figuring how to do so while also respecting their children’s agency.

That transmission of faith is the subject of a new paper by researchers in BYU’s School of Family Life, published this month in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, building on the ongoing American Families of Faith Project. Over 20 years, the project has explored different topics related to religion and family life, using interviews with roughly 200 Christian, Jewish and Muslim families pointed out by their faith leaders as “exemplars” of faith.

“The parents we interviewed saw it as their sacred responsibility to teach the beliefs, practices and sacred connections of their respective Abrahamic faith,” said one of the paper’s co-authors, Loren Marks, professor and project co-director with colleague David C. Dollahite. “These are wisdom traditions that draw on millennia of recorded human experience.

“The delicate rub for many, however, is finding the sweet spot where parents share their beloved faith through conversation, not preaching, and through authentic modeling and lived example, not coercion,” he said.

Sharing most values and rituals between parent and child is “transactional,” from political leanings to love of certain sports teams or music genres to matters of belief. Parents hope to pass along beliefs and values to their kids. Like most transactions, both parties contribute something and children have their own take on faith, the researchers found. They can accept, modify or reject what they’ve been taught.

The report says that “for many religious parents, one of their most deeply held desires is for their children to find meaning and purpose in the same religious tradition,” adding that “for some, making peace with the ambiguity associated with their children’s personal religious agency can be soul stretching.”

Indeed, many people reject or change religion, according to the Pew Research Center study cited in the report, which said a decade ago that 44% of Americans had changed or dropped the religion of their childhood. And religious participation in America has only declined since. A 2019 report from Pew says the share of Americans who regularly attend services or describe themselves as Christian is falling “at a rapid pace,” while the share who attend services seldom or never is growing.

“The irony is that, like any gift, the gift of faith is not always accepted and treasured. We have much to learn in how to offer, receive and reject in ways that are relationally gracious,” Marks said.

Parents also truly want their kids to have a choice in what they believe, even when they hope their children will continue in their faith, which they may feel will protect their kids and make their lives less hard, said Betsy Hughes Barrow, lead author and recent Brigham Young University graduate.

“They want the best for their kids,” she said.

Balancing hopes

Teens from one-fourth of the families were interviewed along with their parents. Both adults and youths talked about how parents balance the tension between wanting to share faith and respecting different ideas. Dollahite said no one wanted to take away their children’s right to choose, but they felt pressure to make a strong case for faith.

Preserving, deepening and respecting relationships are at the heart of trying to pass on faith and values while respecting others, including children who choose a different faith journey.

“Maybe the most important thing is to focus on relationships,” said Barrow. “As parents, we focus a lot on outcomes, on benchmarks, on the things we want to see. Maybe what’s most important is to focus on relationships and processes and if they are healthy and good processes. Agency is very important.”

The paper examined how parents interpret a child’s rejection of the religious beliefs and traditions they tried to transfer. “Some parents have a really hard time,” said Barrow, noting some feel “if children didn’t choose the same faith, they had failed as parents.”

Others felt that if their kids loved God and were good people with strong values, parenting had been a success, she said, adding that a parent’s ability to adapt to the fact that children have free agency could be part of their own parental development. The paper makes clear that religious transmission does not just travel one direction from parent to child. Children influence their parents, too.

“Only the most controlling, authoritarian, rigid, domineering and unresponsive parents would not find that their children also influence them in various ways. Or, from another angle, only the most oblivious, unaware and arrogant parents would not happily acknowledge the ways they have learned from and been influenced by their kids,” Dollahite said.

Dollahite noted that in all religious backgrounds, they found examples of people who were dogmatic and rigid and others who were more open and flexible.

That point was reflected, as well, in the healthy processes the research identified, which Barrows described as consistent with authoritative parenting, as opposed to authoritarian. Authoritative parents are warm but not overly controlling. Good relationships belong to parents who are warm as they teach their religious beliefs, setting a good example, outlining expectations, but also respecting their children’s views and making room for them to explore.

Dollahite said approach matters for parents who really want their kids to stay faithful, because parents can “tragically deal with the matter in ways that shut down feelings and choices and opportunities for future conversations.” Those who draw lines and issue ultimatums or leave their children feeling undervalued create all kinds of potential problems, not just about issues of faith.

How people approach religion is dynamic and complex. Someone may remain in the faith of his childhood, or choose something else or even nothing. An individual can explore other religions and come back. The only certainty is that only the individual has real say in what he or she believes, Dollahite said.

Online brouhaha

How much people care about influencing the faith of their children was emphasized earlier this month when Twitter lit up after Cindy Wang Brandt, author of “Parenting Forward,” tweeted: “Do not evangelize a child. Do not colonize a child’s spirituality. Do not threaten a child with religious control. Your religion does not have a right to stake a claim to a child’s allegiance.”

Emily McFarlan Miller covered the response for Religion News Service. It ranged from stories of being traumatized by how parents “shared” faith to those who countered with biblical advice on raising one’s children.

Miller wrote: “Evangelical radio host and author Eric Metaxas quoted the tweet, adding “Would it be all right w/you if I taught my kid that stealing, murdering, lying, racism and slavery were wrong?”

Across faiths, parents have a hard time figuring out how much say they have in a child’s faith journey and how it will come out, a University of Notre Dame sociology professor, Christian Smith, co-author of “Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America,” told Miller. A half-century ago, parents assumed kids would end up the same religion, he said. That’s no longer as certain.

The BYU report shared thoughts from parents and children, taken from more than 8,000 pages of interview transcripts.

An Arab Muslim dad, Abaan, hopes his daughter will be deeply convinced his faith is right. “You do not want to force people to accept what you think is true. You give them a good foundation. ... Hopefully, we do it in a way that she enjoys it and she accepts it by heart.”

Her parents’ example worked for Mandy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance teen: “Ever since I can remember, we always went to church and we pray. We read little Bible stories when I was little. And they’re always willing to talk to me about any questions I had. And they explained what they believed to me. And when I was ready to choose the religion that they had chosen for themselves, they helped me through that.”

Meg, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that her children chose to engage in the family’s faith and its practices on their own in part because they grew up participating in church and related activities, from attending services to family prayer.

Catholic dad Malcolm wasn’t sure how things would come out in his family. “Right now, my primary goal is to set as good an example as I can (because) ... the world is going to pull them without my example.” He hopes, he said, that “what I taught them (will) be strong enough to bring them back.”

Because the study involved “moderately to highly religious families,” the researchers noted their results might not apply to a less religious population.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly attributed this quote to Loren Marks: “Only the most controlling, authoritarian, rigid, domineering and unresponsive parents would not find that their children also influence them in various ways. Or, from another angle, only the most oblivious, unaware and arrogant parents would not happily acknowledge the ways they have learned from and been influenced by their kids.” David Dollahite said it.