Jim White has written about “Handing Down the Faith”. He shares findings of a new national study of religious parents in the United States, conducted under the leadership of sociologist Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame.
The study found—the single, most powerful causal influence on the religious lives of American teenagers and young adults is the religious lives of their parents. Not their peers, not the media, not their youth group leaders or clergy, not their religious schoolteachers, not mission trips or service projects or summer camp . . . but parents.
Parents communicate to their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. In other words, parents generally set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise.
Parents play the leading role in shaping the character of their children’s religious and spiritual lives even well after they leave home and often for their rest of their lives. A lot of parents believe that they lose most of their influence over their children around the early teen years. And to be sure, more than a few teens act as though their parents no longer matter much to their lives. But according to the research, that’s a cultural illusion that is not supported by the facts.
The truth is that the influence of parents on children while they still live at home—including their influence on their religious identities, beliefs and practices—is paramount, lasting for years, decades and often lifetimes.
The best general prediction of what anyone is like religiously is what their parents were like religiously when they were growing up. Crucial to the parental transmission of faith to children is having warm, affirming relations with the child. As a parent, you can be heavily invested in, and intentional about, passing on your faith to your child, but if you have an emotionally distant or critical relationship with your child, your efforts will likely fail.
The most effective parent conversations about faith with children are children-centered rather than parent-centered. In other words, the children are asking the questions and being allowed to talk while parents are staying more on the listening end. You allow the questions about religion to be their questions and related to their life. When parents talk too much, make demands without explanations, force unwanted conversations, restrict discussions to topics that they control, faith transmission is likely to not only be ineffective, but counterproductive.
The role of fathers is particularly crucial. While both parents matter significantly, the role of fathers was found to be particularly crucial—meaning dads have outsized influence and, as a result, a very clear responsibility regarding faith and the family.
Parents, here’s the bottom line—where you are at with Christ is more than likely where your child will be with Christ.