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For the past 30 years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of young adults who identify as “non-religious.” While faith used to be passed on within the family from generation to generation, it is common today for many children to grow up choosing not to practice the faith of their parents.
There are many reasons for this, but one predictor of whether a child will practice the same faith as his or her parents is parenting style.
Until recently there hasn’t been much research focused on how parents go about raising faithful kids, but Amy Adamczyk, a professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, decided to look more closely at that question.
After examining several national surveys and conducting over 200 interviews, their findings were published in spring 2021 by Oxford University Press in a book called Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation.
Examining the four main parenting styles commonly used in psychology today — authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and less engaged — Adamczyk and Smith found that the authoritative parenting style is the one that appears to best determine whether children grow up to practice the same faith as their parents.
Here are some of the main features of the authoritative parenting style that can help ensure your kids will grow up identifying with and practicing the faith of their childhood…
Authoritative parents set clear boundaries and expectations.
Parents who set clear expectations for their kids regarding Mass attendance, religious observance, prayer, service to others, etc. give their children a sense of security, predictability, belonging, and meaning.
“The authoritative parents set clear expectations with regard to religion. They were going to church if they were Christian, they were having Bible study, they were doing various things and encouraging their kids to attend,” Adamaczyk told Religion News.
Authoritative parents convey love, warmth, and respect.
At the same time that they set clear boundaries and expectations, parents who have close emotional ties to their kids, who demonstrate respect and love for them, are much more likely to have kids who grow up to practice their religion.
“Part of the reason the authoritative style is so successful is that the kids want to emulate their parents. They actually like their parents.” said Adamaczyk.
Authoritative parents listen and learn.
When parents have genuine respect and love for their children, they listen to them — and learn from their questions and behaviors. Kids may want to know more about some aspect of the faith, the meaning of life, what happens after death, or what certain prayers or Bible stories mean. These questions cause parents to dig deeper and learn more themselves.
Additionally, children’s burgeoning relationship with God and the comments and behaviors that spring from that can inspire parents in their own spiritual lives.
Authoritative parents walk the talk.
Parents who successfully raise kids who practice the faith don’t go just through the motions — they are committed to their own faith and religious practice. Their actions line up with their beliefs — they seek to be authentic witnesses and to grow in their faith.
Parents who are not afraid to show their children that living one’s faith can sometimes be difficult provide an example that their kids can follow as they become adults.
Authoritative parents take responsibility.
One of Adamaczyk’s surprises while doing her research was the discovery that religious congregations do not play as significant a role as she thought they did when it comes to transmitting faith to children.
“Almost none of our parents said that congregations were primarily responsible for transmitting religious belief to their children. I mean they … want congregations that can give kids a community of young people so their kid doesn’t feel like the only one,” said Adamaczyk. “But successful religious parents don’t just drop their kid off at church and then expect someone there will take care of everything.”
Parents who want their children to grow up with their religious faith intact take responsibility for their central role in forming their children in that faith. This includes finding a vibrant parish, good catechesis, and youth groups, but it also means that as a parent, you realize that you are the primary educator of your children and what you do as a family in terms of living out the faith has the greatest long term effect.