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How parenting style affects success in passing on the faith

Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that for the first time in recorded history, the majority of Americans are not members of a church or other house of worship.  

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Rapid declines in U.S. church membership and religious affiliation, according to the poll, could be largely attributed to dramatic generational divides in religiosity — while strong majorities of older Americans continue to remain active members of religious congregations, just a third of millennials said the same. 

This trend towards religious disaffiliation has not gone unnoticed by Catholic leaders. U.S. Catholic bishops have long discussed strategies to reach out to the “nones,” and the bishops’ conference will soon vote on moving forward with a “National Eucharistic Revival,” a three-year initiative designed to reinforce the Church’s teachings on the power and fullness of the sacraments among an increasingly irreligious population. 

To better understand the causes driving religious disaffiliation among young people in the U.S., and how religious parents are able to successfully pass down their faith to their children, The Pillar spoke with Amy Adamczyk, a sociology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-author of the book “Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation.” The book was co-written with Christian Smith, sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, and was published in April of this year. 

Here are some of their main findings about the relationship between parenting and transmitting the faith:

Parenting style is connected to success in handing on religious beliefs

“[W]e found that parents who tended to have an ‘authoritative’ parenting style were more successful at transmitting religious beliefs,” Adamczyk said. “An ‘authoritative’ parenting style is one where parents consistently hold their children to clear and demanding expectations, standards, and boundaries in all areas of life. At the same time, they tend to shower their children with an abundance of warmth, support, and expressive care. It is the combination of clear expectations and affective warmth that is key for transmitting religious belief.” 

Their study also found that in families where parents practiced an authoritative parenting style but identified as atheist or agnostic, the children were less likely to become religous later in life.

“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,” Adamczyk said. 

Different religions see different rates of success

The research found that children of black Protestant, conservative Protestant, and Mormon parents were more likely to attend religious services and attach a great importance to faith in their late 20s, compared to children of mainstream Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic parents.

Part of these differences in outcome may be intentional. Adamczyk explained that Catholic and mainstream Protestant parents “often wanted to pass on only moderate levels of religiosity, and they appear successful in passing on only marginal levels of religious belief to their children.” 

These trends have been ongoing for decades

“Over the last 50 years, the religious groups that have had the most success have been those that are considered ‘stricter’ religions and make a lot of demands of their members. These include Mormons, conservative Protestants and adherents of historically Black churches. Catholics and Mainline Protestants have not done as well with regards to maintaining high levels of religious belief,” Adamczyk said.  

These trends align with what Adamczyk and Smith found in their contemporary research.

“Parents who are committed to their religion tend to have more success, so parents who are not as committed, tend to raise children with lower levels of religious belief and greater interest in disaffiliation,” Adamczyk said.

She also noted that although their study was focused on the United States, it’s possible that the results could provide insight into other countries as well.

“[T]here are good reasons to think that they would apply in nations with relatively high levels of religious belief and a similar religious makeup,” she said.

Parents have earthly motives for their faith

Regardless of the faith background, parents were largely similar in their reasons for wanting to raise their children religiously, the study found. Their motivation was less connected to doctrine, salvation, or beliefs about the afterlife, and instead focused on finding happiness, success, and a good life on earth.

Church communities can play an important supporting role in transmitting faith

Adamczyk said the research found that parents widely believe themselves to hold primary responsibility for handing down religious beliefs. But Catholic parents often turn to Catholic congregations to assist them in this task.

“Churches can be especially useful to parents in providing activities for children that are fun and interesting, creating a community of young people with whom they can interact, offering mentors that children can look to for advice and will watch out for them, and providing formal instruction, which parents are less inclined to offer,” Adamczyk said.

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