Why Parents Matter

In the 2014 Ensign Lecture at Yale Divinity School, Professor Christian Smith said that teenagers are far more inclined to be strongly religious later in life when their parents are strongly religious during their formative years.

Smith is professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He said parents are far more influential in their children’s eventual adult religious patterns than any other conceivable cause: more than youth groups, mission trips, religious education, and other adults.

Chief among the relevant factors is parents’ willingness to discuss matters of faith and religion with their teenage children. Even parents whose religious conviction is more tentative, and whose attendance at services is less frequent, can help teenagers become faithful adults — provided they are engaged in dialogue with them about faith and their religious tradition.

Smith made a few suggestions about why this might be the case. First he observed that young people might be considered “bundles of time-attention-energy-activity in formation.” Parents have more access to this bundle, and more responsibility for nurturing it, than any other people.

Second, Smith observed that old tropes about rebellious teenagers refusing any authority but their own, and hapless parents unable to get a word in edgewise, are simply untrue. Parents have far more influence than they know, and teenagers are far more ready to be influenced by them than most are willing to grant.

Third, Smith said religious beliefs and practices are linguistically constituted and meaningful. Learning them requires learning a second language, and students need plenty of time to practice speaking. Parents, with the access they enjoy and the influence they wield, are always going to be the most effective interlocutors with whom teenagers practice whatever kinds of speech they are learning, religious speech included.

Finally, Smith observed that religious culture in America, set as it is within broader cultural movements of Western society, has been undergoing a major shift. That shift is from religious identity as a “cultural solidarity project” to a “personal identity accessory.” Smith suggested that however we regard the value of this shift, it is important to acknowledge it has occurred, and continues to occur. With it has come a compartmentalization of the roles of clergy, teachers, and other adults in teenagers’ development.

This is consistent with patterns of secularization that scholars have been observing since at least the 1960s. It is unclear how these patterns will eventually resolve. What is clear is that the burden of the religious socialization of young people is being transferred more and more fully to the shoulders of parents.

The Rev. Blake Sawicky

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