It’s a painful reality for Mormon parents (and all religious parents) that sometimes, their children leave the faith. I’ve known a number of moms and dads whose kids have decided as young adults to stop being Mormon, which can be heartbreaking for parents.
Sometimes, I think those young adults made the right decision for them, which is a topic I’ll tackle in another post. But for now I’d like to explore some new sociological research that suggests key ways that parents might successfully “transmit” their faith to the next generation.
These ideas and statistics come from Vern Bengtson’s new study Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations, an Oxford book I was hired to edit last year. It’s a fascinating exploration of religion in America as it has been observed for nearly four decades of Bengtson’s data — the longest-ever study of religion and family through multiple generations. I encourage you to give it a read.
The good news is that despite all the cultural hand-wringing about “the decline of the family” and “the erosion of parental influence,” statistical evidence suggests that parental guidance remains the strongest single factor in determining the religious lives of their adult children. In fact, kids are still more likely to stay in the religion of their parents than they are to leave it:
We expected that correlations between parents and their young adult children would be significantly lower in 2005 than they were in 1970, but these data indicate otherwise: Parent-youth similarity in religiosity has not declined over thirty-five years.
In fact, among Mormons, the percentage of young adults who followed in their parents’ religious footsteps actually increased from 1970 (67%) to 2005 (85%), but Bengtson cautions us not to read too much into this because of the small number of Mormons participating in that sample and the wording of the questions, which made it possible for respondents to self-identify with a religion even when they were no longer “practicing members of good standing.”
Drawing on both his quantitative research on families through multiple generations and qualitative interviews that flesh out the trends in question, Bengtson suggests some ways for parents to improve the odds that their children will remain in the religion of their youth.
1) Stay married — and marry inside the faith. One decisive factor in raising kids who stay in the fold is to have what Bengtson calls a “same-faith” marriage in which two partners are of the same religion and stay together as a married couple. In most religious groups (Mormons, interestingly, being an exception because there were too few divorced families to make any statistical comparisons), divorce resulted in a significant decline in the likelihood that kids would follow their parents’ religion.
2) Involve the grandparents. This was one of the coolest and most surprising findings of the longitudinal study: grandparents matter a lot. With people living longer, more grandparents are around to make a difference in kids’ lives, and they have an impact on religious transmission.
3) Be flexible, loving, and kind. Well, what if you’re a divorced parent, and/or your own parents aren’t around to influence your children? Don’t worry: how you love your kids is crucial. “Parental warmth,” says Bengtson, “is the key to successful transmission.” One interesting finding is that fathers’ influence is actually a little more important than mothers’ on this score, which flies in the face of Mormonism’s emphasis on how everything comes down to Mom. The nature and quality of the father-child relationship proved a strong indicator of successful religious transmission; when the relationship was “close, warm, and affirming,” success was more likely, and when the father was “cold, distant, or authoritarian,” it was less likely, no matter how pious the father was or what instructional efforts he made to teach his kids about religion. Relationships are paramount.
4) Be explicit and intentional about modeling your faith for your kids. This is not going to come as a surprise to most Mormon families, who hear all the time about the importance of family prayer, family Scripture study, Family Home Evening, etc. But such efforts appear to be working, because Mormons, evangelical Christians, and Jews had the highest rates of successful religious transmission among any faith traditions in Bengtson’s study. Whether the whole family is sitting down to watch a General Conference broadcast or a Passover Seder, the important thing is that they do it consistently and all together. It’s the families that “outsource” religious instruction and rarely engage in intergenerational religious activities that have the least chance of passing on the faith.
5) On the other hand, don’t shove religion down their throats. The odds of children leaving the fold increase when they perceive their parents as forcing them to participate in religious activities and conform to narrow ideology. For example, one sociological finding of the study concerns adult converts’ relative inability to successfully pass on their faith to their children compared to the more successful rates of non-converts. There are several reasons why it’s less likely for a convert to be able to raise children in his or her newly chosen religion: Often the convert’s spouse did not also convert, resulting in an interfaith family; sometimes there was no grandparental religious influence for the same reason; and sometimes the convert parent was overzealous in forcing the kids to obey. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
6) Understand that generational forces are largely out of your control. After “doing everything right,” some parents may still find that their efforts at holding Family Home Evening, teaching kids religion at home, and modeling their faith will not be enough. I think that in Mormonism there is a lot of self-blame when adult children leave the Church, but some of this is simply generational: in the seven generations of Bengtson’s study, “one theme that developed over time concerns the increasing separation of religious practice from religious institutions.” The Millennials (ages 18-30) are prone to see themselves as having a relationship with God, but ever less likely to equate that with membership in an institution.