Quality Data on Religion Since 1998

Please type your search term:

Parents play major role in religious lives of young adults

Parents matter in the religious lives of America’s youth.

This finding was clear to sociologist Christian Smith as the principal investigator for the National Study of Youth and Religion in 2002-2003, the most detailed study even done on teens and religion.

And it was clear in a 2007-2008 study following teens into emerging adulthood.

“What the best empirical evidence shows … is that even as the formation of faith and life play out in the lives of 18- to 23-year olds, when it comes to religion, parents are in fact hugely important,” report Smith and Patricia Snell of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

Of the many influences on emerging adults, “One of the most powerful factors was the religious lives of their parents-how often they attended religious services, how important religious faith was in their own lives, and so on,” they write in their new book, “Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.”

We live in a culture where mothers and fathers hover over their children in school, on athletic fields and even on social media sites such as Facebook. Yet why do so many parents take a hands-off approach to religion and spirituality, setting youth adrift in crucial areas of moral reasoning and finding meaning in life?

The question raised by Smith and others is worth considering.

Not only does research show religious teens have in general more positive outcomes in areas from mental health to compassion for others, but there are larger implications for the nation of raising a generation lacking a moral framework for addressing issues of right and wrong, good and evil.

All of us on life’s road must have a code that we can live by.

Teaching not their children

Ubiquitous commercials on television encourage parents to monitor their children for signs of drug and alcohol abuse or other potential dangers.

But many institutions today, including no small number of houses of worship, have given up on reaching teens and young adults with discussions of universal moral truths.

Parents, in turn, are responding to the growing cultural movement that tends to be more and open and respectful of different belief systems, but wary of lifting one way of approaching truth and meaning over another.

In the name of individual autonomy, say Smith and Snell, “the usually most crucial players in teenagers’ lives disengage from them precisely when they most need conversation partners to help sort through these weighty matters.“

Yet the assumption that parents are irrelevant in the religious lives of teenagers – replaced instead by peers – is a myth, research shows.

Several studies have shown that the religious behaviors and attitudes of parents are related to those of their children.

In research using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, sociologists Christopher Bader and Scott Desmond found that children of parents who believe that religion is very important and display their commitment by attending services are most likely to transmit religiosity to their children.

Autonomy had the opposite effect, Bader and Desmond reported in an article in the journal Sociology of Religion. Children subjected to fewer rules attended church less often and attached less importance to religion.

In the National Study of Youth and Religion, having highly religious parents was one of the strongest variables associated with youth being highly religious as emerging adults.

In addition, other important factors such as frequency of prayer and Scripture reading and having religious experiences are normally influenced by parents’ belief and examples, study researchers said.

“In the long run,” Smith and Snell say, “who and what parents were and are for their children when it comes to religious faith are more likely to ‘stick’ with them, even into emerging adulthood, than who and what their teenage friends were.”

The good that they do

The research is significant for individuals and the larger society.

On a personal level, religious young adults had consistently more positive outcomes than the least religious emerging adults in nearly every area, including relationships with parents, physical and mental health, educational achievement and avoidance of drug and alcohol abuse and potentially problematic sexual activity.

Religious young adults also did better in areas measuring giving and volunteering, moral compassion, having a purpose in life, feeling gratitude and resistance to consumerism.

All of these areas, Smith and Snell note, also have consequences for the collective well being of the nation.

“The question is never whether adults are engaged in religious socialization, but only how and with what effect they are doing so,” according to Smith and Snell.

The uncomfortable truth, as the nation takes a day each month in May and June to celebrate the roles of mothers and fathers, is that many parents are abdicating their responsibility to teach their children well.

Click Here to Explore Survey Questions in the National Study of Youth and Religion


Our Sponsors

Our Affiliates

© 2023 The Association of Religion Data Archives. All rights reserved.