Parents and Faith Building: Something to Think About

The National Study of Youth and Religion affirms how much parents and adult mentors matter to adolescents’ spiritual development
A review by Joan Mitchell, CSJ

Where do young people find their role models and commit to practicing their faith?  In their families and parish communities, reports Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame in his new study Souls in Transition (2009). Saying yes to teaching a religion class for teens will matter in their lives.

“It matters whether or not teenagers have participated in adult-taught religious education classes, such as Sunday school,” Smith writes in Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers.  “Adult engagement with, role modeling for, and formation of youth simply matters a great deal for how young people turn out after they leave the teenage years…  When teens travel that road with peers, they end up less religiously committed and practicing as emerging adults” (285).

A Study in Three Waves
Christian Smith has led the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) in three waves of research.  His 2003 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, reported, analyzed, and interpreted telephone surveys of 3,290 13-17 year olds and personal interviews with 267 of them in 45 states.  In 2005, the project followed up with the same young people by telephone survey and interviewed 122 of them.  In 2008, the study surveyed 2,458 by phone and 230 by personal interview.

Smith’s new book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, analyzes and interprets the second and third waves of research with the same young people, now emerging adults, 18-23 years old.  The research includes Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Evangelical Christians, Mainline Protestant Christians, and others.

Parents and Mentoring Adults Matter
The past is prologue to future faith and religious practice.  More than half the emerging adults remain stable in the religious commitment they made as teens, the study finds (282).  Religion benefits young people.  “Religion provides teenagers with moral directives, confirming spiritual experiences, role models, community and leadership skills, coping skills, cultural capital, social capital, greater network closure in relationships, and intercommunity links—all of which, solid social scientific reasoning indicates, can be expected to enhance their life experience” (277-78).

Parents and other mentoring adults matter in religious practice.  The NSYR study debunks the myth that parents become irrelevant to their children in the teen years with peers, media, and teens’ own personalities replacing their influence (283).  Too many parents make the myth a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Many adolescents are thrown back on themselves and left floating in a directionless murk to figure out completely on their own some of life’s most basic questions concerning reality, truth, goodness, value, morality, and identity,” Smith writes.  “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” (284).

Teens do need more independence and do pay attention to peers.  However, they want only to renegotiate relationships with parents and take account their growing maturity, not be left on their own.

If formation in faith doesn’t happen in the family or congregation…
“Whether adults—particularly parents—know it or not and like it or not, they are in fact always socializing youth about religion.  The question is never whether adults are engaged in religious socialization, but only how and with what effect they are doing so.  The form, content, and intensity of religious socialization are therefore crucial in shaping the later religious outcomes of those being socialized.

“And since most of the broader American society is not in the business of direct religious socialization, the task inevitably falls almost entirely to two main social entities.  First are individual family households, where parents predictably do the primary socializing.  Second are individual religious congregations where older adults can exert socializing influences on youth…  If formation in faith does not happen there, it will—with rare exceptions—not happen anywhere” (286).

How do you grow faith with your children?