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What Really Matters in Passing Down the Faith? (Part 2 of 3)

May 21, 2014


Which family member is most crucial to passing on the Faith to young people? How can parents better form their children spiritually? Peggy Pandaleon answers these questions in the continuation of this series on transmitting the Faith across generations.

(If you missed Part 1 in this series, read it here.)

Is there one, key reason that faith is passed down through families? How can parents pass down their faith with so many other responsibilities and challenges? Is it worth even trying to fight the anti-religious trends of popular culture? What can we learn from those who have children who profess the same faith?

In his book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations, Vern L. Bengtson lays out some conclusions about what attitudes and behaviors contribute to young adults declaring they have the same faith as their parents and which factors contribute to children taking a different, religious path.

The answer? Well it’s about as simple as Jesus Christ’s commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you” and about as difficult as that commandment is to live authentically. Bengtson found that the most important factor in transmitting faith was, as he described it, “parental warmth.” He concludes:

“Relationships with parents that are felt to be close, warm, and affirming are associated with higher religious transmission than are relationships perceived as cold, distant, or authoritarian—regardless of the level of parental piety. Moreover, this is particularly true for relations with fathers.”

We all know that if you don’t walk the talk or truly live out your faith, children detect hypocrisy and are more likely to walk away. We have lots of colloquialisms for this: “Do as I say, not as I do” or “Practice what you preach” or “Actions speak louder than words.” But Bengston seems to be saying something deeper—unconditional love is the #1 criterion for passing down the faith. A “cold, distant or authoritarian” parent could be exhibiting all the proper attitudes and external behaviors of his faith, while still failing to truly love as Christ loves.

It’s not so much what we say about our religious beliefs, but how we say it. Are we dogmatic and unbending? Do we allow honest questions from our kids without judgment or anger? Do we expect our kids to have our level of faith despite their ages and experience? Do we give them respect, listen attentively and show unconditional love even if they express negative attitudes or behavior toward our faith tradition?

As would be expected, having divorced parents or those from two different faith traditions reduces the likelihood that children will follow in the path of a parent’s religious footsteps. Even in these more challenging situations, the parent with the most “warmth” usually had the best chance of passing down any faith, according to Dr. Bengtson.

In families where both parents are faithful, fathers have the greater influence, provided they are not “cold, distant or authoritarian.” Bengston says, “Particularly important, according to our data, is the role of father’s warmth. Parental piety—religious role modeling, setting a good example—will not compensate for a distant dad.” He didn’t uncover the reasons why the relationship with a father is so critical to faith transmission, but psychologists and sociologists have confirmed the importance of the father/child relationship in many other areas of development.

There are two exceptions to a father’s greater influence — within the Jewish tradition and within interfaith marriages. In the study’s interfaith marriages, 65% of the fathers expressed “no religious affiliation” as compared to only 22% of the mothers. The majority of children from interfaith marriages followed the faith of their mothers, proving that a mother living out her faith alone can have a powerful influence. As St. Paul said, “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he is willing to go on living with her, she should not divorce her husband. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:13-14). And so too for her children!

Other family members, namely grandparents, also had both positive and negative influence on their grandchildren’s faith. Positive influence occurred when due to parental issues, grandparents became the primary, nurturing adults or when they supported the faith tradition of the parents. When grandparents challenged the parents’ religious viewpoints, they tended to have only negative influence, driving the children closer to their parents’ points-of-view.

“Truth, according to the Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship.” – Pope Francis Passing down the truth of our Catholic faith cannot occur without passing down the love that God gives us in Jesus Christ.

Next: The final part of the Families and Faith series.