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Parenting and the challenging work of handing on the faith

Making ample allowance for the many exceptions, it appears to be generally true that parents who are lax in their faith turn out kids who then prove even laxer.


It’s hard to imagine that anyone who ever raised children found it an entirely easy job. Challenging, exciting, often rewarding–yes. But easy? You’ve got to be kidding.

That is certainly the case when it comes to religion. Yet as Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk report in their important new book Handing Down the Faith (Oxford), “Above and beyond any other effect on children’s religion is the influence of their parents.”

By no means does that mean that what parents do will be an absolute guarantee of either success or failure. The children of religiously conscientious parents sometimes turn out to be unbelieving rascals, while religiously careless parents now and then raise offspring who become saints.

But making ample allowance for the many exceptions, it appears to be generally true that parents who are lax in their faith turn out kids who then prove even laxer. As Stephen Bullivant says in his illuminating analysis of Catholic “disaffiliation” in America and Great Britain Mass Exodus (Oxford), there is a clear link between the seepage from the Church occurring in recent decades and the fact that the “Catholic” upbringing of many of those who took leave of the faith was “very weak or nominal.”

Data provided by sociologists Smith and Adamczyk (he teaches at Notre Dame, she at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York) shed further light on what that means.

In one major study, for instance, only a dismaying 17% of Catholic parents and mainline Protestants said it was “very important or essential” that their children have strong religious faith. The rest presumably communicated laissez-faire indifference about religion to their kids–with painful but eminently predictable results.

Other figures shed further light on the parental influence on children’s religious decisions. Among the Catholics, 63% agreed either “strongly” or “somewhat” that the choice of a religion–or of no religion, if that is the case–should be left up entirely to the children, with only 37% holding that parents ought to encourage offspring to accept their own faith.

So why do young people raised in nominally Catholic homes end up leaving the Church? There are plenty of factors at work here, so that what parents do or fail to do is not the total explanation. But as figures like these suggest, the parental role in producing a negative outcome can hardly be ignored.

What, then, can Catholic parents eager to pass on the faith to their children do to make that happen? I repeat: in the nature of things, there is and there can be no 100% foolproof formula for success. And that’s especially true today, when popular culture throws so many roadblocks in the way of responsible parenting. In general terms, however, two modest suggestions by Smith and Adamczyk near the end of their book make good sense.

The first is that, besides practicing the faith themselves, parents talk to their children about it. “If there were only one practical take-away from our research,” the authors write, “it would be this: parents need not only to ‘walk the walk’ but also regularly to talk with their children about their walk, what it means, why it matters, why they care.”

The second suggestion is that parents practice a “general authoritative” parenting style. “Combining clear and implemented life standards and expectations for their children with expressive emotional warmth and relational bonding with their children fosters relationships that most enhance effective religious transmission,” Smith and Adamczyk say.

Sounds like good advice to me.

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About Russell Shaw 282 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Seems that our only hope is that our children will follow the teachings of their parents if the parents are “practicing Catholics”. Catholicism cannot be cherry picked.

    • I think kids have the best chance if both parents are practicing and teaching/living the faith. It’s not really the Catholic schools, faith formation classes, youth group, or an one else’s job to pass on the faith to kids, it’s the parents’ job. They are the primary educators of their children, and this grace is given to them via the marriage bond.

      • I believe the church has rescued parents for too long from their own, ongoing faith growth rooted in their covenant promises, and the promises they made at their childrens’ baptisms. There is no way a parish “CCD” class one hour or so a week can deepen and convert the faith of most children and teens.

        Here’s an analogy: as Al Anon is to Alcoholics Anonymous, so is family catechesis to faith formation. That is, when an addict is in recovery, his or her family needs to be in recovery too from the effects of the disease, in order to relate in a healthier manner to support sobriety. Treating children as autonomous adults apart from the relationships in their household (the domestic church) has not been working. To transform faith formation will take courage, prayer and fasting, and a strategy. Faith is a first a relationship. To focus only on doctrine presumes learning and relationship skills that can sustain shared faith in Jesus in the family. Most couples and parents need help with this. Ultimately, in light of their espoused, nominal faith, they need to be evangelized about their values, priorities, and esp. the hunger in their hearts for the well-being of their children, and – if they can be helped to realize, their own hunger for God, and a loving family. This will not be easy.

        The “seven last words of the church” apply: We’ve never done it that way before. Meanwhile, the father of lies is effectively “evangelizing” couples, parents and children DAILY on various screens in hours that far exceed the hours they spend weekly in Sunday worship or at the parish. We need a revolution in faith formation ministry. It is long overdue. As the late Protestant sociologist Dr. Dennis Guernsey wrote, “Families make or break disciples. And in the process, the church’s job is made more easy or difficult.” [See the Declaration on Christian Education (Vatican II) no. 3, and Familaris consortio, nos. 36, 65, 69, 70-71.]

        Having said all this, when our children become adults, they have to say yes to Jesus out of the freedom he gives all of us. He invited disciples. He did not coerce them. But I think our families and parishes can do a better job of inviting.

  2. Fathers are THE significant formative influence for their children with respect to religion. So how is the institutional Church failing men?

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