Should Parents Force Their Children to Attend Church?

In preparing my classes for this coming semester, I reviewed one of the best known studies in social psychology studies—Festinger and Carlsmith’s $1/$20 study, and I was struck, yet again, by its wide ranging implications, including how we should get our children to go to church.

The study illustrates the principles of cognitive dissonance, and it found that peoples’ enjoyment of an experience is influenced by the benefits and costs associated with that experience, but not always in ways that one would expect.

Festinger and Carlsmith gave respondents a tedious job to do, the laboratory equivalent of digging a hole in the ground and filling it back up. Then they had the respondents tell other people whether or not they liked doing the job. Some respondents were given $1 for their efforts, and some were given $20.

Lo and behold, the people getting only one dollar said they liked the experience much more than the ones who were given $20. That’s right, less reward was associated with more reported enjoyment.

The explanation for this counter-intuitive finding goes something like this: The people who were given only $1 couldn’t use the reward to explain why they did the task, after all, it was only one dollar. So, they assumed that the task must have been somewhat interesting. In contrast, the people getting $20 (which, since the study was conducted in 1959, was worth about $50,000 in today’s dollars) knew why they did the task—for the money. They could view the task as dreadful and still make sense of their behavior.

This logic applies to punishments as well. Threatening to punish someone severely to get them to do something gives them a ready explanation for why they did it, to avoid punishment, so there’s no emotional incentive to find something they like in the activity. Take away the punishment and their attitudes might change toward the positive.

Let’s apply this to an issue that Christian parents often face: Getting our children to go to church and enjoy the experience (or, at least on some Sundays, just not hate it). My youngest son, Floyd, is rather comfortable expressing his emotions and one Sunday he did not want to go to church but somehow he ended up there anyway. He spent the first 20 minutes slouched down, with his arms crossed, and with a pouty scowl on his face. Thanks to the magic of iPhones, I got a great picture of it which someday will show up at a major life event such as his wedding. Thankfully, however, most Sundays go much better.

Applied to churchgoing, the theory of cognitive dissonance would suggest that it is important to use as light a touch as possible in getting children to go to church—at least if we want them to like it. Sure, we can bribe or threaten but doing so will likely result in them thinking they go to church solely for the reward or to avoid the punishment, and there is no reason for them to find something in the service that they enjoy. Furthermore, once they are on their own, and away from our rewards and punishments, they have no reason to go.

Instead, gentle coaxing and persuasion, rather than duct tape, seems like the preferred strategy for getting kids to church. Many Christian families require their children to attend church every week, which I think is fine. In our house we require them to join us on most Sundays, but we sometimes give them the option of staying home. On the Sundays when they don’t want to go, but they have to, we look to persuade rather than force. We want them not only to attend church, but also to enjoy the many things that it has to offer, and strong-arming them might blind them to the good things waiting for them.

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  • That’s a very interesting study, unknown to me, and interesting point. I suppose it also indicates a downside to the kind of preaching some friends of mine prefer–i.e., threatening people with hell if they don’t go.

    Heh, or you could say that this is a point for the desert monks who originally didn’t want to have to go to Mass every Sunday, before that Church law was instated.

  • Sherman

    To me, insisting on my children going to church is like insisting on them going to school. One meets educational needs and the other meets spiritual needs. As a general rule they go to school, no questions asked. If they have a valid need or desire to miss occasionally, I allow that. Concerning enjoying church and having a desire to attend, first I lead by example, loving worship, fellowship, and touching base with loved ones (other church members). Second I instruct my children on the reasons for making worship a regular part of one’s life. And third, I attend a fellowship that is vibrant and enjoyable for adults and children alike.

    • Joanne

      I agree. I’m Catholic and I’m glad that in my house going to Mass every Sunday was non-negotiable.

  • Chris Wickersham

    I find this hard to imagine – as a parent of 5 children and someone who has been a foster parent to more than 20 children over the years I don’t even understand the option of children not accompanying the family to church. Going to church on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening is akin to going to the doctor, the dentist, or the grocery store. It’s just something you do – you don’t have to like it but it’s just part of life. When they are teens they can opt out of optional events (like “youth group” or mission projects) but we go to church on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning. I would love to think it’s just something that happens when children are raised in a home that has always gone to church but our experience with foster children has proved otherwise to me.

    This reminds me of a friend who lamented that her son just wouldn’t go to the dentist. She indicated that she could even drive him to the office screaming but he simply wouldn’t get out and go in. I try hard not to judge other parents but I have the hardest time understanding how it isn’t the job of a parent to train children in the practices they believe are right. Going to the dentist is a fact of life, you simply have to do it. Going to church in our family is the same thing.

  • Greg

    Interesting post. I did read the article and think there are two parts to the question. And I’m not JUST trying to be a stirrer. But…to the non-Catholic christian, (as a belief system) there is no obligation to “go to church” on Sunday or any other day anyway. That’s the protestant/evangelical/make-my-own-church understanding. So for people who engage or practice in this arena, the question I guess to some degree is a “non-question”.

  • Greg

    However, for the practicing Catholic, it’s a great act of unity with the Church, especially to attend Sunday Mass. Since the Church and Christ Himself are inseperable, who would not want to go? There will be difficult times of course, (kids being kids!). Somehow, a parent simply needs to love the faith, live the faith and be an example for the children, over which, they are the first carers of the souls entrusted them by God. And simply, the Church as the Authority to decypher the Sacred Scriptures and teachings (inspired by the Holy Spirit of course), going to Sunday Mass is and act of love, guided by the commandment to Keep the Lord’s Day Holy. Even most “normal” non-Catholic Christians will tell you breaking the commandments is a sin, meaning not going to Mass except for some serious reason such as illness, looking after an elderly person, etc, etc…

  • I personally believe that it is our responsibility as parents to provide our children with their needs, and that includes their spiritual needs. Church attendance provides an opportunity for the fulfillment of this need and spiritual growth and exposure to the Gospel, so we should ensure our child is present.

    Our children do not have the experience nor the maturity to make smart and sound choices. If they were allowed to do as they please, they would not eat their veggies, they would not take a bath and would not go to school. We should help them make the right decisions as there will come a time that they will live their own lives as they see fit.

    In the end, it is up to God to change the hearts and lives of our children. As parents, we should do our best and provide the most opportunities for that to happen.

  • I wish that I had.

  • You left out one arm of the Festinger/Carlsmith study – a control group was not asked to recommend the task to an actor, and was not paid. This group rated their enjoyment of task lower than either the $20 or $1 groups, and were also less inclined then either paid group to repeat the process. Your son is neither paid for his church attendance, nor has to recommend it to anyone else, and is therefore best fits the characteristics of the control group.

    An interesting follow-on experiment would be to remove the need for consent for the control group, and have an authoritarian figure compel them to repeat the tedious job every Sunday without compensation. My hypothesis is that the subject would grow bitter and disillusioned because that they want is neither listened to or respected, but they would learn over time that complaining makes it worse, and hence they will learn to mask their resentment. They may become so skilled at hiding their resentment that the authoritarian figure even believes subjects truly appreciate the tedious tasks.

    Let me present my experience as a case report. When I was younger, my grandparents compelled me to go to church against my wishes. I objected, but wasn’t old enough to put forward an articulate argument. Also I was dependent on them for accommodation, food and clothes, so had more to lose by brinkmanship. They always said that when I was older, I would be grateful to them. In fact, the opposite has happened. As I grew older, I appreciated more how controlling, selfish and damaging to my natural development their ramming their religious beliefs down my throat was.

    So when you show that iPhone photo at Floyds wedding, it is possible that he might laugh with you. It is also possible that he may turn to you and say “Dad, I respected you less at that time, and as an adult my opinion hasn’t changed”

  • Antigone10

    My parents forced me to go to church when I was a teenager and I came to the conclusion that there was no god. And I mean forced- “bodily picked up in my pj’s” forced to go to church. It did not, at the time, change my opinion of church nor the existence of a deity.

    But it was all worth it, because now I’m a deep, Bible-believing Christian. No, wait, the other thing- I’m an Agnostic Atheist who went through my entire college years gleefully shunning church entirely (including Christmas when I was home). It took a long time before I could see religion as anything but negative.

    So, if you want your children to stay with the church, forcing them to do it isn’t going to convince them of anything.

  • E Turner

    As a preacher, I would prefer not to preach to people who are forced to listen. However, if someone had not forced me, I’d never have learned long division…, ok, maybe we really don’t need long division any more…, The Apostle Paul was grateful that anyone preached the gospel. I am grateful if anyone will listen when I preach it.

    • Aaron White

      Must be fulfilling to be the leader of delusion.

  • kenneth

    I was forced to attend church for much of my youth, along with a dozen years of Catholic school. It was part of the deal in those days when a Catholic married a protestant or some “lesser” sort of Christian. You had to sign over the soul of any kids to the RCC. In hindsight, I can’t complain. I received a rich education in ritual and theology which serves me quite well as a pagan priest today!