Will Your Kids Stay Catholic? (UPDATED)

Most parents hope that their adult children will remain in the faith in which they were raised.  Lisa and I often hear, both on the radio and in our counseling practice, from parents who are profoundly upset that their adult children have left the Church.

Obviously, parents can never guarantee that children will follow in their footsteps with regard to their beliefs but there are things that can be done to stack the deck.  When it comes to raising kids to stay Catholic, the research is pretty clear.  Being religious yourself and having a religious home isn’t enough.  Religious education is important, but the strength of the attachment between the parents and children appears to be the factor that decides whether your children stay faithful or not.  That said, there are some interesting details in how the relationship between religious education and relationship plays out.

Religiousness and Relationship: Two Theories

There are two theories of how a child’s relationship with his parents affects religious belief.  The “compensation hypothesis”  asserts that insecurely attached children are more likely to be religious as adults because they are seeking to compensate for their lack of connection with a parent by connecting with a heavenly parental substitute.

The  “correspondence hypothesis” states that the likelihood of a parent passing on their values to their children is dependent upon the strength of the relationship between the parents and the children.  Logic here is that children who have a healthy relationship with their parents are less likely to challenge or reject the values they were raised with.

So which is true?  Both are.    Here’s how things tend to break down according to the research.

The Results:  Religious, Not Religious, and “Spiritual but not Religious”

If a child is securely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult.

If a child is insecurely attached to religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult  (there is also a fair number in this group who fall into the “spiritual but not religious category.  Mostly because their attachment issues make them suspicious of what researchers call, “social religion”  [i.e., organized religion]).


If child is insecurely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will grow up to be “spiritual but not religious.”  (for the same reasons as above.)

Finally, children who are securely attached to highly religious parents are the most religiously attached of all groups as adults.

The Bottom Line

Now, granted, there are going to be individual variations on the above themes.  Not everybody fits into neat categories.  That said, the evidence is pretty clear that the best way to increase the likelihood that a child will retain the faith of his youth as an adult (even if that is “no faith”) is to both practice the faith intentionally in your home and make certain that you have a strong attachment with that child.


A Consideration for Evangelization: 

One interesting question for me that comes out of the research is how to evangelize those who are “spiritual but not religious.”  If the data is correct that many “spiritual but not religious people” are really  can’t be reached simply by hearing the message of the Gospel.  They need to experience a relationship that heals the attachment wound first.  Something to keep in mind for all my budding apologist readers.  All the best arguments in the world can’t substitute for an authentic relationship that leads another person to Christ.

The same is true, really, for religious adults who are in a frustrated relationship with irreligious adult children.  If your kids aren’t impressed with the power of your arguments, the answer isn’t seeking better arguments.  The answer has to be healing the damage in your relationship.

UPDATE:  I’ve had a few people asking to see this alleged research to which I’m referring.  I actually anticipated the objection, but decided not to post anything at the time because I’m summarizing about a half-dozen different studies over the course of 20 years.  That said, it was certainly a fair challenge.  For those interested in further reading–assuming you don’t have access to an online academic database–this is a pretty good article summarizing the highlights of the data.  For those who do have access to an academic search engine (like Academic Search Premier or PsyArticles), use the key words “attachment style” and “religiousness” and dive in.

OF COURSE…If you are a parent and less interested in the academic side of things and more interested in how to stack the deck in favor of YOUR kids being faithful Catholics as adults, please be sure to check out Parenting with Grace for tips on building a family around the principles of the Theology of the Body and Beyond the Birds and the Bees, a book not just about talking to your kids about sex, but rather about forming your kids’ moral conscience from birth to young adulthood.


About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • S

    I worry about my kids because my husband, who was a devout Catholic when I married him, has almost completely lost his faith over the past several years. I hope our children will be securely attached to both me and my husband. But since I am religious and he is not, does that mean our kids will be more likely to be religious or not, assuming they are equally attached to both of us? Is there anything additional I can do to help ensure they will stay Catholic now that my husband is no longer religious?

  • anonymous

    I am “securely attached” to my religious parents. I adore them, respect them, and have a healthy relationship with them both. We practiced the faith intentionally in our home, and I have many fond memories of these times of practiced faith together. My three siblings will report the same feelings, and yet 3/4 of us have left the Church. Two of us have left religion altogether. It honestly has nothing to do with Mom and Dad, except that my parents taught us to think and learn with earnest. There was a time for me and all my siblings where the Church offered a lot to us; we valued it greatly. But we “outgrew” it, for the lack of a better term.

    I am not trying to counter your research; what I am offering is clearly anecdotal. But I worry that the advice you’re offering will make parents whose kids leave the Church feel like they have failed to connect with their children in a healthy way. Many times, it is with great angst that an individual leaves their faith tradition because of these strong ties they have with their parents.

    • Kim Cameron-Smith

      For goodness sake, obviously there is a better way to put it than “we outgrew it”. You use that term quite intentionally to suggest that you are too intelligent or too evolved for Catholicism. So C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist and later became an Anglican after great emotional and intellectual searching, would have become unchurched again if he had just kept growing? I grew up a Catholic and left the Church as a teenager. After 15 years of exploring other faith traditions, including Buddhism, I was in graduate school (at Oxford, in fact, studying in the same department that C.S. Lewis had taught in) doing research on a question and literally read myself back into the Church. I woke up in the middle of the night one night and said aloud, “Well, crap, those Catholics are right!” That was the beginning of my journey back home.

      I’m not sure why three of four of the kids in your family left the Church. As Dr. Greg says in his article, there are may variables that influence the paths that children take into adulthood — where the children go to study for college, how attached the kids are to their peers as teens, whom the child marries, how the faith was practiced in the home, etc. There are no guarantees. Dr. Greg is just presenting to his readers some information on the role of childhood attachment on adult religious conviction. He could write a volume of books on this topic. It’s actually fascinating.

      I’m glad you’ve found happiness and that you continue to enjoy a good relationship with your parents. I just wanted to counter your “we outgrew it for lack of a better term” statement. Ouch. Try to think of a better term.

  • Kim Cameron-Smith

    In even very secular child development guides that I’ve accessed, there’s copious research and evidence that the more securely a child is attached to the parent, the more likely the child will in the long run accept the parent’s values. For those who are challenging Dr. Greg on his assertions, this isn’t even an interesting question anymore. It’s very clear to any scientist or child advocate worth his salt.