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.