How are religious values passed down through families?

Nicholas C. DiDonato

For the most part, it seems that religious parents raise religious kids, who in turn pass down this religion to their kids, and so on. While genetics may very well play a role in facilitating this transmission, the transmission itself must come from social interaction. Focusing specifically on how grandmothers pass on their religious values to their granddaughters, psychologists Denise Lewis, Desiree Seponski (both University of Georgia), and Thomas Camp (Samaritan Counseling Center) found that granddaughters learn religious values from their grandmothers through role modeling, indirect communication, and “just knowing.”

Grandmothers play an underappreciated role in child-rearing. Some research goes so far as to suggest that the reason why women outlive men is to help raise their grandchildren. Grandmothers do exert a greater influence than grandfathers in terms of their grandchildren’s beliefs about religion, sex, morality, education, family ideals, and personal identity. That said, adult granddaughters do not expect their grandmothers to interfere in their lives directly but to provide unconditional support. If a grandmother influences her granddaughter, she must do so skillfully.

To see how grandmothers influence the religious values of their granddaughters, the researchers analyzed the interviews of eight grandmother/adult-granddaughter pairs. They freely admit that such a small sample size leaves much room for alternative explanations of the observed phenomena, but believe that the interpersonal passing down of deeply held religious values requires an emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative research.

In general, grandmothers successfully transmitted their religious values to their granddaughters through role modeling, indirect communication, and “just knowing,” and these same methods enabled both grandmother and granddaughter to confirm that the values have been correctly transmitted. The granddaughters in this study are adults, and so more direct means of transmission may have been appropriate when they were younger.

First, granddaughters noted how much their grandmothers influenced them by leading by example. Grandmothers who attended church, volunteered, gave to the poor, and self-sacrificed to serve others all left lasting impressions on their granddaughters. In turn, the grandmothers could verify that they have taught their granddaughters well by seeing them copy their behaviors. Granddaughters also reported that their grandmothers influenced their views on religion, marriage, and women’s education.

Second, grandmothers taught religious values to their granddaughters through indirect communication. The grandmothers interviewed said they very rarely, if ever, told their granddaughters explicitly to do this or don’t do that. Instead, the granddaughter read in between the lines of her grandmother’s behavior and communication to learn what she values. A common example was valuing virginity until marriage. Neither the granddaughters nor the grandmothers recalled the older telling the younger not to engage in sexual activities before marriage, but the younger still received the message quite clearly. However, indirect communication did not always run so smoothly. One granddaughter knew that her grandmother did not approve of homosexuality but at the same time heard her praise her homosexual nephew for being successful and in a long term relationship; this left the granddaughter confused as to what her grandmother really thought about homosexuality.

Third and finally, granddaughters embodied their grandmother’s religious values by “just knowing.” That is, no one told them what their grandmother believed, and the granddaughter did not recall the grandmother modeling it or communicating it even indirectly; yet, somehow, the granddaughter felt quite confident that she “just knew” her grandmother’s values. Interviews with the grandmother confirmed this suspicion. Perhaps the nuances of human communication exceeds the capacity of most to articulate them.

Of course, none of the granddaughters thought they shared their grandmothers’ values 100%. More common than outright disagreement, granddaughters tended to share the same religious values but for different reasons. Returning to the chastity before marriage example, granddaughters knew that one of the main reasons their grandmothers did not approve of this behavior was to protect their granddaughters from social stigma. As far as the granddaughters themselves were concerned, though, there was no social stigma for such behavior. One granddaughter explained that the reason why she still held on to the value of chastity was because it protects her from marrying an uncommitted man—a truly committed man will not mind waiting to have sex until marriage.

On the other side, when pressed, the grandmothers admitted that really did not know their granddaughters’ values with 100% certainty. They felt pretty confident, and would be surprised otherwise, but generally said that they did not seek such information explicitly. All the grandmothers said that, regardless of whether their granddaughters shared their values or not, they wanted them to be happy.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that for direct communication about religion granddaughters were more successful in teaching their grandmothers than vice-versa. One would expect the old woman to be stuck in her ways and not want to learn anything new about religion, but the grandmothers were more receptive to explicit religious learning from their granddaughters than granddaughters were from their grandmothers. With such stubbornness on the granddaughters’ part, it’s a good thing their grandmothers taught them through subtle means.

For more, see “Religious and Spiritual Values Transactions: A Constant-Comparison Analysis of Grandmothers and Adult-Granddaughters” in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging.

  • http://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog unkleE

    Thanks for this – I always appreciate the information you report. I wonder whether the same would apply to anti-religious or non-religious grandmothers?

  • Sabrina

    Yay! Let’s hear it for us grandmamas :)

  • TJ

    It’s not just granddaughters. I’m a 50 year old male, and I’m a member of a church in the same faith tradition that my maternal grandmother was baptized in, that her family brought with them from Europe, etc. She read from Children’s Bible Stories when she babysat us. As an adult, the only members of the family that were churchgoers were her and I.

    Very powerful legacy.


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