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Should Parents Force Their Children to Attend Church?

Should Parents Force Their Children to Attend Church? December 27, 2012

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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