“I don’t know if there’s anything more important than to pass along our faith to our kids,” says California youth minister Eric Upton. He expressed his worry that the middle-schoolers under his care won’t have the spiritual foundation to maintain their faith through adulthood. This worry extends to his own children, the oldest of which is 4-years-old.
Well over half of parents in the United States believe that passing on religious faith to their children is important, with a third saying it is one of the most important things parents can pass on. But the religious landscape in America is changing. A 2012 Pew research study found that the percentage of Americans who identify with no religious faith is on the rise, especially among young adults.
Where does this leave parents and youth leaders who are anxious to instill a strong sense of faith to those under their charge? The answer may have less to do with what parents believe and more to do with how they believe.
Teach by Example
Growing up in a religious home, Hindu American and social activist Padma Kuppa remembers the strong faith formations given to her by her parents. “My father was exemplary of what it means to learn and understand one’s own faith….My mother was exemplary in her devotion and her ritual.” Her parents inspired her own parenting style. “Because I learned by example I thought it was good to parent by example.”
Teaching by example is a vital part of passing on faith traditions. A comprehensive national study of religiosity in young adults found that 82% of religiously active adults had parents who had attended church services, talked about faith outside of church and themselves attached a great importance to religion. It’s a connection that is “nearly deterministic” according to the lead of the study.
An important part of being an example, according to Upton, is having a firm grounding in the faith yourself. “We have to have a faith worth passing on….We have to sit and be willing to ask the difficult questions and evaluate our own faith.”
Long-time religious scholar and researcher Vern Bengtson, who has been studying cross-generational spirituality for 35 years, said that one of the biggest findings of his research was that parents who were not consistent in their faith could not give children strong “religious role models to emulate.” To sum it up: “Don’t just send your children to church, bring them!”
Kuppa echoed this feeling. She needed to know “how to explain to my children what it means to be Hindu. It’s critical to understand it for myself.” She says to understand her own faith she must be exposed to ideas from a variety of faith traditions. “Oftentimes when you are exposed to another faith you wonder how my spiritual path would explain that or deal with that….When I interact with others they ask questions that make me go back to my own scriptures, that I’d not seen or poked at with those questions in my mind.”
Encourage Faithful Questioning
Bengtson’s research found that this type of tolerance and flexibility was actually helpful in passing along faith. A “hard-nosed” approach that dictated beliefs and discouraged experimentation did not work as well as one that let the child find their own version of faith. “It’s a degree of tolerance you don’t always associate with more fundamentalist religious groups, but it does seem that a closed-fisted approach is not nearly as effective as a more lenient approach.”
Kuppa is comfortable with her children finding their own path. “It’s really important that my children are free.”
Upton admits he struggles with the idea that his children may not grow to share his belief in Jesus Christ. “As a dad, it would break my heart.” Still, he accepts that he cannot force his children to follow in his faith footsteps. “I want them to have a faith that is unique to them and their relationship and journey. If I pass along everything I have exactly as I have it, then it won’t be theirs.” As they grow, he will continue to encourage his children to do research and ask their own questions.
Though the task can seem more difficult and the landscape more dangerous than ever before, both Upton and Kuppa are not daunted. “Faith isn’t going away,” Kuppa says. “Faith has been there for centuries, whether this prophet or that prophet, and it’s important that we have more people who are coming forward with wisdom to share.” For Upton, his faith and belief are the greatest portion of himself. “No one is going to stop me from passing the greatest piece of me to the people I have the greatest love for.”
What are some ways you’ve passed on your faith traditions to your children? How did your parents influence your faith?