In a home with three boys, my parents thought responses to questions they posed during our teenage years most frequently came in the form of inaudible sighs, groans or grunts.
Q: How was your day? A: Uhh . . . .
Q: Do you have any homework? A: Huh?
Q: Would you like more to eat? A: Uh huh!
My parents were far-sighted enough to believe that one day we would recover some command of a discernible language. In the meantime, I am sure they wondered whether their presence made any difference beyond the maintenance of a well-stocked refrigerator.
For parents pondering comparable questions, Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk's new book is a note of encouragement. In essence, they contend, “parents are the most important figures shaping the religious lives and futures of their children in the United States.”
Smith, the William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, and Adamczyk, professor of sociology at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argue the data they collected is clear and weary parents should take heart – what they do will matter.
Across seven chapters, Smith and Adamczyk introduce their audience to that argument by winding through thematically defined layers of data-driven support. For example, Chapter 2 considers the importance of parenting styles on religious transmission, while Chapter 6 not only explores the role parents play but the roles played by other critical figures such as grandparents.
For individuals who love data, those chapters provide plenty to consider. The findings that form the basis of their important study “are based significantly on in-depth, personal interviews and observations with 235 coupled and single parents living in the United States that [they] conducted in over 150 households” in 2014 and 2015.
Those households represent a large number of Christian traditions (Catholics, Black Protestants, white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, etc.). However, Smith and Adamczyk purposely collected data designed to “represent different religious traditions, regions around the country, racial and ethnic backgrounds, social classes, [and] family structures.” Some variation between religious traditions, for example, proves noteworthy. More striking, however, is the similarity their findings offer concerning the roles parents play across those traditions.
For individuals more inclined to skim over tables bearing the details of that data, those chapters also provide plenty to consider. Woven into the details are quotes and summaries that bring the data to life. Chapter 5, for example, “The New Immigrants and Religious Parenting,” includes details concerning the role parents play in helping their children learn to navigate the differences between a particular religious tradition and the mainstream or secular culture.
Indicative of the breadth of their study are details in that chapter about the challenges Muslim women face when participating in a practice such as veiling – which “identifies them immediately as an outsider to mainstream culture.” Even when they reported feeling support from members of their local community, they reported the media presented messages to the contrary concerning such a practice. Navigating that tension, albeit in a wide variety of ways, is a challenge almost every practicing member of a religious tradition faces. Smith and Adamczyk report parents play a critical role in helping their children navigate that tension in challenging spaces such as a high school.
While Smith and Adamczyk are quick to assure weary parents, that assurance comes with the message that parents must also be active participants in the same religious tradition as their children. In essence, what parents model is just as important as what they encourage. As a result, the data they marshal caution parents about the value of dropping their children off for religious services if they don't also attend. That demand relates to mothers, but Smith and Adamczyk also offer that “the role of fathers appears to be particularly crucial, providing dads (when they are present) with extra influence and responsibility in the matter.”
What parents do will matter, Smith and Adamczyk argue, but only if what children hear from their parents is matched by what they see. Valuable messages are being received even if the responses are inaudible. Such messages, when modeled by consistent parental practices, affect children in ways that may sustain them for the rest of their lives.
Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University, as a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute and as the publisher for Christian Scholar's Review. His most recent book is “Hesburgh of Notre Dame: The Church's Public Intellectual.”
"Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation" by Christian Smith, Amy Adamczyk (Oxford University Press) 264 pages, $28.82