Two weeks ago I attended this conference on vocation in undergraduate education. Christian Smith from Notre Dame, author of Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, was one of the keynote speakers. People around me loved his talk; it generated lots of buzz and conversation throughout the rest of the conference as participants affirmed his portrait of young adults today. I was mostly just glad that his presentation and research, through the National Study of Youth and Religion, jived with what I’ve been presenting about in regards to young adults and the church for the past few years in parishes and other settings. (It’s nice when the big names confirm you’re not totally off base.)
One of his findings did surprise me, however. Christian was talking about changes in religious involvement and beliefs between the teenage years and emerging adulthood. He stated that the strongest influence on whether or not young people continue to be involved in faith communities and committed to their religious beliefs is, in fact, the religious lives of their parents while they were teenagers.
Translation? It does matter that you drag your sullen teens to church with you on Sunday morning. It does matter that you keep making them say grace before dinner despite their eye rolls. It does matter that you talk to them about why you believe what you believe.
While it’s not a magical formula to ensure they’ll turn out to be Good Kids or Pious Adults, the way that parents live their own lives as people of faith has the more impact than any other factor on whether their children will continue to value faith and religion into adulthood. More than a few people I spoke with at the conference about Christian’s talk said this nugget of truth gave them a huge sense of relief as a parent. There may yet be a glimmer of hope that all our efforts are not lost.
On the one hand, this seems obvious. Study after study report that parental influence does matter (on decisions that teens make about drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.). On the other hand, it seems daunting – particularly from the vantage point of a parent at the very beginning of the journey – to consider how many other factors will influence a child’s faith life and religious identity. The influence of popular culture, the decline of religious involvment in America, the rapid changes to dominant lifestyle trends – all of this is having a tremendous impact on how young people view religion and choose to involve themselves with it. To say nothing of the expected bumps in the road that we all encounter: the tragedies, sufferings, and disillusionments that challenge faith and shake our surety.
Worrying and micro-managing seem to be two life skills that I have honed even more sharply since becoming a mother, so sometimes I find myself fretting about what kind of a spiritual and religious person S will grow up to be. I realize that since faith is such a huge part of who I am and what I do for a living, it will be the perfect Achilles’ heel for him to strike when he wants to rebel or assert his own identity or simply spite me. I know that rejecting the things I love and hold dear may be a very real part of my children’s growing up, and try as I may, there’s not a whole lot I can do about that – beyond prayer and keeping open, honest communication with them.
But after hearing Christian’s talk, I felt a small but renewed sense of hope. It’s not inevitable that my children will become angry atheists or budding Buddhists just because their mother happens to be a committed Catholic. I leap ahead to such scenarios in my brain because they play off my deepest fears: that I will not be able to give my children what I love and treasure most deeply in this life. What I want most is for them is to become good, compassionate, loving and caring people in this world, and the truest way I know to answer this call is the way of Christ. So naturally I want them to have faith, to know the support of a faith community, to feed their spiritual hungers and to respond to God’s unique calls for their lives.
So I feel a bit more empowered these days, like the small steps we’re taking now with S (and baby to come) over the next decade or two will have a real impact on who and what they become as they set off into the wild world on their own. And yes, I do realize the irony of this, having spent this evening as I did, preparing for yet another presentation in which I will assure older adults that there is still hope for younger generations in the church. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the truths we preach still apply within our four walls.