You, dear parents, are indispensable.
When it comes to forming the faith of your children, there is no substitute for your involvement, example, and care.
According to sociologist, researcher, and author Christian Smith, the connection between parental involvement and kids practicing faith into adulthood is “nearly deterministic.”
In 2005, Smith and colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton released the findings of a five-year study on teen faith practices in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens. Years of ongoing research with test respondents, now in their late twenties, has only strengthened the central message of that book — parents are the number one influence in the faith formation of children.
“Just 1 percent of teens age 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid to late twenties…In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs, and were active in their congregations were religiously active as young adults, according to data from the latest wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.” SOURCE
No other factor “comes remotely close,” Smith says. “Parents just dominate.”
So, how do you do it? How do you influence your children’s life of faith? That’s what this series, “Four Ways Families Can Hand on the Faith to Kids” is all about. In this, and the next three posts, I want to share some practical ways to supplement your children’s religious education and ensure success.
[Editor’s note: Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, and Part 4 is here.]
Many parents shy away from getting involved in their children’s faith formation. Parish religious education is important. However, some formation can only be done well by parents and is more effective in the home. I suggest you approach these practices as supplements to religious education at the parish.
So, what’s the first thing? According to Christian Smith, one of the key factors is discussing faith at home. When parents foster faith discussions outside the parish boundaries and make it a priority, their kids are much more likely to continue practicing into young adulthood.
One of the deficiencies Smith found in his 2005 study was teens were unable to articulate their religious beliefs and why they believed. They easily voiced opinions on drinking and driving, drug use, and safe sex. However, when it came to religious convictions, they had a harder time. I believe it’s because every parent knows it’s their duty to protect children from these obvious harms. However, they’re hesitant to discuss the not-so-obvious, but just as harmful, spiritual dangers that may lie in wait for their kids.
Here are some ideas for starting faith discussions with your kids.
- Discuss what they learned in class
The first technique is the easiest one. Find out what they learned in class and discuss it as a family. Perhaps you can do a little study ahead of time to get “caught up” on the subject before you speak with your kids.
You might come up with an interesting question, a little-known fact, or a thought provoking aspect of the topic to make the discussion interesting. Chances are, your children won’t remember the lesson, so you’ll have to be proactive in this one.
- Ask questions about Sunday’s readings and/or homily
Again, come up with an interesting side note or perspective for discussion. Don’t just ask what they thought. They probably didn’t think anything or forgot entirely. Of course, you’ll have to pay special attention yourself.
- Ask what they’re curious about
Simply ask what questions they have. You won’t have time to prepare, but you also don’t have to answer right away. You could say you need to get back to them. Being vulnerable doesn’t make you less in your children’s eyes. They’ll be happy you’re real with them.
- Discuss the hard issues they’re dealing with
Don’t shy away from tough topics like homosexuality, gender fluidity, premarital sex, and atheistic philosophies. Their school peers are discussing them at younger and younger ages. Probably as young as fifth grade they have friends experimenting with alcohol. In middle school, kids coming out as gay or identifying as opposite genders. Don’t think you’ll shield them from these topics by not talking about them. Find out what’s happening and what they’re thinking. Don’t cram Church teaching down their throats, but don’t shy away from explaining what the Church teaches and why it’s life-giving and ultimately fulfilling. They need your perspectives.
- Do a faith study or Bible study together as a family
If you don’t have a solid background and don’t know the answers to a lot of these issues, study with them. Get books on the subject and read together. There are also many wonderful, informative, and interactive DVD programs from publishers like Ascension Press, Our Sunday Visitor, and the Augustine Institute designed for different ages. Buy a DVD study, then watch and discuss it as a family.
Obviously, younger children won’t be dealing with serious problems. That’s good! More reason to establish this culture of family faith discussions when your kids are small. Start now and make it a habit. You’ll grow in knowledge and ability as their demands grow. Then, when they’re teens and have real problems, you’ll have a venue to speak into their lives. I’ve seen this work with my own kids. Don’t neglect this!
MARC CARDARONELLA, MA, is director of the Office of Discipleship and Faith Formation in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He is author of Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making It Stick and blogs at MarcCardaronella.com.
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