The first emotional bonds we form are with our parents, and the nature of these bonds influences us throughout our lives. For many young adults, parents have been the primary influence on their spiritual and religious development, and relations with parents are linked to their first conceptions of God. Instilling Christian truths into our children and inspiring them to pursue their own relationships with God is of the upmost importance for Christian parents. But what exactly promotes or hinders this spiritual transmission to the next generation?

Research collected by Vern L. Bengtson in the book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations, states that the quality of parent-child relationships, is strongly associated with the passing on of the faith from generation to generation. Vern identifies four different parenting styles that help promote or hinder spiritual transmission:

#1- Warm, affirming parenting: This is perceived by the child as a consistently close relationship with one or usually both parents. This type of parenting can be described as loving, supportive, and respectful. The methods in this parenting style for religious socialization involves teaching, modeling, and living in a community that affirms their faith. This isn’t perfect parenting, and it is not without some bumps and bruises. Bengstons’s research shows though, that these parents are living consistent, Christian lifestyles. Throughout the research, it reveals the better the relationship one has with their children, the better the likelihood of their children embracing their faith as adults.

#2- Authoritarian Parenting: The other extreme of warm parenting would be a parenting style perceived by the child as cold, distant, or authoritarian. With this style, even the most dedicated efforts by parents, to pass on their faith, can be undone. Many young adults in Bengston’s findings report they no longer adhere to any religious affiliation due to their parents, and other well-meaning adults, being highly critical and having fractured relationships.

#3-Mixed Message Parenting: Sometimes a parent, usually a father, appears to shift between criticism and nurturance, creating an ambiguous image in the child’s eye. The child can also perceive parents occupying two extremes, one being very excited about their faith and the other more ambivalent. In Bengston’s research, they’ve found when there is “mixed-message parenting,” there is less intergenerational continuity of faith.

#4- Preoccupied Parenting: This type of parenting refers to parents who are distracted by marital, financial, or health problems, occasionally even substance abuse. These parents mean well, but when preoccupied for a long period of time, in which the children are not near the center of the parents’ attention, the research shows that it does not typically lead to a successful passing on of the faith.

In summary, in families of faith, warmth matters. The quality of the parent-child relationship directly affects how much influence mothers and fathers have on their children’s spiritual temperature in adulthood. The young adults in Bengston’s study who felt particularly close to one or both parents not only continued in the faith, but have many positive experiences of their own too!

If interested to learn more about this study, check out the book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations

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