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What Matters Most in Parenting

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White
2022 16 Jun

One of the most extensive investments I have made with my life has been parenting. My wife and I raised four children and now pour ourselves anew into 14 grandchildren. I also consider my role as a pastor to be largely a fatherly investment. 

You can imagine my interest in an article in the Atlantic titled, “The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters.” According to one study, it would seem that where you raise your child is what matters most. In other words, certain geographic areas provide more opportunity and a better environment for a child and their future success. 

I did not walk away convinced.

To be sure, there were some interesting parallels with the opportunities and context of certain environments. As the person who wrote the article confessed, “I’m no parenting expert; I’m merely an uncle.”

Well, I may not be an expert either, but I’ve been way more than an uncle. And as a parent and grandparent and pastor, I will say that what matters most in parenting is not geography.

It’s the parents and the community they provide for their children.

Particularly when you define “success” not by whether they get into Harvard or become a millionaire by 30, but rather by whether the baton of faith was successfully handed down.

You may find this surprising, but until very recently, there were no significant studies from the social sciences on how parents can best pass on their faith to the next generation. We knew that parents mattered. We knew that the Church mattered. But what exactly was it about parents and churches that mattered? That wasn’t as clear. Now it is, thanks to a national study of religious parents in the United States conducted under the leadership of sociologist Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame.

Drawing from new empirical evidence from more than 230 in-depth interviews as well as data from three nationally representative surveys, there was one significant headline: The single, most powerful causal influence on the religious lives of American teenagers and young adults is the religious lives of their parents.

Not their peers,
not the media,
not their youth group leaders or clergy,
not their religious school teachers,
not Sunday School,
not mission trips,
not service projects,
not summer camp….

It’s parents.

Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. In other words, speed of the parent, speed of the child. Smith writes about the dynamic as akin to parents setting a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. 

The parents continue to play the leading role in shaping the character of their religious and spiritual lives even well after they leave home and often for their rest of their lives. Simply put, the influence of parents on children while they still live at home – including their influence on their religious identities, beliefs and practices – is paramount, lasting for years, decades and often lifetimes.

Now, we all know that parents do not control or determine the religious lives of their children. Many homes with similar values and practices produce children whose religious lives vary wildly. But a large body of accumulated research consistently shows that, when viewing Americans as a whole, the influence of parents in religiousness trumps every other influence, however much parents and children may assume otherwise.

The dynamics of how this influence plays out should not be surprising. The research of Smith found that there are nine marks present with the effective, positive passing on of faith by parents:

  1. Warm, affirming relations with the child
  2. Quality conversations and interactions about religion
  3. Child-centered rather than parent-centered conversations
  4. The crucial role of fathers
  5. Parents sharing the same religious faith and practice
  6. Two-parent households
  7. Grandparents reinforcing the parents
  8. Too much or too little religious socialization
  9. Parental consistency in word and deed, rule, and meaningful intentions

Most of these are self-explanatory and self-evident. First, that the most effective parent conversations about faith with children are children-centered rather than parent-centered. In other words, the children are asking the questions and being allowed to talk while parents are staying more on the listening end. You allow the questions about religion to be their questions and related to their life.

When parents talk too much, make demands without explanations, force unwanted conversations, restrict discussions to topics that they control, faith transmission is likely to not only be ineffective, but also counterproductive.

Second, that too much or too little religious socialization by parents tends to undermine the transmission of religious faith to children. In other words, faith is optimally passed on when parents are intentional, consistent and actively engaged, but neither hands-off nor overbearing. If efforts at socializing a child religiously are weak and sporadic, those efforts will fail. If efforts at socializing a child are relentless or overbearing, those will also fail—even creating rebellion.

So, what matters most in parenting?

It depends. 

If all you care about is worldly accomplishment, then perhaps one factor might be where you raise your child.

But if you run a bit deeper than that, and care about the spiritual formation of your child – values, beliefs, behaviors, faith – then it’s not about where you raise your child,

… but who you are as a parent as you raise your child.

James Emery White

Sources

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, “The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2022, read online.

Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, Marks of Effective Parenting in Regard to the Handing Down of Faith.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.