Why are parents the most important figures shaping the religious lives and futures of their children in the United States? The primary and powerful role of parents in religious socialization may seem obvious to readers today. But that is because we are familiar with our current system, not because it is historically normal or inevitable.
Some older readers may remember times and religious subcultures that worked differently. People from other eras and places in history and the world could also tell about different means of religious transmission across generations.
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. Parents set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.
This parental primacy in religious transmission is significant because, even though most parents do realize it when they think about it, their crucial role often runs in the background of their busy lives; it is not a conscious, daily, strategic matter. Furthermore, many children do not recognize the power that their parents have in shaping their religious lives but instead view themselves as autonomous information processors making independent, self-directing decisions. Widespread cultural scripts also consistently say that the influence of parents over their children recedes starting with the onset of puberty, while the influence of peers, music, and social media takes over.
Other common and influential cultural scripts operate to disempower parents by telling them that they are not qualified to care for their children in many ways, so they should turn their children over to experts. Further, the perceptions of at least some (frustrated) staff at religious congregations is that more than a few parents assume that others besides themselves (the staff) are responsible for forming their children religiously (in Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, catechism, etc.).
Yet all empirical data tell us that for intergenerational religious transmission today, the key agents are parents, not clergy or other religious professionals. The key location is the home, not religious congregations. And the key mechanisms of socialization are the formation of ordinary life practices and identities, not programs, preaching, or formal rites of passage.
Why and how, in the face of all pressures and perceptions to the contrary, have ordinary parents become the key agents in the socialization of their children in religion, whether successfully or not? Some starting-point answers seem obvious. One is that most parents have much more access to and time spent with their children in socialization than any other people (with the possible exception of teachers and schools for some children). A second apparent reason is that few American youth today are as rebellious as, say, baby boomer youth were reputed to have been.
However common or genuine those experiences were half a century ago, the reality today is far different and the stereotype of an adolescent generation gap is baseless (except for some when it comes to familiarity with social media). In fact, most youth today have entirely bought into adult values and goals. The vast majority of teenagers and parents today get along reasonably well.
The rates of mental and emotional troubles among youth are no higher than among adults. And most teenagers still look primarily to parents for guidance and help in life. With those kinds of relationships in play, it is not surprising that parents exert a big influence on their children today, including in religious matters.