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Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation

Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

“Owning a piano does not make the pianist.” This wisdom from folklore also pertains to the fine art of parenting. Having children does not guarantee successful outcomes.1 Hence, emotionally vested parents and coparents will go out of their way to impart those life skills and insights that promise good outcomes. They will try to create a delicate balance between the principles of nurture and structure by providing trustworthy guidelines within a framework of predictability, while simultaneously bonding and being emotionally committed to the child, through a process of attachment.

If we are concerned with values and long-term life skills—a way to live life meaningfully—most parents want to pass these skills on to their children. That which has helped parents in their own life’s journey is imbued with value and meaning. For many that is encapsulated in their faith. In the book under review, the authors attempt to answer the following questions: “What do American religious parents actually assume, desire, and say they do to try to pass on religion to their children?” (1).

These are some of the things this psychologist-reviewer appreciated about this book: it is engaging, it drew me in, and I felt a sense of recognition reading about the hopes and dreams of parents for their children. It also contained the vulnerability of parents who hope to launch their children into a better future than the fate they themselves may have experienced. The text is notable in that it provides the big picture of American religious parenting (Chapter 4). The book is inclusive, including perspectives on parenting from followers of the major world religions (94). It also explores the importance of religion for different participants (101). The entire spectrum is represented from intensely and deeply involved to those who do not actively participate in organized religion.

This book is superbly researched and based on large samples with data from three nationally representative surveys and empirical evidence from more than 230 interviews (1). Anchored in a sociological approach, the well respected and widely published authors have produced a work that is scholarly yet engaging, as it combines both extensive quantitative research and qualitative interviews. Again and again, parents are quoted verbatim, and this allows the reader to enter the world of parental decision-making. What gifts do they bestow on their offspring to prepare them for life’s journey? A life that will include joy but also pain, reward and loss, plus so much more as the nuances of daily challenges find their way into the reality of our children’s lives.

As a clinical psychologist and family therapist, I like the focus on how family life shapes religious parenting (Chapter 6). The family is changing in form and function and this book’s approach is equally flexible in acknowledging that ‘one size does not fit all.’ The research addresses cultural assumptions parents make about religious transmission to children (1). Families often relocate and the plight of new immigrants in faith expression and finding religious communities is examined with compassion and cultural respect by guest author Nicolette Manglos-Weber (Chapter 5).

In each parent-child interaction, parents identify with their religion as befits cultural, traditional, historic, and other influences. Parents tend to pass on their own religious views to their children, nuanced by specific cultural heritage. Many do not do so in a prescriptive manner, although modeling their faith through their own involvement in religious practices and encouraging their children to participate in religious traditions seems to be a leading factor in passing down the faith (45). Parents who are desired role models for their faith are comfortable representing their religion (201). They take time to talk about morality and to display involvement with their religious communities. Parents are likely to model involvement with their faith and in so doing, pass that same tradition to their offspring.

One strong theme in the book is that of process and content, although it is not labelled with these identifiers. The content of this process acknowledges the specific religion to which a parent subscribes. Parents talk about the content of their faith and create opportunities for their children to attend religious services regularly. But here comes the important part, namely the process. This refers to the “how” of passing down the faith, and the “how” is significant. It includes respect and love—an atmosphere of acceptance and trust where a child can grow and explore while also being safely guided by a parent, coparent, or mentor. Parents who are authoritative (regarded in the parenting literature as the golden mean of parenting practices) create the safe space in which the child can explore and find their own interpretations of faith, while being in an environment that offers the content and the opportunities for this exploration (45). Parents passing down their faith do well to emulate some of the same qualities we find in the ideal therapeutic relationship: trust, unconditional positive regard, and warmth. As teachers/parents we may not fully agree with the points of view of our students/children, but we respect their right to explore this learning process in a constructive manner. Only then can the learner take ownership of the material. Parents express their wish that their children personalize their faith, make it uniquely their own, and take true ownership. One conclusion from Smith and Adamczyk’s research is that overall parenting style does not drastically vary by religious tradition, although minor variations occur, as can be expected in such a large sample. The study also reflects that the strategies applied by parents are individually tailored to the dynamics in that particular family.

Religious educators and those working in schools with a religious context, may recognize the interpersonal dimensions in the learning environment when it is a safe space to explore and examine ideas. Parents rely on congregations and other structured learning environments to provide an opportunity “to learn about religious scriptures and how they apply to life” (202). These opportunities are complemented by “parental devotion” (199) to their children whereby they take responsibility for “transmitting religious beliefs and practices” (200). We recognize similar conditions in the growth-promoting learning environment of the constructive classroom. Based on this book’s findings, one can expect the analogy to extend to religious education. The teacher is a guide who creates a learner-friendly environment. There are strong similarities with the therapeutic context in psychology, where the relationship between the therapist and the client contains elements of warmth, empathy, and trust, as described by Carl Rogers, regarded as the doyen of the American counseling movement. When parents pass down the faith to their children, this should occur in a context of true concern for the child’s wellbeing.

This book also explores why parents wish their children to have faith as a guiding principle. What are the hopes of the parents when they infuse faith into the lives of their children? And why are they encouraging and supporting this process? Smith and Adamczyk quote numerous examples of parents who themselves have found hope, guidance, meaning, and so much more through their faith. The book reports that one in three American parents would like their children’s lives to reflect “God’s will and purpose to be a highest priority” (98). For parents, their faith anchored them in greater meaning, and they wish for their children to have access to similar riches.

Judging by Smith and Adamczyk’s research, religious communities and parents who pass down their faith become important links in a chain of protective events. Adverse experiences can layer throughout a child’s life, and as they become more multifaceted their weight and influence increase. Many parents in the book saw one of the roles of faith as contributing to the values that can guide and structure a young life. Religious contexts provide faith communities places to belong and connect. Protectivefactors are manifold and include caring adults who take on mentorship roles. These same persons, in appropriate contexts, can be part of the community passing down the faith. The folk wisdom that it “takes a village to raise a child” extends to faith communities.

Every time I have returned to this book, it rewarded me with a deeper level of insight and depth. I am not trained in theology and leave the assessment of theological perspectives to my esteemed colleagues in those professions. But as an educator, as a licensed clinical psychologist, and as someone who teaches principles of parenting to students of human development, I found this book a noteworthy and a valuable addition to the field.


  1. Jerry Bigner and Clara Gerhardt, Parent-Child Relations: An Introduction to Parenting, 10th ed. (Pearson Publishing, 2018), 6.

Clara Gerhardt

Samford University

Clara Gerhardt, Human Development & Family Science, Samford University