Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Passing On The Faith

A conversation with a co-worker the other day reminded me of this article which I ran into on Google some time back. Prof Lynn Okagaki did a study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology on how successful parents are in passing on their beliefs to their children.

Her conclusions are common-sensical, but I'd certainly be interested to see more data on this. What she found is that while parents actions are important in forming their children's moral thinking, spoken witness essential to passing on beliefs. The design of the study was pretty interesting:

"We asked students to tell us what they believed and what they thought their parents believed," says Lynn Okagaki, an associate professor of child development and family studies. "We then asked the parents what their beliefs were and how strongly they felt they had tried to nurture their child in terms of religious beliefs and values. What we found was that the perception does not always match the reality."

Okagaki's study showed that the accuracy of a student's perception was affected by how much his or her parents talked about their beliefs and whether the mother and father shared the same beliefs.

"Many of the students we talked to told us that their parents shaped their environments by making church activities a regular part of their lives, and took on service projects as a family", Okagaki says. "But while 'walking the walk' was certainly important, it was regular, specific conversations about religious beliefs that gave students a more accurate perception of what their parents actually believe. In other words, it's not enough for parents to just model beliefs for their kids."

This seems to be what has driven so many parents in the post Vatican II church to put more time into overt religious education at home. In my grandparents generation, it seems to have been assumed that if you sent your kids to Catholic schools and took them to mass on Sundays that they'd pick up whatever they needed to know. Goodness knows with most parish schools and CCD programs these days you're in no way guaranteed to pick up the fundamentals of the faith by default.

After seeing the drop-out rate in the first couple generations after Vatican II, it seems that those still standing have learned that if you want your children to be active, faithfull Catholics you need to educate them rigorously. (Some of my more liberal/cynical friends tend to put it differently: "You think that if you shelter and indoctrinate your children that they'll all grow up just like you.") There are still, certainly, no guarantees in life or parenthood. Free will has a way of asserting itself. But one thing is clear: if you assume that your children will simply "pick up" your faith without putting in the work to teach it to them clearly, you're far less likely to be successful in passing on your beliefs than if you take the time to educate your children thoroughly in what you believe and why.


strivingforholiness said...

gee....I guess this means I have to talk even more....hehe

Todd said...

My caution would be to guard against the assumption that intellect alone is the path to a strong faith. The Church also teaches that worship and charity are vital. Also not to be overlooked is the notion of a good community life: something American ethnic parishes did quite a bit better than modern suburban parishes, generally speaking.

Contemporary studies show that for non-churchgoing families, young adults with a Catholic education in a school or RE are virtually the same as unchurched, uncatechized young adults in the articulation of the Catholic faith. If there's one thing parents should do is attend Mass weekly. The second thing would be some involvement in parish life, especially in the works of charity and in community building. Catechesis is important, but only when reinforced with a faith that's active and prayerful.

Darwin said...

Indeed. I was (perhaps wrongly) taking it as a given that parents wanting to pass on their faith would first have to be good examples in practicing it.

I guess I mostly had in mind people who are themselves good practicing Catholics (both sacramentally and in terms of faith and charity) but who fail to do a very good job of teaching their children _what_ they believe, and thus end up wondering why none of their children are Catholic anymore. That seems to be the story of my extended family on both sides a couple generations back, and so it's always at the back of my mind.

Losing the cultural reinformencement of ethnic Catholicism and at the same time undergoing an crisis of catechises seems to have produce the perfect storm in the 50s through the 70s.

Anonymous said...


I see what you mean. My family was one where weekly Mass attendance was imperative. My parents were involved in various liturgical ministries from ushering to choir. Holy days of obligation were always observed, and then there were others tacked on by my folks like Thanksgiving day. However good the example was, what was lacking were the nuts and bolts behind the do's and don'ts.

This is becoming very clear to me now. I credit the difference in my observance of the faith and that of my sister's to the college experiences we had. Hers would be rather typical of most in our generation. Cohabitation & serial fornication were everywhere. Drunkenness was common. Sacramental life for the Catholics was minimal at best.

Mine college experience was rather different. The Catholic student center was a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy (an atmosphere you would see at Steubenvlle or Ave Maria). I spent most of my free time there or with friends from there. Catholic moral theology (and more) was accepted and understood.

I see that the methods to transmit the faith used by my parents are much like those of grandparents (imagine that). However, both my grandparents and my parents are a product of their generations as well. Those methods coupled with allowing children to be a product of their generation will undermine the faith.

My grandparents were devout Catholics. They accepted what the Church without question. Their beliefs are very much the same as mine & mrs. felderhoff.

My parents are from a generation that questioned authority more, but being from a small town, my guess is that they were slower to catch on to that sort of rebellion. I remember one discussion with my parents in which I felt rather betrayed. The gist of it was that I found out my parents' family planning choice and the remark followed that I was a super Catholic.

Now, a generation later, rebellion against authority is a mainstream "value." The same method of passing on the faith will not do. Parents need to be proactive in providing a Catholic example as well as catechesis. Mrs. felderhoff & I see the differences in our respective families, and we know what is effective and what is not.

LogEyed Roman said...

Good stuff. I appreciate the post and the discussion.

I am a "revert"; I returned to the Roman Catholic church in mid-life after 20+ years.

I have been doing cathechism and also doing some studying and praying.

Consider the word "formation". A course I took toward my training as a cathechist was "Ministry FORMATION".

A wonderful senior cathechist at my church told a story of when she first went to a Catholic school as a little girl. The new students were all gathered in the auditorium to be greeted by the Mother Superior. The nun said, "I want to make it clear to you that while you will be educated here, our main task is not your EDUCATION. Our main task is your FORMATION as" she counted the three points off on her fingers..."ADULT...CATHOLIC...WOMEN." Then she added, "If at any time you are unsure of just what we mean by any one of those three things, ask any one of us" (the nuns) "and we will be happy to clarify it for you."

Okay. "Formation" is the word I use when I think of raising children believe what the parents believe and act the way the parents think they should act. I especially like it because of the connotations it has for me: "Formation" of character, of values, of taste, etc., etc.

Like certain bodily functions, formation happens. Whether we guide it or not. While there's no absolute guarantee that a child will always come out the way the parents want--free choice exists, and both parents and children are mondo fallible!--careful formation tends to have good results. As for careless or ill-considered formation--well, failing to plan is planning to fail.

I believe that before 1960 (I'm old enough to remember some of it), Catholic cathechism tended to be strict and rigorous. The parents, if they gave a good example and made sure the children got to good cathechism classes, had a better than fair chance of inculcating their values in the children, though parents who professed as well as practiced their faith stood a better chance. But one of the greatest agents of change was already making headway: Popular mass culture. This same time period, the late 50's, when I got some my own most important formation, were also the time when television was first becoming a huge cultural presence, and there was also other popular culture--popular music, with more parties and concernts, and in increase in ohter leisure activities as well. Parents who treated their children the same way their own parents treated them were bewildered and very hurt to find that for reasons they largely did not understand, it was not working.

Well, when they had grown up--when they had been FORMED--there was simply nothing like the amount of competing influences to deal with, and the example and teaching of their parents, usually supported by neighborhoods of far less mobile people where far more people knew you, were the main pattern for the young impressionable characters to adopt.

To this day, I continue to see the same effect, especially on immigrant families from traditional backgrounds. Immigrants from Asian countries in my home town go to great lengths to keep their home culture intact. There is a large Korean community who pass around lists of Korean businesses--mechanics, plumbers, doctors, you name it--and pressure each other to always patronize these first whenever possible. They give their children a great deal of attention, encouranging behavior they approve of and discouraging other behavior. They carefully monitor their children's activities, limit their television, etc. On the one hand we see the results in the academic performance of these people. Similarly, Hispanic immigrants from much less educated backgrounds often show very great diligence and a profound work ethic, and also try hard to pass on this culture to their children.

These people almost invariably fail.

Three to five generations in this country, and Asian academic performance has sunk to the average. I know a man who has a business staffed with Hispanic immigrants. They work incredibly hard. The take few breaks. But you always see several younger workers taking every scheduled break, and often wandering into the break room for leisurely snacks at other times. These are children of the Hispanic immigrants. I spoke of this to a friend who teaches high school at a very ethnically mixed school, and he said he saw the same thing in his classroom.

I understand that much of the homeschooling movement is a response not so much to poor academic offerings but to the difficulty of inculcating morality in children today. Formation can be done, apparently, but much that the parents could take for granted seventy years ago does not exist. The parents have to provide far more reinforcement than their parents did, and put in far more effort screening their children from adverse influences. It's not just that so many of these influences are bad (which they are) but even more that there are so much of them. A child could drown in cable TV and video games during the years when they should be developing socially, physically and intellectually. And of course many children do so.

I like the word "formation" because for me, it implies all aspects of childrearing--the example the parents give, the direction they give, and the explicit teaching.

The best formation I witness personally is at the home of some friends--a Catholic family where the father is a very old friend, and they have (so far) five children. Not only do the parents attend church and confession etc. regularly, they take plenty of time to explain the Faith to their children. But in addition, they work assiduously to form their characters. I mean they discilpine them very closely without smothering them. The children are not allowed to disobey; they keep their toys etc. in good order; they are corrected constantly if they get into fights with one another. Interestingly, because of this assiduous upbringing, they get plenty of time to play and have fun, and they are generally pretty relaxed and confident around me and other adult visitors and friends to the family.

What I call "formation" is, in my mind, what's really needed. One needs to set a proper example, of course. And that's not remotely enough; the values the parents or others responsible for the formation must be well taught. And, finally, formation must include discipline, and lots of it--I don't mean the more you punish the better; I mean direction aimed at forming the character, not just the intellect. While it must include punishment, it must include rewards and encouragement for the desired behavior. In a way this is the most important.


LogEyed Roman