Deuteronomy 4:9 admonishes parents to "teach what you've seen and heard to your children and grandchildren." But while many sons and daughters receive this teaching gladly, others respond with indifference or rebellion. So how do faithful parents raise children who become faithful adults?
For Vern Bengtson, a longtime scholar at the University of Southern California, this question has driven a career's worth of research. Thirty-five years ago, Bengtson began examining the religious beliefs and practices of more than 3,500 grandparents, parents, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. These efforts have culminated with his forthcoming study, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations (Oxford University Press). The book, co-authored with research assistants Norella Putney and Susan Harris, looks at how parents seek to reproduce religious faith in their children amid an increasingly individualistic society.
Amy Ziettlow, a scholar with the Institute for American Values, spoke with Bengtson about the cross-generational resiliency of American family faith patterns, the importance of a flexible and loving approach, and the hope available to parents whose children have wandered astray.
Your research on faith and families began in 1970. Are parents today more or less influential in passing on their faith?
Surprisingly, about the same. Our study tracked the degree of religious similarity between parents and young adult children in 1970 with that of young adults and parents in 2005. We measured this degree of similarity in four dimensions of religiosity: intensity of faith, frequency of religious service attendance, agreement with a literal interpretation of the Bible, and agreement with the importance of religion ...1