What’s the most important influence on a child’s faith, according to numerous studies?
It is not attending Mass with their family; not watching their parents’ habits of prayer. It’s not pastors, youth group leaders, Catholic school, faith formation classes, summer camp or mission trips.
Instead, it’s the simple act of parents talking to kids.
In their recent book “Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation,” sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk report that not only do parents have the biggest influence on their children’s future faith lives, but the most powerful factor is how parents speak with their kids about religion and God in everyday life.
It turns out, ordinary conversations matter more than anything else.
These surprising findings need not undermine what we believe as Catholics. We know our celebration of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) is essential; daily prayer is a must and forming generations in faith is a huge priority.
But such studies of families across the U.S. underscore the truth that parents are the primary catechists of their children. It turns out that forming kids in faith does not come from even the best parish programming but from regular conversations at home.
It might feel daunting to bear the weight of this responsibility, but consider the possibilities: It’s not religious professionals at church or school who impact kids the most, but the adults they interact with all week long. This fact holds huge promise for what parents and grandparents can offer.
Through ordinary conversations, we normalize faith as part of daily life. Parents don’t have to preach or teach in the typical sense. The best thing we can do is bring conversations about faith to the dinner table, the drive to school, the bleachers, or the backyard — wherever we’re already interacting with our kids.
Showing young people that faith is a normal, natural part of life speaks volumes. Think about school struggles, sports seasons, friendship dramas, political debates, health concerns, news headlines or family milestones. Any conversation we start through the lens of faith can show how God’s light shines on every part of life.
To be an authentic witness to your faith does not require learning a new language. You simply need to share what matters to you. As we know from our kids’ practices and rehearsals, regular repetition is what helps us grow into new skills.
Try it with your children this week. Start one small conversation and see what it leads. Speak up about a political issue in the news, an injustice you see in the world, a question about last Sunday’s homily or a way you’re helping a friend through a hard time. Share with your children what reminded you of God today: a vibrant sunset, a smile from a stranger, a song on the radio, or a kind word when you needed it most.
Ask your children what they think God might say about a certain situation. Listen to their responses. Wonder together about their questions or go searching for the answers.
The Gospels prove the power of ordinary exchanges. Jesus walked and talked with friends and strangers every day. Many of these brief encounters became life-changing events. So, too, the greatest gift we can offer our children is to keep faith at the heart of family life together.
In the car. After the game. Before bed. Over dinner.
We can’t simply drop kids off at Catholic school or religious education classes and consider the job done. We can’t expect Sunday Mass to teach our children everything they need to know. Faith formation is what happens at home. As parents, we cannot control how our children turn out, but we have a powerful role to play — and we can mindfully share the faith more in our conversations, starting today.
Laura Kelly Fanucci is an author, speaker and founder of Mothering Spirit, an online gathering place on parenting and spirituality. “Faith at Home” appears monthly at OSV News.