Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Religion Matters More When Kids Are Old Enough to Want Real Answers

Parents of small children are a not especially sold on religion – it is only when the kids get to school age, and especially when the children are teenagers, that parents definitely see the value of religion.

I was looking at the 2002 Religion and Public Life Survey, commissioned by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The survey asked several questions about the importance of religion in society, and especially for morality. They report the answers of those who have children under 18 at home, then break them down into those with kids under 5, with children 6 – 12, and with children 13 –17. In general, sheer parenthood is not a big differentiator on these questions. The age of the kids makes a bigger difference.

The Pew survey asked which of these two statements came closer to the respondents’ views:
A. Children are more likely to grow up to be moral adults when they are raised in a religious faith, or
B. Children are just as likely to grow up to be moral adults whether or not they are raised in a religious faith
Nearly everyone could choose one or the other. Overall, 62% of all respondents chose A. That is, nearly two thirds of Americans believe that adults will be more moral if they are raised religiously. Moreover, there is no difference between parents with kids at home (61%) versus other people (62%).

Yet when we look at parents of different ages of kids, we find an interesting pattern. Parents of children under 5 were less likely than other parents to think a religious upbringing was important – 57% to 64%. Yet the parents of middle schoolers reverse that pattern, with 63% saying yes, compared to only 59% of other parents. Parents of teens are even more likely to want a religious upbringing for their kids, with 65% answering yes, compared to the same 59% of other parents.

The survey then offered a parallel choice:
A. It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values, or
B. It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.
Again, the parents of the smallest children were likely to take the less religious answer. 57% chose option one, which shrank to a bare majority (50.2%) of the parents of teens.

These are, admittedly, not huge differences. Most American, parents or not, think that religion is important in raising up moral adults. But it is interesting that parents show an increasing appreciation of the importance of religion for moral upbringing as their children get older. The parents of teenagers are especially likely to seek religious help.


Anonymous said...

The 'parents of infants' group in the survey obviously hasn't read St. Augustine's Confessions, which (as I'm sure you recall) spends some time detailing the inherent sinfulness of the little tykes and their need of God's grace.

Anonymous said...

jzgyle is the alias I use when accidentally copying the secret 'word verification' code into the 'name' slot. sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

I’d say it has something to do with the day-to-day accountability that being part of a religion often requires. Small children answer to and are controlled mostly by their parents whereas a teenager’s behavior may not be so easily controlled them in the same way. So for parents, having a teenager be accountable to a church school class and/or religious congregation as well as the parents, might help encourage the teenager’s actions to follow a more moral path. If teenagers’ actions are going to be scrutinized by their religious community, they may find that more daunting than their parents’ disapproval alone. I don’t imagine small children feel this impact as much and parents probably know that.

Gruntled said...

I think the parents of small children may believe that they can morally govern their children, whereas the parents of teenagers know they can't, and need all the help they can get.

(And welcome, jzgyle, and don't let that mcintyre guy steal your thunder :) )

Anonymous said...

Might these findings report more the spiritual and moral development of the parents than on the children. When we are younger and trying to establish ourselves we think we can do it on our own. As we grow older we realize that both we and our children need a larger community to belong to. In the past this might have occured in extended families, but more and more people my age (25) are seeking familial bonds outside of biological relationships. An authentic, healthy church family can be a true place of community and hospitality. This might be something that the parent needs as much as the child.

Gruntled said...

I think most parents discover that they develop, as well as need, a larger community as their kids get older. Church is a help both as a social support and as a specifically religious aid.