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What matters most in parenthood

One of the biggest investments I’ve made in my life has been in parenthood. My wife and I have raised four children and are now dedicated to 14 grandchildren. I also consider my role as pastor to be largely a fatherly investment.

You can imagine my interest in an article from the Atlantic titled “The Single Parenting Decision That Really Matters”. According to a study, it seems that where you raise your child is what matters most. In other words, certain geographical areas offer more opportunities and a better environment for a child and his future success.

I did not leave convinced.

Certainly, there were interesting parallels with the opportunities and context of certain environments. As the person who wrote the article admitted, “I’m not a parenting expert; I’m just an uncle.

Well, I may not be an expert either, but I was so much more than an uncle. And as a parent, grandparent, and pastor, I will say that what matters most in parenting isn’t geography.

It’s the parents and the community they provide for their children.

Especially when you define “success” not by whether they get into Harvard or become millionaires at 30, but rather by whether the stick of faith has been successfully passed down.

You might find it surprising, but until very recently, there were no meaningful studies in the social sciences on how best for parents to pass on their faith to the next generation. We knew parents mattered. We knew the Church mattered. But what exactly mattered about parents and churches? It wasn’t so clear. This is now the case, thanks to a national study of religious parents in the United States conducted under the direction of sociologist Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame.

Drawing on new empirical evidence from more than 230 in-depth interviews as well as data from three nationally representative surveys, there was one prominent headline: The Single and Most Powerful Causal Influence on Religious Life of American teenagers and young adults is religious life. of their parents.

Not their peers,
not the media,
not their youth group leaders or clergy,
not their religious school teachers,
not sunday school,
not missionary trips,
not service projects,
not a summer camp….

It’s the parents.

Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice should play in life, whether important or not, which most children pretty much embrace. In other words, parent speed, child speed. Smith writes about the dynamic as if parents set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise.

Parents continue to play the primary role in shaping the character of their religious and spiritual life even long after they leave home and often for the rest of their lives. Simply put, the influence of parents on children while they are still living at home – including their influence on their religious identities, beliefs and practices – is paramount and lasts for years, decades and often lifetimes. .

Now, we all know that parents do not control or determine the religious life of their children. Many homes with similar values ​​and practices produce children whose religious life varies enormously. But a great deal of accumulated research consistently shows that, when considering Americans as a whole, parental influence on religiosity outweighs any other influence, even though parents and children may assume otherwise.

The dynamics of how this influence manifests should come as no surprise. Smith’s research revealed that there are nine hallmarks present with effective and positive transmission of faith by parents:

  1. Warm and nurturing relationships with the child
  2. Quality conversations and interactions about religion
  3. Child-centered rather than parent-centered conversations
  4. The crucial role of fathers
  5. Parents sharing the same faith and religious practice
  6. Two-parent households
  7. Grandparents Strengthening Parents
  8. Too much or too little religious socialization
  9. Parental consistency in words and deeds, rules and meaningful intentions

Most of them are self-explanatory and obvious. First, that the most effective parental conversations about faith with children center on the children rather than the parents. In other words, the children ask the questions and are allowed to speak while the parents remain more attentive. You allow questions about religion to be their questions and related to their lives.

When parents talk too much, make demands without explanation, force unwanted conversations, limit discussions to matters within their control, the transmission of the faith risks being not only ineffective, but also counterproductive.

Second, that too much or too little religious socialization by parents tends to undermine the transmission of religious faith to children. In other words, faith is best transmitted when parents are intentional, consistent, and actively engaged, but not indifferent or overbearing. If efforts to religiously socialize a child are weak and sporadic, those efforts will fail. If efforts to socialize a child are relentless or overbearing, these too will fail, even creating rebellion.

So what matters most in parenting?

It depends.

If all you care about is worldly achievement, then perhaps one factor could be where you are raising your child.

But if you go a little further than that and care about your child’s spiritual formation – values, beliefs, behaviors, faith – then it’s not about where you raise your child,

…but who you are as a parent as you are raising your child.

James Emery White


Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, “The Only Parenting Decision That Really Matters”, AtlanticMay 7, 2022, read online.

Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, Marks of an effective parenting with regard to the transmission of the faith.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.