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Only a minority of parents emphasize passing on their faith to children: study

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While mental health concerns top the list of worries for parents today, and studies suggest religion is good for mental health, passing on their religious beliefs to their children is not highly prioritized by U.S. adults with children younger than 18, new data from the Pew Research Center show.

Across racial and ethnic lines, overwhelming majorities of U.S. adults with children younger than 18 believe being a parent is either one of or the most important aspect of who they are as a person. But when it comes to prioritizing the passing on of their faith to their children, white Evangelicals and black Protestants are the only two Christian groups where a majority of parents prioritize this.

“Parents place less importance on their children growing up to have religious or political beliefs that are similar to their own. About a third (35%) say it is extremely or very important to them that their children share their religious beliefs, and 16% say the same about their children’s political beliefs,” Pew researchers Rachel Minkin and Juliana Horowitz said in Parenting in America Today released on Tuesday. “Republican and Democratic parents are about equally likely to say it’s at least very important to them that their children share their political beliefs.”

Data for Parenting in America Today came from some 3,757 U.S. parents with children younger than 18, which was collected as part of a larger survey conducted from Sept. 20 to Oct. 2, 2022, to better understand how American parents approach parenting.

Only 40% of black parents and 39% of Hispanic parents in the study told researchers that it’s extremely or very important to them that their children share their religious beliefs. That share is even lower among white and Asian parents where only 32% say it’s important that their children share the same religion.

Some 70% of white Evangelical parents and 53% of black Protestants said it is important that their children share their religious beliefs. Among white non-Evangelical Protestants that figure is only 29%, while only 35% of Catholic parents say this.

At the same time, researchers found that 40% of U.S. parents with children younger than 18 “say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point.”

The concern for mental health of their children among parents today is even larger than their concerns about “certain physical threats …, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy and getting in trouble with the police,” researchers said.

“Concerns about mental health are felt more acutely by white and Hispanic parents: 42% of white parents and 43% of Hispanic parents say they are extremely or very worried their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point, compared with 32% of black parents and 28% of Asian parents,” researchers wrote.

Results of a survey of nearly 10,000 young people ages 13-25 about their beliefs, practices, behaviors, relationships and mental health published last October by Springtide Research Institute in The State of Religion & Young People 2022: Mental Health–What Faith Leaders Need to Know, it was found that during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, 53% of respondents reported that mental health was their biggest challenge. Yet only 34% reported being comfortable talking about their struggle with adults.

Some 57% said new spiritual practices helped them endure the pandemic and more than half (51%) said they turned to prayer. Others turned to activities like reading, yoga, the arts or being in nature.

The study found that while religion and spirituality "can be strong antidotes to much of what contributes to mental-health struggles among young people" and that "people who are religious are better off mentally and emotionally," only 35% of the respondents said they are connected to a religious community. 

Respondents connected to a religious community were found to be more likely to say they are "flourishing a lot" in their mental and emotional well-being (29%) than those not connected to a religious community (20%).

Respondents who say they are "very religious" were more likely to report that they are "flourishing a lot" (40%) compared to those who say they are not religious (17%). Respondents who are "not religious" were more than twice as likely to say they are "not flourishing" (44%) than "very religious" respondents.  

The study appeared to confirm decades of previous research pointing to a positive relationship between religion, spirituality and mental health.

Josh Packard, Springtide Research Institute’s executive director, noted that "solutions to mental-health struggles are more complicated than just 'give young people more religion'" as about 20% of "very religious" respondents reported they are "not flourishing." 

The new data from the Pew Research Center appears to suggest a certain level of pragmatism among parents as they seek to do what’s best in a society that has grown more open including when it comes to expressions of faith.

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