The Role Of Parents In The Moral And Spiritual Formation Of Children

Feb 12th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Christian sociologists, Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, have just published an important book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation.  They validate what the Bible says so clearly in Deuteronomy 6—parents shape the religious worldview and spearhead the moral and spiritual formation of their children.  What follows is a series of statements which summarize their argument:


  • “Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. Parents set a ‘glass ceiling’ of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.”
  • “This parental primacy in religious transmission is significant because, even though most parents do realize it when they think about it, their crucial role often runs in the background of their busy lives; it is not a conscious, daily, strategic matter. Furthermore, many children do not recognize the power that their parents have in shaping their religious lives but instead view themselves as autonomous information processors making independent, self-directing decisions. Widespread cultural scripts also consistently say that the influence of parents over their children recedes starting with the onset of puberty, while the influence of peers, music, and social media takes over.”
  • “Other common and influential cultural scripts operate to disempower parents by telling them that they are not qualified to care for their children in many ways, so they should turn their children over to experts. Further, the perceptions of at least some (frustrated) staff at religious congregations are that more than a few parents assume that others besides themselves (the staff) are responsible for forming their children religiously (in Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, catechism, etc.).”
  • “Yet all empirical data tell us that for intergenerational religious transmission today, the key agents are parents, not clergy or other religious professionals. The key location is the home, not religious congregations. And the key mechanisms of socialization are the formation of ordinary life practices and identities, not programs, preaching, or formal rites of passage . . . Most parents have much more access to and time spent with their children in socialization than any other people (with the possible exception of teachers and schools for some children).”

What about the role of parents in the acquisition of life skills?  Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducts exams as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year olds in the world’s leading industrialized nations on their reading comprehension and ability to use what they have learned in math and science.  Compared with children in Singapore, Finland and Shanghai, China, America’s 15-year olds have not been distinguishing themselves.  As columnist Tom Friedman reports, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the exams for the OECD, investigated what is behind the classroom in children tested—their families.  Beginning with 4 nations in 2006 and adding 14 more in 2009, the PISA team went to parents of 5,000 students and interviewed them “about how they raised their kids and then compared that with the test results” for each of those years.  What was the result?

  1. Schleicher reported to Friedman that “fifteen-year old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.  The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background.  Parents’ engaging with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PITA.”
  2. Schleicher explained that “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.  It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”
  3. Students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child every day or almost every day during the first year of primary school have markedly higher PISA scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents did not.  On average the score difference in 25 points, the equivalent of well over half a school year.
  4. He also reports that “on average, the score point difference in reading that is associated with parental involvement is largest when parents read a book with their child, when they talk about things they have done during the day, and when they tell stories to their children.”
  5. Furthermore, a recent study by the National School Boards Associations Center for Public Education reports that, “Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college” are most likely to have an impact on academic achievement at school.  In addition, the study “found that getting parents involved with their children’s learning at home is a more powerful driver of achievement than parents attending PTA and school board meetings, volunteering in classrooms, participating in fund-raising and showing up at back-to-school nights.”

In conclusion, the American culture has spent trillions of dollars since 1965 on building expensive buildings, hiring well-qualified teachers and providing well-written textbooks, but none of this is as valuable as parents who care.  We need good teachers; of that there is no doubt.  We need good classrooms with sufficient, up-to-date technology; of that there is no doubt.  We need textbooks that are sound and well-written; of that there is no doubt.  But without parents who are engaged with their children, none of this will matter much.  Nearly 3,500 years ago, Moses instructed the parents of Israel to teach and model the things of God to their children (Deuteronomy 6:1-7).  That sound advice from Scripture is still relevant today.  If the family is dysfunctional, the children will suffer.  That self-evident axiom is now being worked out in our culture.  Education is a cooperative effort between the school and the home.  When the home does not exist, the schools will not be able to do it all.  Increasingly, this is where so much of American education is today.  We expect the schools to do it all—and they cannot. In fact, I believe quite strongly that true education is a cooperative effort between the school, the parents and the church.  That institutional triad provides the needed framework for successful education.  Our postmodern culture will not permit the support of the church in this triad.  So, it is up to the schools and the parents.  When the parents are not there or not engaged, the schools will not be able to do the job.  We need good teachers and we need good parents—and, as a Christian, I would add we need good churches.  We should not be surprised when we read of the growing failure rates of our children on assessment exams.  It is not all the fault of the teachers; it is also the miserable failure of so many parents.  God declared that central parental role 3,500 years ago.  Perhaps it is time for us to re-acquaint ourselves with His paradigm for success.

See Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, “Parents Set the Pace for Their Adult Children’s Religious Life” in (13 December 2021) and Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (20 November 2011).

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