Soul Searching, Part 2- The Influence of Parents, Other Adults, And Relationships

A handful of interesting passages from the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton:

One of the key themes of this book is that parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realize it. It seems that many parents of teens rely primarily on the immediate evidence of the overt attitudes, statements, and sometimes behaviors that their teenage children dole out to them on a daily basis in order to estimate their current level of parental influence. Many of the attitudes and statements that teenagers communicate to their parents do not exactly express great admiration and gratitude for and readiness to listen to, emulate, or freely obey their parents. Many parents therefore appear to come to the conclusion that they have lost their influence in shaping the lives of their teenage children, that they no longer make any significant difference. But for most, this conclusion is mistaken. Teenagers’ attitudes, verbal utterances, and immediate behaviors are often not the best evidence with which to estimate parental influence in their lives. For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents- more often than do their peers- their children’s apparent resistance and lack of appreciation notwithstanding. This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescents’ religious and spiritual lives. Simply by living and interacting with their children, most parents establish expectations, define normalcy, model life practices, set boundaries, and make demands- all of which cannot help but influence teenagers, for good or ill. Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.

– p. 56

Parents for whom faith is quite important are thus likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is quite important, while parents whose faith is not important are likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is also not important. The fit is not perfect. None of this is guaranteed or determined, and sometimes, in specific instances, things turn out otherwise. But overall positive association is clear… In sum, therefore, we think that the best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children’s most likely religious outcomes is this: “We’ll get what we are.”

– p. 57

Large majorities of teens from all religious traditions report having nonfamily adults in their religious congregations whom they enjoy talking to and who give them lots of encouragement… The majority of teens who do not have such enjoyable and encouraging adult ties in their congregations… say that they wish they did… Religious organizations thus appear to help foster cross-generational relational ties for large numbers of US teenagers, ties we would expect to help legitimize and reinforce the religious faith and practices of those teens.

– pp. 60-61

Religious faith and practice in American teenagers’ lives operate in a social and institutional environment that is highly competitive for time, attention, and energy. Religious interests and values in teens’ lives typically compete against those of school, homework, television, other media, sports, romantic relationships, paid work, and more. Indeed, in many adolescents’ lives, religion occupies a quite weak and often losing position among these competing influences. Those teenagers for whom religious faith and practice are important tend to have religious lives constructed relationally and institutionally to intersect and overlap with other important aspects of their lives… For American adolescents more broadly, the structure of relational networks and institutional ties of both teens and their parents seems significantly correlated with the character of their religious faith and practice.

-p. 28

Religious and nonreligious identities thus tend to cluster around and be reinforced by close friendship networks… Again, religion in the lives of teenagers appears to be not simply restricted to time spent in religious congregations, but also flows in various ways and to different degrees into and through teens’ relational networks.

-p. 58

All Quotations taken from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).


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