Research shows that the majority of millennial parents are raising their kids without a focus on religion. What does that mean for their children's morals? Probably not much.

An image of a woman with her children.
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Millennials are known for shaking things up, and family life is no exception. As parents, millennials tend to have fewer kids and subscribe less to traditional expectations about family structure than older generations. A national survey about the role of religion in American family life suggests that millennial parents are also transforming their relationship with religion.

The November 2019 survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute collated responses from more than 2,500 adults living in the United States. It found that many young parents are raising their kids without religion, unlike older generations for whom incorporating religion into parenting was the norm.

Forty-two percent of surveyed parents with children under 18 said they regularly take their kids to religious services. Even fewer—38 percent—said they send their kids to Sunday school or another religious education program. Compare that to 65 percent of parents 65 or older with adult children who said they sent their kids to a religious education program. Sixty-one percent had regularly taken their kids to religious services during their formative years.

So, why the change?

A Changing Philosophy

Religion has been seen as a resource for fostering moral development in children for generations. "A good religious education program ... provides children with an opportunity to learn from other adults and children about what it means to be a good person in the context of a particular religious tradition," says Rev. Debra Haffner, M.P.H., M.Div., D.Min, a parish minister at Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia, and author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children.

One of the reasons for the decline in the number of religious households in recent years is that this belief is changing. Now, 53 percent of young adults surveyed don't believe it's important for children to be brought up in a religious community to learn good values. In contrast, more than three-quarters of surveyed seniors said that raising children with religion is vital to instilling positive morals.

Parents today are comfortable finding other ways to instill positive values in their kids without turning to religious institutions.    

"We teach [our kids] values and morals by modeling good behavior and encouraging empathy at an early age," says Rose S., a 31-year-old mother of two. Rose and her wife, Shelly S., 29, of Ashland, Oregon, are raising their kids without religion. They find opportunities to instill life lessons in their kids elsewhere. "Our local public schools and public library offer a lot of opportunities for civic engagement with a stronger focus on science than religion, which we like," says Rose.

Pros and Cons of Religious Homes

Of course, there's no one right way to parent, and research shows raising kids in a religious household has both upsides and downsides.

On the plus side, religious involvement can offer much-needed community for parents. "It does indeed take a village to raise a child, and religion can be a valuable part of the village for families that collectively value faith," says John Bartkowski, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "Religious involvement can provide parents with great information-sharing, social network support, and collective problem-solving. Religious support groups for mothers and fathers often provide welcome child-rearing guidance in a society that too often thinks parenting skills come 'naturally,' when they, in fact, do not."

Stephanie S., 31, and her husband, Austin S., 32, of Albany, Oregon, say that their local church is a significant part of the "village" helping raise their three kids. "I do feel that if we need help or support, in any way—emotionally, spiritually, physically, in prayer—that the church is there for us," says Stephanie.

Kids can also benefit from that sense of community through religious programs. "Children at my home church," says Rev. Haffner, "delight in having a second home of a caring community who love them and are committed to their well-being." Programs like Sunday school also offer opportunities for kids to make friends, find mentors, and hone their interpersonal communication skills.

Other research shows religious children are less likely to struggle with substance abuse, while another report found an association between a religious upbringing and greater life satisfaction in adulthood and a positive impact on mental health.

But there can also be cons to raising children in a religious setting. Research has shown kids raised by religious parents might not perform as well on academic tests as their peers, especially in math and science. "Although more research is needed, it's possible that religious parenting emphasizes soft skills to the detriment of hard skills," explains Dr. Bartkowski, who was part of that specific study out of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Religion can also become a divide among family members who have differing beliefs. For example, studies show parent and child conflict can arise when parents value religion more than their teens do with the children reporting poorer relations. Research has also shown religion can undermine child development if it becomes a source of conflict between parents. While any familial conflict can negatively affect youngsters, conflicts over religion can be more harmful than other disagreements because children are likely more involved in their family's religious practice.

There's good news for all, though. Research shows there really isn't a difference in morals between kids raised in religious homes and those in non-believing or secular ones.

What Does the Future Hold for Religion?

For better or worse, the downward trend in the number of religious families in the United States is expected to last. Whereas social science research has long suggested that Americans' relationship with religion waxes and wanes—as young adults drift away from religion, only to be drawn back in when they get married and have their own kids—there is little evidence that millennials are returning to religion even as they pass big family milestones.

While it is still unclear what the move away from religion will mean for millennial parents and their kids in Generation Alpha, Dr. Bartkowski says the trend is not concerning. "I anticipate that other social groups and new forms of connection—perhaps some of them emerging through social media—may step in to fill a growing religious void if it's here to stay," he says.

Whether you're raising your children with religion or not, Rev. Haffner says, "the most important lesson you can teach [them] is to be kind to everyone."