Millennial Parents Are Raising Their Kids Without Religion

Research shows that the majority of millennial parents are raising their kids without a focus on religion—and this change is unlikely to impact kids' morals.

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.

Of the surveyed parents with children under 18, 42% said they regularly take their kids to religious services. Even fewer—38%—said they send their kids to Sunday school or another religious education program. Compare that to the 65% of parents 65 or older with adult children who said they sent their kids to a religious education program and 61% who reported regularly taking their kids to religious services during their formative years.

So, why the shift? Learn more about why many millennial parents are raising their kids without religion—and why that's totally OK.

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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.

However, while many people believe that religious belief is essential to morality, research does not show this to be true. Both children who are raised with religion and those who are raised without can grow up to be moral people. Studies show that religious belief is tied to more authoritarian or controlling parenting styles, which may be in part why many millennials are rejecting raising their kids with religion.

Experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also suggest replacing authoritarian parenting with authoritative methods. Authoritative parenting is kind but firm and considers the child's emotions while also setting limits. This approach is strongly associated with positive behavior and healthy mental health for children and teens. However, the AAP also honors that different families will naturally be inclined to embrace differing parenting styles depending on their values, cultural beliefs, and the needs of their children and family. And that's also totally OK.

However, 53% of young adults surveyed don't believe it's necessary 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. Ultimately, the pros and cons are highly subjective—and only you know what is right for your family.

Possible benefits of raising your child with religion

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 delight in having a second home of a caring community who love them and are committed to their well-being," says Rev. Haffner. Programs like Sunday school also offer opportunities for kids to make friends, find mentors, and hone their interpersonal communication skills.

Note that the results of many studies on the impact of raising kids with religion are mixed—and potentially, quite subjective. For example, some research shows religious children are less likely to struggle with substance abuse, while others don't. Another report found an association between a religious upbringing and greater life satisfaction in adulthood and a positive impact on mental health. Other research has found other factors, such as parental well-being, play a larger role in child well-being.

Possible drawbacks of raising your child with religion

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 suggests that there actually 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."

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