Keeping the Faith — Or Not

What to do if your adult child has a different spiritual path than you

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett
Originally Posted On July 4, 2014

A
A

Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett are co-authors of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult. Fishel is the author of four other books on families, including Sisters and Reunion. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University.

Thinkstock
Are we in the midst of a great religious recession?

A number of recent studies show that younger people are less religious than older people, and religiosity has declined with each successive generation. In the 2012 Pew Research Center report on religion and public life, one-fourth of 18- to 29-year-olds are classified as unaffiliated, a far higher proportion than among their parents (15 percent) or grandparents (9 percent).
 
In extensive interviews with parents and their 18- to 29-year-olds for our book, Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years, we found that religious questioning is part of the identity explorations woven into this life stage.

Most emerging adults feel that it would be wrong for them simply to accept what their parents and others have taught them about religious issues. Their inquiry sometimes leads to a confirmation of their childhood beliefs, but more often to modifying them, and sometimes to a wholesale rejection.

Rather than holding to traditional beliefs, the majority of twentysomethings typically have a vague but inclusive belief in a God who watches over the world and wants people to be good to each other.

For some parents, their children’s religious choices are a hot button topic; for others, the subject is almost a non-issue. If parents don’t have a strong religious affiliation or commitment to spiritual seeking, then what their twentysomethings believe is of little interest or concern to them; they may not even know.

But when parents’ religious beliefs are central to their worldview and daily lives, their emerging adult’s beliefs may be one of the most important measures of their success or failure as parents: success if their children accept and embrace the beliefs they were taught, and failure if they don’t.

For these parents, their responses to what their grown-up kids believe may be emotionally complex, fraught with meaning about their worthiness as parents. Below are some questions you may be facing, and our answers.

What if your 20-something doesn’t want to celebrate religious occasions with you?
 
Even if older and younger generations no longer share religious beliefs, it is not unreasonable for parents to expect their children to take part in family traditions — Easter at Uncle Mike’s or Passover at Grandma’s. Some young people may resist, because they feel it would be hypocritical (not to mention boring) for them to take part in rituals they no longer believe in.

Growing up as digital natives, connected to high-speed media all day, they may feel the pace and peace of a typical religious service is like walking through the door to an earlier (and much less exciting) century, a place where they may feel like strangers in a strange land.
 
In truth, it will be a sign of their maturity when they can go along with such family occasions out of respect for their parents, without feeling threatened or defensive. But if they’re not willing, at this age they can’t be forced to go.

What if your emerging adult moves away from your faith?
 
For some parents with deeply-held traditional beliefs, emotions run especially strong on this topic: They may criticize or even reject their children as punishment for not remaining in the fold.

We sympathize with parents who find themselves in this situation, where children are straying from their family’s core beliefs. However, keep in mind that a rejecting response is unlikely to be effective.

Criticizing young people for their beliefs (or absence of beliefs) will not bring them back to your religion and make them accept what you believe. In fact, given the importance that emerging adults place on making their own decisions, trying to force them to believe anything is more likely to make them dig in their heels and become even more resistant.

A reality of modern life is that people get to decide for themselves what to believe, and emerging adults today feel they have not just a right but an obligation to make that decision (among others) on their own.

“Turn the other cheek” may be the wisest course here. The best way to persuade children of the value of your faith is to show the fruits of it in your life, including your capacity to forgive your sons and daughters for not believing what you believe.
 
What if your twentysomething is more religious than you?
 
There are also parents who are surprised to find that their children grow up to be more religious in emerging adulthood than they were at younger ages, and more devout than their parents are — young Jewish adults who keep strictly kosher when their parents were more laissez-faire or young Muslim women who wear head scarves when their mothers did not. 
 
The National Study of Youth and Religion surveyed more than 2,500 young people and found that about a quarter of 13- to 17-year-olds who were classified as non-religious became Christians by the time they were 18 to 23.

This switch can be as hard for non-religious parents as the change from believer to nonbeliever is for devout parents. In both cases, it is jarring for parents to realize that their children have adopted a way of seeing the world that is radically different than their own.

But for non-religious parents, it may be helpful to see this as a measure of their belief in the value of encouraging their children to think for themselves. If you believed they should make their own decisions about matters of faith, it makes sense that you should respect what they have decided upon, even if their choice is different than yours.
 
What if your son or daughter marries someone from a different faith?
 
Interfaith marriage and wedding ceremonies bring many religious issues to center stage. Where will the wedding be held and who will officiate, if there are two different traditions to accommodate?

Sometimes a compromise is reached with a clergy person from each tradition present. Or, for example, an interfaith Hindu and Christian couple may have a traditional Hindu henna-painting ritual first and later a less formally religious ceremony. Sometimes the path of least resistance is a non-denominational ceremony with a judge or non-religious officiant.
 
It’s also true, statistically, that people in interfaith marriages are less likely to practice any religion, and children of interfaith marriages tend to receive less religious training. However, there are exceptions, and if your son’s or daughter’s faith is important to them,  they may be among them.

In any case, your job is done here. You did your best to raise them in the faith that is important to you. The more you express your faith through love, forgiveness and generosity of heart, the more attractive the faith is likely to seem, to your grown children, their partners and their family-to-be.