Sam's parents like to say their son was eight when he found God, no real thanks to them. The family was sitting down to dinner one Tuesday evening when Sam asked if they might go around and talk about what each person was thankful for. Sam's mother, Nora, thought this was strange -- they'd never done this before -- but harmless. Until they got to Sam, who said, "Today I am thankful for my cats, television, and especially Jesus, who gives us everything."
Nora and her husband were taken aback. They had both grown up Catholic, but had decided to raise Sam and his brother without any sort of religion. They never talked about not believing in Jesus, or God -- the kids were too young for that, Nora thought -- but they didn't talk about believing, either, because, well, neither she nor her husband did. Sam, she realized, must have been getting his information on religion from kids at school, or other families, or maybe TV. While she wasn't sure she wanted to push her atheism onto her children, the fact that she had no hand in Sam's religious education, or in influencing his belief system -- which, it appeared, was different from hers -- felt strange.
More Americans than ever are turning away from religion. A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 1 in 5 adults has no religious affiliation -- under the age of 30, the numbers increase to a third -- compared to the year 1950, when the percentage of adults who identified as having no religion was just two percent. And the biggest increase among the non-religious is what researchers call the "nones," the people who are largely indifferent. They're not atheists or disenchanted former believers; they just don't care.
This indifference is being passed on to children, but at what cost? That all depends. While a study out of the University of British Columbia found that spirituality is more important than religion in making kids happy, religion certainly has been shown to come with certain benefits. Participation in a religious community may help kids develop a strong moral core; specifically, it has been shown to reduce the incidence of teen drug use and pregnancy, while increasing feelings of self-esteem and overall hopefulness.
A Mississippi State University study found that younger boys whose parents practice religion are better behaved and adjusted than those raised in homes without religion. These boys also display better self-control, social skills, and ability to work with others.
In addition, religion seems to be somewhat comforting to kids in particular, and indeed it can provide a certain stability that children welcome in a world that's full of changes. When talking to Sam later that night, Nora was able to remember that as a child she had enjoyed going to church for one main reason: It never seemed to change. For a generation of children that's required to be more adaptive than ever before, simple acts like reciting prayers and getting dressed each week for service can help impart a feeling of safety and groundedness.
Although the numbers seem to indicate that religion occupies a diminishing place in our lives, the fact is that the beliefs they espouse have never been more relevant. In the wake of Newtown and all the other tragedies worldwide, more and more we've had to rely on some kind of a God to get us through. News-making men like Lance Armstrong, who cheated and lied over many years, and NFL player Jovan Belcher, who shot himself and then his girlfriend, give us reason to increase children' exposure to people and ideas that will help them develop a strong moral code. That is, in a world where evil often trumps good, religion can't hurt. It's perhaps one reason why even the most liberal politicians are more frequently recognizing God, and asking for blessings, in their public addresses.
Luckily, children have a natural curiosity about religion, from why one family celebrates Christmas and another Hanukkah to wondering who, and where, God is. Without a structured way to understand religion, though, kids -- like Sam -- often attempt to make sense of it themselves. As they should. Religion may be on the decline in America, but 80 percent of the rest of the world expresses itself in religious terms. An understanding of religion, and its place in people's lives, will help expand a child's worldview.
Of course, raising a child with a religious practice, or even awareness, can be tricky for parents who don't practice one themselves, or who aren't quite sure what they believe -- when they are "nones." Tricky, but not impossible. Parents can show respect for religious tradition while also talking to kids about what parts of it don't seem relevant to them, or to their family. Like any difficult topic that arises during parenting, though, the best approach isn't simply to ignore it or shrug it off. Instead, frame a conversation with honesty and flexibility and a willingness to let them ask questions. You won't have all the answers, certainly not "definites." The important thing is to let them ask.
And remember that seeking out religion needn't be explicitly religious, either. There are many groups that exist to provide the benefits of religion without the actual religion. Secular and "religious lite" organizations -- liberal Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, secular humanists -- tend to emphasize the importance of family, truthfulness, and non-violence, all of which are especially relevant to kids, and offer another outlet for parents to interact with children on matters of morality and strength of character. Raising kids with religion needn't mean indoctrinating them; it just means giving them the chance to learn from lots of different people. It's hard to argue with that.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com