This month, Americans will celebrate two of the
most family-oriented religious holidays of the year. On Easter,
millions of parents will squeeze their little ones into suits and
dresses for a day of church, big family meals and Easter Bunny
photo ops. And a week earlier, Jewish families will gather around
the seder table and sing their songs, ask their questions and pass
on the story of Passover to another generation.
From the scriptures ("be fruitful and multiply") to the
rites (from baptism to bar mitzvahs) to the cultural add-ons
(summer camps and pancake breakfasts), religions and the
communities that grow up around them make a strong pitch for
Religion needs kids to fill the pews and join the clergy
and serve as ambassadors in their communities. But do kids need
religion? What are the benefits of finding faith as a family? And
how does having children affect our own beliefs as
Laura Doyle grew up on Chicago's South Side and, like most
of the neighborhood kids, she went to Catholic school. At Mother
McCauley High School, she met her future husband, Pete, and when
the couple married a few years later, they moved to Oak Forest to
start their life together. They drifted from their religious
upbringing, only going to church, she says, "when someone died and
when someone got married."
But when the couple found out they were expecting their
first child in 1998, "everything changed," Doyle says.
While Doyle had lost touch with her faith, she knew she
wanted it for her children.
"As parents, we want to give our kids everything," she
says. "My question was, 'How can I give them this, when I've lost
So the Doyles went back to church. They found a
congregation they liked-Saint Damian's in Oak Forest-and enrolled
each of their kids in Sunday school when they were old enough.
Laura became a catechist, teaching a weekly religion class, and
while the Doyles still aren't "every Sunday" Catholics, she says
she feels comforted that she's giving her children the moral
guidance, structure and sense of community she remembers from her
About 85 percent of Americans in their forties say they're
part of a religious group. But among 18- to 29-year-olds, that
number is lower, around 70 percent, according to a 2007 survey from
the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. That's about 10
percent of Americans-or some 30 million people-who found their way
to organized religion in their 30s. While no study has asked why,
experts from across the religious spectrum say starting a family
often is the spark people need.
"Having kids makes people really take stock of their
lives," says Rabbi Batsheva Appel, who heads the KAM Isaiah Israel
congregation in Hyde Park. "They start looking at all the pieces,
and for some, they decide that it's a good time to
A lot of things change when a baby is on the way, and
along with the overwhelming joy and excitement often comes a sense
Pastor Shawn Nettleson calls it the "uh-oh moment," and he
sees it at the Christ Lutheran Church in Orland Park where he
serves as associate pastor.
"All of a sudden, you're responsible for raising this
child to be a good person," he says. "For some people, that can be
a tall order. But they're not alone. We like to say we're walking
with them in faith."
Good parenting uses a deep toolbox, and for some parents,
religion can be a powerful tool for cultivating morality, good
judgment and citizenship values in kids, Nettleson says.
"The stories of the scripture make the lessons easier for
kids to understand," he says. For example, you don't need the story
of the Good Samaritan to teach children about helping others, "but
as a learning tool, it helps make it real."
Is religion good
It depends. A 2008 study of 16,000 kids found that those
whose parents took them to services and talked about religion at
home had better self-control, social skills and approaches to
learning than those whose parents didn't. But if religion was a
source of tension at home-say, if mom and dad fought about
"If parents don't feel the traditions speak to them, it's
a mistake to try to impose them on children," says Sandra
Sullivan-Dunbar, an assistant professor of theology at Loyola
University in Chicago.
But for those families for whom the tradition is
important, she says, organized religion can add richness to the
"The ritual of worship, whether it's a Sunday sermon or a
Shabbat service, can be a gathering moment for families, and can
help provide some structure for the world they're growing up in,"
says the mother of two.
Parents also can get a boost. Religious congregations are
as much about community as creed. They have events, can connect
families to support services and can help with everything from
summer camps to babysitting co-ops.
In addition, Sullivan-Dunbar notes, kids can ask some deep
questions: Why are we here? What happens when we die?
"As we grow older, we tend not to ask questions like
that," Sullivan-Dunbar says. "Children can push adults to explore
their own faith more deeply, and I've known a lot of people who've
been grateful to their kids for prompting them to be more active
See more of Liz's stories here.
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