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As the primary caretakers and overseers of a child's life, parents play a strong role in the childhood development of spirituality and religiosity. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that parental religious beliefs and practices are predictive of child and adolescent religiosity. What is more, the influence of parents appears to have an even greater effect on childhood religiosity than does that of the peers with whom children spend so much of their time. Given the degree to which parents shape the religiosity of their children, parental religious influence, or religious socialization, appears to be a critical area of investigation. Despite this great need, relatively little empirical research has been directed toward increasing our understanding of parents' role in children's religious development.
What little theoretical and empirical work has been done presents a complex picture of parental religious socialization. Clearly, childhood spiritual and religious development is a multifaceted enterprise, occurring within the domains of cognition, affect, interpersonal relationships, private behavior, and others. Similarly, the role of parents appears to have a complex influence upon the spiritual and religious development of their children. While in the psychological community there are a large number of clinical theories regarding how parents influence children's beliefs in God and religion, few of these theories have been tested empirically. For instance, psychologists such as Freud and those of the larger psychodynamic school of thought suggest that early childhood impressions of parental figures factor greatly into one's eventual understanding of God. However, the specific nature of this relationship is debated between schools of thought, and few controlled studies have tested their hypotheses, which tend to rely for support on individual case studies and personal observations.
Recently, two different lines of empirical research have attempted to more closely examine parental religious socialization. The first is called spiritual modeling and is based on the larger psychological theory of observational learning, which has received a great degree of empirical support in the social psychological literature. Proponents of the spiritual modeling theory include Bandura, Oman, and Thoresen, among others. They suggest that children learn spiritually relevant beliefs and behaviors by observing the religious behavior of others. This approach emphasizes the role of what are called spiritual exemplars, those whose behaviors exemplify a certain religious or spiritual approach to life.
Spiritual exemplars function as role models, whose religious or spiritual behaviors can be perceived, imitated, and then eventually acquired as personal habits and beliefs. When applied to parents, this theory would suggest that the greater a parent's religiousness and the more observable are his/her behaviors, the greater will be the religiousness of the child. Studies that exemplify this approach are those that focus on the relationship between parental religious importance and religious participation and their children's religious outcomes. Findings from such studies suggest that, as predicted, parents who hold strong spiritual/religious beliefs and who participate in observable religious activities are more likely to have children who report religious beliefs themselves. A second theory that has been proposed to account for the influence of parents is called spiritual capital. This theory is based on the social capital theory of Furstenberg and others, which suggests that interpersonal relationships, social networks, and other social structures represent an important resource to children (and others) and allow for greater access to a variety of benefits. It suggests that the stronger and more robust the relationship, the greater its capacity to channel such benefits to the individual. Social capital theory has received a fair degree of recent empirical support. The concept of spiritual capital builds upon the assumptions of social capital theory, and posits that the parent-child relationship and shared parentchild activities play an important role in religious socialization. This theory would predict that spiritual or religious parent-child interactions (spiritual capital) contribute significantly to child religious development. Such interactions may include shared religious rituals, family prayer, or conversations about religious and spiritual issues. In this theory, religious interactions take the place of religious example in predicting child religious development. This theory is supported by the finding that increased youth participation in religious family rituals is related to higher levels of such children's overall religious participation, as well as to other religious outcomes. Further support comes from the finding that child religiousness is higher in children whose families are closer and whose parents are more supportive.
A recent study that investigated the claims of spiritual modeling and spiritual capital found some support for both theories. Results suggest that when parents are perceived as spiritual role models, children are more likely to report both a greater importance of religion and a positive experience of God. Consistent with spiritual-modeling theory, the findings confirm that some degree of religiousness and spirituality can be learned through the observation and imitation of spiritual role models or exemplars. The study also found that religious interactions between parents and children made a significant contribution to adolescent religiousness, beyond what can be explained by parental role modeling alone. Indeed, the findings suggest that when adolescents participate in family conversations about faith, and in family religious activities, they are more likely to see religion as important to themselves and are more likely to have positive spiritual experiences of God.
The theories of spiritual modeling and spiritual capital make clear some of the ways in which parents influence the religious development of their children. Not only do parents serve as observable spiritual role models for children to observe and imitate, but they constitute vital spiritual resources in their role as interactive partners who participate in shared parent-child religious activities. These shared activities make available to children a variety of spiritual and religious benefits that would otherwise be unavailable to them. However, continued research and theoretical development is necessary to better understand the specific activities and relational qualities that are most important in parent-child religious socialization.