Kiara Pirola examines some recent statistics on the unique impact that fathers have on their children’s spiritual development and decisions about worship practice later
For families where religious tradition is important, interesting statistics have emerged on the different impact of fathers and mothers on the continuing faith practice of their children.
In 1994, Swiss researchers examined the factors that contributed to passing the faith on to the next generation. They measured this faith transfer by the grown children’s level of church attendance.
What they found was both fascinating and sobering; the father’s faith and regular practice was critical to the continued faith practice of their children, regardless of the mother’s level of faith practice and participation.
If BOTH parents attended church services regularly:
33% of their children would become regular churchgoers themselves
41% would attend irregularly
26% would not attend at all.
It gets really interesting when only one of the parents is a committed church-goer. The chances of your children being faithful church-goers as adults depended upon which parent was going to church.
If it is the MOTHER who is a committed church-goer, while the father attended irregularly or not at all:
2-3% of the children grew up to be regular church-goers themselves.
59% would attend irregularly.
If the FATHER was the committed one, while the mother practised irregularly:
38% of those children became regular churchgoers as adults.
Most strikingly, in families where only the father attended church and the mother not at all:
44 per cent of those children became regular church-goers.
What these statistics show is that, as far as attending church goes, if you want your kids to grow up to be practicing adults, dads have to, at a minimum, attend church regularly. Church attendance is a rather crude measurement of the health and vibrance of our spiritual life, but it is the most obvious and statstically measurable aspect of our religious devotion and the most publically visible one too.
If you’re a single mother, or mother with a non-Catholic or non-practicing spouse, don’t despair! Your faith practice does have an impact.
Your example will keep most of your kids from falling away from Mass attendance completely, but you will have to invest in cultivating fruitful relationships between your kids and other practicing, faithful men in your network, such as godfathers, uncles or grandfathers.
This survey did not explore why fathers have such a dramatic impact on the faith practice of their children. I am no parenting expert, psychologist or sociologist so I offer the following thoughts based on my observations, reading and conversation with family and friends.
My intuition as to why fathers have such a significant impact on their child’s adult spirituality has to do with the different ways mothers and fathers parent their children as they develop.
In infancy and childhood, mothers are absolutely central to their children. They nourish and nurture their children physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. They are the place where children find a primal, pre-verbal comfort, safety and peace.
Mothers are essential to forging positive, pre-verbal foundations of a child’s spiritual life.
As children get older, and grow in independence from their mother, they need their father more and more. The father’s guidance and mentoring of their children builds upon the foundation that their mothers laid down. Fathers are the critical influence that guides a child to take its deep, subconscious attachment to their faith into an intentional, mature, adult faith.
So fathers, you are needed in your child’s spiritual development as much as you are needed for their psychological, emotional and physical development. You need to take a visible lead in this department, especially if you tend to prefer a quieter, more private faith. Your children are literally depending on you to show them the way.
Words of Wisdom
“Human fatherhood gives us an anticipation of what He is. But when this fatherhood does not exist, when it is experienced only as a biological phenomenon, without its human and spiritual dimension, all statements about God the Father are empty. The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood is linked to the dissolution of our being sons and daughters.” – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) | Palermo, 2001
About the Author
Kiara Pirola is the former editor of CathFamily and is currently undertaking her Master’s Degree in International Relations at the University of NSW, Sydney.