Dad Matters! … The Spiritual Influence of Fathers

This Sunday will be observed by many in North America as “Father’s Day” (in my home country we wait until September). My experience is that the observance of Father’s Day in churches is more subdued than that of Mother’s Day. One obvious reason is that, on any given Sunday, there are typically fewer fathers than mothers in our churches. The “spiritually absent” father is increasingly commonplace, and the impact on church life is apparent. The impact on home faith life and faith transmission is even more concerning. In many households, fathers are passive or inactive in expressing their faith to and with their children. Studies and surveys reveal that in families where both parents are people of faith, it is mothers who tend to be most active in processes of child faith formation.

Based on research, it is axiomatic to say that in most families the mother is the primary figure in children’s religiosity. … Why do mothers have such an influential role, and what mechanisms are at work? Women are more religious than men and attend worship services more often, and adults recall seeing their mothers pray more often than their fathers did. In general, mothers speak with their children more than fathers do and in conversations about religion mothers are much more involved than fathers are. In one study testing a diary method, mothers participated in all diary conversations in almost 90% of families, whereas fathers did not appear in any diary entries in almost half of the families. In a [USA] national study, 3000 mainline Protestant youth reported they had regular dialogue about faith issues with their mothers almost 2.5 times more often than with their fathers. (From Boyzatis, Dollahite & Marks “The Family as a Context for Religious and Spiritual Development in Children and Youth” – published in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence).

The reduced involvement of fathers in the practice of faith in the home not only places a greater burden upon mothers to embody and demonstrate the Christian faith, it also robs families of the unique contributions that fathers seem to make. Put simply, various research studies suggest that when it comes to faith transmission, fathers and mothers are not altogether interchangeable. A mother brings something “to the mix” that a father does not and vice-versa. A first study of interest, carried out in Switzerland in 1994, examined the respective impact of fathers and mothers on post-childhood church attendance. This research was reported in an article by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner in the book The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European State (published by the Council of Europe Directorate General III, Social Cohesion, Strasbourg, January 2000). Robbie Low reports the findings as follows:

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost. If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshipers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.  Let us look at the figures the other way round. What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility. Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.  Where neither parent practices, to nobody’s very great surprise, only 4 percent of children will become regular attenders and 15 percent irregulars. Eighty percent will be lost to the faith. Before mothers despair, there is some consolation for faithful moms. Where the mother is less regular than the father but attends occasionally, her presence ensures that only a quarter of her children will never attend at all. While Mother’s regularity, on its own, has scarcely any long-term effect on children’s regularity (except in some circumstances outlined above, a marginally negative one), it does have a positive effect on preventing children from drifting away entirely. Faithful mothers produce irregular attenders rather than regular. Their absence transfers the irregulars into the non-attending sector. But even the beneficial influence really works only in complimentarity to the practice of the father.

In interpreting these results, Low (a former Anglican Vicar and now a Catholic Priest in the UK) continues:

A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. (The toughest man may well sport a tattoo dedicated to the love of his mother, without the slightest embarrassment or sentimentality). No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. Where the father is indifferent, inadequate, or just plain absent, that task of differentiation and engagement is much harder. When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less. Curiously, both adult women as well as men will conclude subconsciously that Dad’s absence indicates that going to church is not really a “grown-up” activity. In terms of commitment, a mother’s role may be to encourage and confirm, but it is not primary to her adult offspring’s decision. Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances. Her major influence is not on regular attendance at all but on keeping her irregular children from lapsing altogether. This is, needless to say, a vital work but, even then, without the input of the father (regular or irregular) the proportion of the regulars to lapsed goes from 60/40 to 40/60.

A second study that speaks to the role of fathers in the faith life and spiritual development of children was conducted by Jeremy Uecker and Christopher Ellison (unpublished) and reported in the Institute for American Values report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? (2013). Uecker and Ellison suggest that fathers may matter more than mothers for religious development from adolescence to young adulthood:  ‘As young adults develop a religious identity apart from their parents, or as their religious identity changes, their father’s religious characteristics become more important than their mother’s – with whom their childhood religious identity most closely aligns.’

A third study of interest was conducted by Desrosiers, Kelly and Miller in 2011 and is cited in the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Socioemotional Processes, Volume 3 (7th edition, 2015). The study found that ‘mothers and fathers have distinct roles in promoting their adolescent’s spirituality. … Adolescents’ spirituality was predicted by mothers’ spiritual support and dialogue (but not general care and concern), whereas adolescents’ spirituality was predicted by fathers’ general care and concern (but not spiritual support and dialogue).  … Having an emotionally close relationship with fathers may provide a broad, secure foundation that is more important that specific interactions around religious topics’. A fourth and more recent study by Leonard, Cook, Boyzatis, Kimball and Flanagan (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2013, Vol. 5/1) also highlights the significance of paternal attachment in faith transmission. This study of graduates from religiously-affiliated colleges in the USA found that ‘higher father attachment and greater perceived similarity to father’s religious beliefs, in combination, predicted greater intrinsic religiosity. … Emerging adults tend to match the level of religiosity of their fathers particularly if they are attached to their fathers.’

A fifth piece of research that is relevant is Vern Bengtson’s longitudinal multigenerational study of faith transmission, as reported in the book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (2013). The study found (a) that contrary to expectations, there was no significant difference between mother-child and father-child religious similarity; and (b) that ‘for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with the mother.‘ Fervent faith, Bengtson declares, cannot compensate for a distant dad. In the words of a Catholic Priest who is quoted in the book, “Dad can bring Junior to Mass every Sunday, but if Dad doesn’t show Junior his love every other day of the week, he’s not going to take Dad’s church into his heart.”

My purpose in highlighting these different findings is not to “play off” the importance of mothers against that of fathers. The passing on of faith from generation to generation is most powerful and effective when and where mothers and fathers partner together in living out and sharing the Christian faith with their children. In this both genders play a vital and important role, thought somewhat differently and distinctly it seems. My purpose is, rather, to indicate the disjuncture in faith formation that arises where dads are either not persons of faith themselves or are reluctant to live into the calling that God places upon them as Christian fathers.

Given the above, what are some possible ways forward for congregations?

  1. Celebrate and affirm the fathers who participate in your community of faith. Encourage them in their vocation as parents and affirm their importance in the spiritual lives of their children.
  2. Focus on providing events that promote father-child attachment and upon giving fathers practical tools and guidance for developing closer relationships with their sons and daughters.
  3. Communicate to male future-parents-to-be the importance and significance of spiritual fathering.
  4. Consider ways in which your congregational life and practices can be made more welcoming for men and better account for male interests and perspectives (as a beginning point, study David Murrow’s book, Why Men Hate Going to Church).

Your thoughts and comments are welcome! …

5 thoughts on “Dad Matters! … The Spiritual Influence of Fathers

  1. Su Chester says:

    Interesting article, thank you. One of the things we try to do at our church is not just talk about the importance of fathers but that of men in general in a church as all men are role models be they teenage boys, young men, or older men. They are all important in raising a nation of young people and all need to recognise their fundamental importance in the lives of our children.

    • Thanks Su Chester. I think it is a case of both/and i.e. helping dads recognise and embrace the spiritual significance of fathering and helping all men to grow as mentors and role models to others. Focus on households doesn’t obviate the need to invest in the cultivation of healthy intergenerational community.

  2. Su Chester says:

    Absolutely, I loved your article – it really makes us think about the importance of fathers and father figures and their crucial part in passing on their faith. Thank you.

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