Editorial: When training children, walk the walk

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Actions definitely speak louder than words—especially when it comes to raising children and teaching them to believe in God, according to new research reported in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior.

knox newMarv Knox

People possess a predisposition to believe in “the existence of supernatural agents”—God—when their caregivers as children, usually parents, “‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’” about their beliefs, values and God, authors Jonathan Lanman, an anthropologist, and Michael Buhrmester, a psychologist, wrote.

Lanman and Buhrmester, both with the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, studied 316 adults in the United States. They examined how the words and deeds of adults who cared for them when they were children influenced them toward or against belief in God.

“Supernatural agents”

“Work in both the psychology and sociology of religion suggests that socialization, most notably by parents, has a significant impact not only on which supernatural agents children grow up to believe in, but whether they believe in such agents at all,” Lanman and Buhrmester said.

Their research showed adults who backed up their statements about matters of faith with “credibility-enhancing displays”—actions based upon those beliefs—exerted the strongest influence upon children in their care.

Those credibility-enhancing displays—or CREDs—may be relevant for helping children form beliefs Christians call faith, “which are not easily confirmed or disconfirmed by direct experience or intuition and are especially reliant upon testimony.”

In other words, if parents and other significant adult role models back up what they say with what they do, their influence upon children increases.

Talk isn’t enough

“Our analysis … suggests that religious socializers will be especially effective at transmitting beliefs in supernatural agents if they perform CREDs for their stated beliefs,” Lanman and Buhrmester wrote. “Conversely, verbal assertions of the existence and importance of supernatural agents without appropriate CREDs should be less effective.”

They cited three illustrations:

Seventh-day Adventists whose parents both verbally affirmed church attendance and took their families to church were much more likely to continue attending church than their counterparts whose parents said church attendance is important but did not attend regularly.

A study among Christians in general revealed a similar link between the consistency of parents’ stated beliefs and actions and their children’s “higher levels of religiosity.”

Conversely, a 2013 study showed a repeated connection between religious hypocrisy and people’s tendency to abandon faith.

Not surprisingly, people who believe in God “reported more religious CREDS exposure during their upbringing” than people who do not believe in God.

The power of action

While Lanman and Buhrmester acknowledged the need for continued study, they built a case for the power of CREDs—faith-based actions—to cause children to believe in God and hold onto that belief.

“Participants who reported relatively high levels of CREDs exposure were especially likely to report believing in God and feeling especially certain in their theistic belief,” they noted. And the opposite is true: “Participants who reported relatively low levels of CREDs exposure were especially likely to report not believing in God and feeling especially certain in their atheistic belief.”

Lanman and Buhrmester speak the language of science, not faith or theology. But their findings support a key principle of both Christian parenting and providing church-based religious instruction for children: Teaching is not enough. Children need to see parents and other adults live out their faith.

Several years ago, Baylor University’s Diana Garland School of Social Work conducted research that revealed similar results: Children and youth who engaged in ministry projects alongside caring, faithful adults are much more likely to hold onto their faith and remain involved in church as young adults than their peers who did not serve in ministry alongside adults.

So, here’s to walking the walk.

If you want to raise godly, faithful children—whether you’re a parent, a grandparent or attend church with children—remember, talking is not enough. Children need to see adults practicing what they preach.

And preferably, they “practice” intergenerationally, with children and adults together.

Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknoxbs

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