Keep Your Kids Catholic

shutterstock_146401772 Most parents hope that their adult children will remain in the faith in which they were raised.  Lisa and I often hear, both on the radio and in our counseling practice, from parents who are profoundly upset that their adult children have left the Church. Obviously, parents can never guarantee that children will follow in their footsteps with regard to their beliefs but there are things that can be done to stack the deck.  When it comes to raising kids to stay Catholic, the research is pretty clear.  Being religious yourself and having a religious home isn’t enough.  Religious education is important, but the strength of the attachment between the parents and children appears to be the factor that decides whether your children stay faithful or not.  That said, there are some interesting details in how the relationship between religious education and relationship plays out.

Religiousness and Relationship: Two Theories

There are two theories of how a child’s relationship with his parents affects religious belief.  The “compensation hypothesis”  asserts that insecurely attached children are more likely to be religious as adults because they are seeking to compensate for their lack of connection with a parent by connecting with a heavenly parental substitute. The  “correspondence hypothesis” states that the likelihood of a parent passing on their values to their children is dependent upon the strength of the relationship between the parents and the children.  Logic here is that children who have a healthy relationship with their parents are less likely to challenge or reject the values they were raised with. So which is true?  Both are. Here’s how things tend to break down according to the research.

The Results:  Religious, Not Religious, and “Spiritual but not Religious”

If a child is securely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult. If a child is insecurely attached to religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult  (there is also a fair number in this group who fall into the “spiritual but not religious category.  Mostly because their attachment issues make them suspicious of what researchers call, “social religion”  [i.e., organized religion]).


If child is insecurely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will grow up to be “spiritual but not religious.”  (for the same reasons as above.) Finally, children who are securely attached to highly religious parents are the most religiously attached of all groups as adults.

The Bottom Line

Now, granted, there are going to be individual variations on the above themes.  Not everybody fits into neat categories.  That said, the evidence is pretty clear that the best way to increase the likelihood that a child will retain the faith of his youth as an adult (even if that is “no faith”) is to both practice the faith intentionally in your home and make certain that you have a strong attachment with that child.

A Consideration for Evangelization: 

One interesting question for me that comes out of the research is how to evangelize those who are “spiritual but not religious.”  If the data is correct that many “spiritual but not religious people” really can’t be reached simply by hearing the message of the Gospel.  They need to experience a relationship that heals the attachment wound first.  Something to keep in mind for all my budding apologist readers.  All the best arguments in the world can’t substitute for an authentic relationship that leads another person to Christ. The same is true, really, for religious adults who are in a frustrated relationship with irreligious adult children.

If your kids aren’t impressed with the power of your arguments, the answer isn’t seeking better arguments.  The answer has to be healing the damage in your relationship.

Author’s Note: I’ve had a few people asking to see this alleged research to which I’m referring. For those interested in further reading–assuming you don’t have access to an online academic database–this is a pretty good article summarizing the highlights of the data.  For those who do have access to an academic search engine (like Academic Search Premier or PsyArticles), use the key words “attachment style” and “religiousness” and dive in.

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Dr. Gregory Popcak


Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • Kim Cameron-Smith

    Thanks for this article, Dr. Greg! I’ve read evidence of this dynamic in secular child development guides. I know I must win my child’s heart for Jesus, or all the Catechism knowledge in the world won’t keep them home in the arms of the Church.

  • Kim Cameron-Smith

    Thanks for this article, Dr. Greg! I’ve read evidence of this dynamic in secular child development guides. I know I must win my child’s heart for Jesus, or all the Catechism knowledge in the world won’t keep them home in the arms of the Church.

  • BillinJax

    Experience has told me that children raised Catholic have their religious consciences influenced most drastically by their spouses not by their relationship with their parents.

  • Lee

    I must agree.I have children who are not encouraged by their spouses to attend any church. Of course I desire my grown children and their families to be Catholic in the Catholic Church where I grew in my Christianity as an adult.
    I am somewhat afraid to confront any of them, do you have any understanding as to why? I can share my beliefs and I can let them know that I pray for them, but I cannot be in their faces or the faces of their spouses. So I ask for God’s Will and Mercy in having the hearts of these grown ups led to Him. I think that we forget that God is first in our lives, and we stray, but He loves us and waits.

  • mary

    in other words, (and i’m paraphrasing here)people won’t care about you say until they see how you care.

  • BillinJax


    Don’t know how many times I have had the old adage “You can
    lead a horse to water but….” go through my mind when we see the laxity of many and especially our own raised Catholic children after they are married and exposed to the elements the secular world bombards families with in the rapidly eroding society of today. We can only pray, and we do constantly, that God will some how some way lead them back to a deeper and holy appreciation of their faith and the graces awaiting for their asking. At the end of every long distant phone call we tell them we are praying for their happiness and request they pray for guidance
    and never stop going to church regardless of their marital circumstances.

    God Bless

  • chaco

    One constant we can apply to discerning evangelizing strategies is; “People sin more from a lack of will than from a lack of knowledge.” This is backed up by a study I recall which concluded how having only 1 friend, who supports our attempts to follow a moral path, greatly increases our chances for avoiding the power of peer pressure. [One good/ close friend is worth more than many “Shallow” friendships.] I’m also reminded of Steve Ray’s (catholic apologist who faced much family tension when converting from Baptist formation) prioritizing warm emotional interaction over right reasoning. He starts faith conversations by gently pushing them. He then points out how our reaction when pushed is to push back. If conversing results in unpleasant emotions, he shifts into prayer & sacrifice for them, including praying for someone more compatible to influence their faith stance. Bottom Line; keep it pleasant while letting them see your Joy in the Lord.