According to teenagers themselves, what is the most meaningful religious activity they engage in with their parents? Our research-based answer may surprise you. It surprised us, but as the fathers of a total of 12 children—we are grateful to know.

The Lord also commanded his ancient disciples to converse about the things of God in many situations and places:

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:7)

For a number of reasons, conversations with one’s teenaged children about religious matters can become stormy with conversational misunderstanding, frustration, anger, resentment, conflict, hurt feelings, and resulting relational damage.

Research shows that as children mature into adolescence they tend to spend less time with their parents; tend to show less affection toward parents; are involved in fewer joint activities with parents; but tend to spend more time engaged in conversation with parents.

In conversation with parents, youth, are more likely to challenge parental values, boundaries, directives; tend to resent what they consider preaching, bossing, telling, lecturing, patronizing, etc.; and are more likely to initiate conversations if they believe parents will listen respectfully to their honest questions.

Youth often report that they think their parents tend to too often fall back into patronizing, preaching, telling. Many feel that Dad and Mom talk too much, too long, too often; that they are too directive (do this, don’t do that); and they usually talk about mundane things (chores, homework, grades, money).

Often, in religious crossroads conversations, especially when youth are pushing back even a little, or are not currently fully engaged in the faith, or are drifting away, or are outright hostile, parents are understandably likely to feel afraid, feel threatened, become defensive or aggressive, become preachy, or issue ultimatums. Under it all, it can be easy to let fear overwhelm faith.

Some of us “try too hard.”

Of course, what we really want to do is converse in a way that is more likely to result in our children feeling good about the Lord, themselves, their relationship with us, and their religious beliefs, practices, and commitments. How can we have more of those beneficial conversations?

What Religious Activities Influence Youth the Most?

When parents are asked what they think is the most important thing for them to do to help their children come to understand and share the parents’ spiritual or religious beliefs and values they tend to say things like:

Be a good role model or they might use the phrase “Walk the Walk.” LDS parents might add to this: we need to go to church, have family prayer, scripture study, and Family Home Evening—and be sure they get to Seminary. While it is true that “walking the walk” of religious belief is crucially important, it turns out it is not enough and not even the most important thing.

What many parents do not realize is that when researchers ask youth and young adults what they think is the most important factor they mention religious conversations or “talking the talk.” Indeed, research shows that, contrary to what many adults and social scientists think, youth and young adults are very interested in talking with their parents about spiritual and religious matters—especially if parents are willing to actually have a conversation rather than another “parent-preaching” session.

And it turns out that youth place more emphasis on religious conversations than on other factors in terms of what they think helped them come to share their parents’ religious beliefs and spiritual values.

Research on Parent-Youth Religious Conversations

In the last 20 years, as part of our American Families of Faith Project, we have interviewed nearly 200 families of faith from various religions, regions, races, and ethnicities. We have interviewed 80 adolescent children with their parents and asked about how they talk together about religious matters.

The findings may provide you with some ideas for what to do, and not do, in conversations with your own children and grandchildren. In sum, we found that the best way for parents to talk about religious matters with their adolescent children is in what we called a “youth-centered approach.” In a study of these interviews done with one of our graduate students, Jennifer Yorgason Thatcher, we found the following:

  • Many families reported that conversations were often part of formal/structured religious activities (e.g., Bible reading, family devotionals, home evenings, etc.).
  • Out of 20 different kinds of religious activities (e.g., family prayer, family scripture study, family meals, watching/listening to religious media, etc.), families rated religious conversations as the most meaningful and second most frequent (after grace at meals) activity.
  • Of the various ways that parents share their religious beliefs and values with children (e.g., bringing them to church, reading Bible stories to them, etc.) the one mentioned most often (by over 75% of parents and youth) was religious conversations.
  • Religious conversations were mentioned by youth as by far the most frequent and important way parents shared their faith with their youth.

Further, we noticed two basic kinds of conversations: parent-centered and youth-centered. Not surprisingly, most youth reported that they preferred informal, youth-initiated religious conversations over formal, parent-initiated ones.

Here are the features of the Youth-Centered Religious conversations as well as the influence that adolescents reported these conversation-styles had on them: 

Youth-centered Approaches to Religious Conversation 

Our findings indicate that most parents were aware of their adolescent child’s needs during religious conversations, and tried to tailor the conversations accordingly. In contrast to the more hierarchal, unidirectional, parent-centered approaches to religious conversation, these were much more transactional in nature, encouraging or allowing the adolescent to play an active role in the discussions.

Youth-centered conversations manifested the following characteristics: (a) adolescent talks more and parents listen, (b) adolescent seeks and receives understanding from parents, (c) religion is related to adolescent’s life, (d) conversation is open, and (e) parent-adolescent relationship is nurtured. Findings suggest that youth-centered conversations were the most engaging, enjoyable, and effective in helping adolescents understand their parents’ religiosity and explore their own religious beliefs.

We labeled this type of approach to religious conversation youth-centered, rather than transactional, since (a) these conversations reportedly occurred because parents realized the needs of their adolescent children to participate much more in the conversation instead of being lectured or preached to by parents and (b) parents’ motivation for engaging in this type of conversation was to respond to the interests and needs of their adolescent child and to build a better relationship with their child.

Adolescent talks more and parents listen. Some parents shared their discovery that with their adolescent children, they needed to listen more and talk less. Rachel[1], a Hasidic Jewish mother, said, “We find the older kids get, they have so much to say, and . . . after a whole day of school, they come home and they don’t want to hear us talk, they want to talk.” Kira, a Lutheran mother responded why she thought it best to use fewer words: “I’ve learned that less words are better because sometimes if you just plant the seed, their mind will work on it.” She referred to the need for children to think and come to conclusions on their own, instead of being lectured to. Earlier on in her interview, Kira reported her tendency to want to speak up when she disagrees with her children. She had learned from her husband’s example that it’s better to listen more than talk:

I tend to react when they say something and I have learned from Aaron [husband] to listen. I’ve got two ears, one mouth. . . . He can talk to them or listen to them and throw out one or two words and they feel very comfortable.

Brent, a Jehovah’s Witness father, suggested that by letting his adolescent children express themselves, he could better understand them: “And also understanding what their thinking patterns are, and what they’re going through. And allowing them to communicate that.”

One Latter-day Saint family spoke of how they let their children speak more during formal religious activities. The mother, Charlene, explained that during family scripture study, they have each child read and then explain the meaning of the verse and then “if anybody has any thoughts, ‘Oh that’s like when this happened’ or anything like that, then people say that.” Her 13-year-old son, Bradley added, “Sometimes we [children] teach the family home evening lesson.”

Adolescent seeks and receives understanding from parents. One of the most commonly mentioned youth-centered ways that parents and adolescents communicated was through questions solicited by either parents or adolescents. Parents asked the adolescents questions to get their feedback, to prompt them to think, and to test their level of understanding.

The adolescents asked questions on topics of interest. For some adolescents, these questions were in response to peer, school, or media influences. Questions were commonly about religious beliefs, values, or how to treat others. A comment by Lyndon, a 35-year-old Latter-day Saint father of four, suggested not only the need to answer the child’s questions, but to “take the time right then.” Mandy, a 15-year-old Christian and Missionary Alliance youth, commented about her parents’ readiness to answer her questions: “And they’re always willing to talk to me about any questions I had. And they explained what they believed to me.

When trying to help their children understand religion, the parents did not always know the best answer to their child’s questions. Sophie, a Presbyterian mother, said, “Sometimes I have an answer for him [adolescent child] and sometimes I go, ‘you know, you’ve got a point.’” Kelsey, a 13-year-old Orthodox Christian, commented, “Sometimes my parents don’t know the answer so then it’s kind of a discussion because they don’t have the answer to give me.” Mindy, a 15-year-old Lutheran, also explained how difficult questions led to a conversation, and even a joint family search for an answer:

A lot of times it’s me and Natalie [10 year-old sister] coming up with questions. And it’s usually when we’re all sitting in the living room together and a question will pop into our head. We’ll ask, “Dad, what is this? What does that mean?” And we always have a Bible around and it’s amazing because then we’ll look it up in the Bible and we’ll talk about it.

Another way that parents tried to help their children understand their religious views was by reasoning on the child’s level. Yuusif, an East Indian Muslim father, said that one element of religious conversations is “explaining to them [his children] in a way they can understand. . . . and reason[ing] with them.” A 43-year-old Presbyterian father of three, Thomas, explained a similar way of “reasoning together” by saying, “I take the approach of coming alongside rather than trying to parent down to them.”

Religion is related to adolescent’s life. Parents and adolescents recognized the importance of having religious conversations that link faith beliefs with the adolescent’s life. Scott, a 14-year-old Catholic spoke of his parents: “I just feel like they always try to bring religion into our lives and to make us better.” Paul, a 46-year-old Christian Scientist father of two said, “I think the time where it comes most to its surface is applying what we know and believe at times of conflict.” Julie, a 55-year-old Latter-day Saint mother of three, said they looked for opportunities to relate their faith teachings to their life:

I think we’re pretty open and verbal about what we believe and if we think that the moment is teachable and we use that to teach Beth [16-year-old daughter] about Heavenly Father, and the Holy Ghost, and what’s happening in the world today.

Some families spoke of connecting religion to their child’s life during formal religious discussions. Shawn, a Baptist father, said the following, when speaking of family devotions: “there’s always the challenge of, ‘Okay let’s really make this relevant,’ or helping them see the usefulness.” Ed, a Seventh-day Adventist father illustrated how during family devotions, he used the scriptures to ask questions about issues in their own lives:

This is what the scriptures say, what are we going to do now? How is that speaking to each of us individually? How is that going to change our life? Where does our life need to change? Where are we falling short? Where do we need to focus our attention? Where are we deficient in our own relationships?

Conversation is open. There were many families who spoke about how they valued openness in their religious conversations, which allowed everyone to speak their minds. Alecia, a 20-year-old Latter-day Saint, gave an adolescent perspective when she said she enjoyed casual conversation where she could talk:

If it’s a one-on-one conversation, it’s usually pretty interesting. It’s interactive. I enjoy talking about religion. . . . Most of the time when we’re just talking as friends more than anything like on a casual basis, it’s usually pretty cool. . . . I’ll say something to [my mom] about religion and she’ll be like, “Yeah, that’s awesome. I have a story that goes with whatever you were talking about.” And I’m like, “Oh that’s really cool.” And you know we can talk about it casually and not have to worry.

Kira, a Lutheran mother, thought openness is best, but explained why this is difficult for her:

Just let them have their ideas and their thoughts and . . . I tend to flip out because I’m afraid, “Oh my gosh, they’re going down the wrong path” and to realize that’s all part of growing up, testing out their own faith, challenging us. . . . I’m still in the process of learning that.

For some families, their open conversations were usually calm and respectful. Elizabeth, a Lutheran mother, and her 15-year-old daughter, Mindy, said:

Elizabeth: There’s lots of times where, “I see it,” — “No I see it this way.” “But what about this?”

Mindy: But it’s usually calm.

Elizabeth: It’s calm, but everybody has a view. And some of us are more passionate about our views than others.

Aisha, a 46-year-old African-American Muslim mother of 11, said:

We talk a lot. We have very in-depth conversations because you can see they’re very verbal. They have their opinions. And we’ve always told them that you can always say what you need to say, but just say it with the right tone. You know, so they’re allowed to express themselves, even if they disagree with us. We don’t have a problem with that, it’s just how you say it.

This Muslim family had guidelines on how comments were to be made, although content was open. Some families reported that the level of openness in their religious conversations allowed for arguments. Some Jewish families explained that openness and even arguing were a welcomed and positive part of their culture. Arella, a 42-year-old Conservative Jewish mother of two, said “Jews are very open. They always tell it like it is. They’re just open, they’re out there. No one holds back anything.” Esther, a 12-year-old Conservative Jewish girl explained, “Well, it’s kind of a stereotypical thing that we [Jewish families] argue a lot, but it’s true.”

Parent-child relationship is nurtured. Some parents spoke of religious conversation in connection with their desire to be close to their children by spending time with them, seeking to understand them, and encouraging them. Kari, a Christian and Missionary Alliance mother articulated the importance of being available for conversation with her children when they needed her: “Be there to talk to them and help them through things and love them unconditionally through hard times that do come, and good times as well. Spend time together.” Yuusif, a Muslim father, spoke of the need to be “constantly alert with them and close to them in understanding what they’re going through.” Amy, a 45-year-old Baptist mother of two, expressed her efforts to compliment her children and be a good friend to them:

And I think also trying to encourage them and to just and let them know how much I respect and admire them and appreciate them as people and who they are and how proud I am of them. . . . I still play with my kids; and I’m very affectionate and I hug them. And even though I’m their mother, I’m also their friend.

The participants suggested that religious conversation can help foster a healthy parent-adolescent relationship. Jack, an 18-year-old Baptist, told how his friends’ parents neglected the parent-child relationship while still trying to transmit beliefs:

I’ve seen some of my friends have acted, where parents are slamming Bible verses in their face, and really not loving them, not helping them grow. It’s more like a forceful thing, at unnecessary times. When it really would have been helpful just for them to sit down and talk with their kid.

In sum, in 88% of the families where we interviewed youth themselves, the families provided some description of youth-centered conversations; and, many had recognized the need to adjust their religious conversations to be more youth-centered. They reported that youth-centered conversations fostered adolescent interest and engagement in the conversations. Both parents and youth reported that youth-centered conversations fostered adolescent interest and engagement in the conversations. Parents—including the more “traditional” ones—also seemed to enjoy and value more youth-centered conversations since it was apparent to them that their children were more likely to feel better about both their parents and their faith during and after these kinds of conversations.

We hope that you will be inspired as you practice the principles of youth-centered religious conversations in your interactions with your own children, grandchildren, and the youth of the Church.

Tips for Religious Crossroads Conversations:

Side-by-side with young men. Men, especially young men, are often more comfortable in conversations that take place “side-by-side” while doing some other activity (watching TV, working in the yard, fishing, driving in the car, etc.) since they feel less “eye-to-eye” pressure. They will often open up and share what they are thinking or feeling more than if it is a “face-to-face” conversation.

Weave religious ideas into other conversations. It is important to weave conversation into other religious practices (before, during, and after the practice). So that family prayer, scripture study, attending church, home evening, etc. can involve religious conversation surrounding that activity. You have to be careful with adolescents that they don’t feel like religious activity or conversation takes too much time but they typically send fairly easily understood non-verbal and verbal cues about how much they are enjoying or interested in religious conversation. Mixing in religious conversation with other kinds of conversation—not rigidly constrained.

Be prepared to stay up late. Often the best conversations (including religious ones) with youth take place in the evening when they return from various activities. Parents who are willing and able to stay up late and mostly listen will often be rewarded with great conversations with their teens. Late nights are good time for conversations since kids are excited from their day and parents are tired from theirs and thus will be more likely to listen more. Then the next day parents can say, “you know I’ve been thinking about what you were saying last night and here is my feeling/thought about it.”

Remember you do not need to solve every issue. Some parents get too anxious and preachy because they feel they need to address every important issue in this conversation. Having a positive, even if brief, conversation opens the door for further conversations in the future.


About the Authors:

David C. Dollahite, PhD and Loren D. Marks, PhD are professors in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University where they co-direct the American Families of Faith project. For those who desire more information about the research discussed in this essay please see the article below. For those who desire more information about the American Families of Faith project see Dr. Marks and Dollahite are authors of the book Religion and Families (Routledge, 2017). Because of their commitments at BYU and because they are not licensed therapists, they are not able to respond to personal requests for counseling or firesides.

Dollahite, D. C., & Thatcher, J. Y. (2008). Talking about religion: How religious youth and parents discuss their faith. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23, 611-641. DOI: 10.1177/0743558408322141

Marks, L. D., & Dollahite, D. C. (2017). Religion and families. New York: Routledge.

[1] All participant names are pseudonyms.