sealPurdue News

March 2000

Parents pass on religious beliefs
more by word than by deed

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The saying goes that "actions speak louder than words," but in the case of parents wanting their children to share their religious beliefs, words may be just as important as actions.

That was the finding of a recent Purdue University study that looked at parents' influence on religious beliefs in young adults ages 18 to 25. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

"We asked students to tell us what they believed and what they thought their parents believed," says Lynn Okagaki, an associate professor of child development and family studies. "We then asked the parents what their beliefs were and how strongly they felt they had tried to nurture their child in terms of religious beliefs and values. What we found was that the perception does not always match the reality."

Okagaki's study showed that the accuracy of a student's perception was affected by how much his or her parents talked about their beliefs and whether the mother and father shared the same beliefs.

"Many of the students we talked to told us that their parents shaped their environments by making church activities a regular part of their lives, and took on service projects as a family – they took the kids with them when they went to work in a soup kitchen, for example," Okagaki says. "But while 'walking the walk' was certainly important, it was regular, specific conversations about religious beliefs that gave students a more accurate perception of what their parents actually believe. It's not enough for parents to just model beliefs for their kids."

Okagaki had 58 females and 36 males complete a series of questionnaires on their religious beliefs and their perceptions of their parents' beliefs, their parents' child-rearing goals and behaviors, and their relationships with their parents. All were college students, and 83 percent came from intact families. The parents of the subjects answered questions about their own religious beliefs and their child-rearing goals and practices.

Okagaki says both parents sharing the same beliefs has an impact on how accurately they are able to convey those beliefs to their child.

"It makes a difference in terms of what the child is going to perceive as important," Okagaki explains. "If Mom and Dad don't believe the same things, the child not only gets a content message on what those differing beliefs are, but also gets the message that people can have different ideas about a particular belief, and that makes the child feel there is more freedom to choose."

She adds that a warm, open parent-child relationship improves the chances that children will want to embrace their parents' beliefs as young adults.

Okagaki notes that the subjects of her study were predominantly from Christian backgrounds, but she says there is no reason to believe the results would have been varied in other faith traditions.

"It's a process of passing along a belief, whatever that belief happens to be," Okagaki says.

Okagaki says her research findings have led to more questions: "We now know that what we say about our faith is important, but how do we apply that to our child-rearing? There's a good deal of research telling us how to educate our children, but parents get no formal training for raising children with character and integrity."

To learn more about the process, Okagaki is now studying middle-school children who are in the midst of developing their values.

"I want to see what kind of messages they are receiving from their parents right now, and then follow their character development as they become adults," she says.

Source: Lynn Okagaki, (765) 494-0372,

Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS:   A copy of Lynn Okagaki's research study titled "Socialization of Religious Values" is available from Sharon Bowker at the Purdue News Service, (765) 494-9723;

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