What's more, home – not church, synagogue, or mosque – is increasingly where kids acquire religious character. In a time when shrinking percentages of Americans claim religious affiliation, sociological research and religious organizations suggest that responsibility for forming children's faith identities is shifting from institutions to parents. For families that embrace the challenge, parenting now involves serving as a child's primary guide through spirituality, which can involve everything from bedtime prayer to volunteering together as a family.
In some ways, long-held insights about children, faith, and home are receiving fresh affirmation. Gallup Poll data have shown for decades that adults tend to get more serious about religion soon after they have children. Congregations and denominations are building up resources for coaching families in the how-to's of traditional home-based practices, such as honoring saints on feast days or reading Scripture together in a way that doesn't expect Mom or Dad to be a Bible expert.
That kids have a spiritual life in need of nourishment has also become a mainstream concept, popularized in part by psychologist Robert Coles, a Harvard professor emeritus, in his book "The Spiritual Life of Children."
"To turn psychology and sociology into religions is a very sad development," he says of today's tendency to look to talk-show shrinks and popular entertainers for lessons in life's meaning. "Frankly I think it's the parents' responsibility to face these issues themselves – to recognize these distinctions, and share what their values are.... What you are talking about is the meaning of life."
Citing a meaning-making moment from his childhood, Professor Coles recalls a visit with his mother to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when he saw Paul Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" In this case, he says, art prompted discussion of these "fundamental questions." Church attendance and reading the Bible, he says, can spark the same kind of deep contemplation.