In her doctrinal thesis, Emily Layton and Brigham Young University professor David Dollahite found seven anchors of religious faith common to teenagers of varying religions. Instead of asking questions with multiple choice answers, Layton, a mother of four, let the teenagers answer the questions any way they chose.
She found the following anchors helped teens feel connected to their faiths: traditions and rituals, family, faith community members, faith community leaders, scriptural books, God (or a God figure), and faith.
Some aspects seemed more important to children of one faith than another. For instance, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims were more likely to talk about the importance of traditions and rituals, probably because those are important aspects of their religions. Muslim teens were more likely to speak of the impact of parents on their religious commitments.
Parents can use these seven anchors to help their children develop a life-long commitment to their faith, regardless of what faith it is. Let’s look at some of them to see how we could put them into place in a typical family.
Traditions and rituals were very important to those teens who had them. If your faith does not teach specific traditions and rituals, you can create them in your home, selecting those with significance to your own faith. Rituals and traditions help children to feel secure and safe and when they are connected to religious events, they can help children have secure and comforting feelings toward religion.
For instance, many families enjoy having dinner together and begin that meal with a prayer. Prayer is a ritual that can become a very natural part of a child’s life, so when he leaves home, he might naturally have one himself. Family scripture study, accompanied by family prayers, can also leave a permanent mark on a child’s memories of growing up.
Mormon families have held Family Home Evenings or Family Nights for many decades. In recent years, some other faiths have adopted this tradition as well. One night a week the family gets together without any outsiders and spends time together. For Mormons, the evenings begin with hymns, prayers, and a brief lesson. The lesson allows the parents to teach their children the values and beliefs they consider most essential. In many families, the children also take turns teaching, allowing them to share their own beliefs with their families. After the lesson, the family plays games and has treats, and then they finish off with another hymn and a closing prayer. This program is easily adapted to the beliefs of any religion.
Another religious anchor for teens is family. Teens mentioned being influenced by their parents and even by their siblings. Some teens mentioned wanting to please or honor their parents. Others expressed appreciation for the hard work their parents put into teaching them religious values.
Children need parents to be a part of their religious foundation. Even when they appear to not be listening, they often are. More importantly, they are watching. It is never enough to simply lecture about religion. Teens need to see their parents living their religious beliefs. Parents who want their children to see church attendance as important attend church with their children, rather than dropping them o ff. They read their scriptures, both as a family and privately, they keep the commandments, and they talk about their faith in a natural and positive way.
Parents can help children learn to talk about their faith by holding conversations with them—not lectures, but actual conversations. Ask your children to tell you their feelings about various aspects of their faith. Allow them to ask questions without being scolded or argued with. When they can share even what they are not sure is true, you can learn what parts of their faith you can help them strengthen. Invite them to help younger siblings strengthen their own faith.
Teens are also strongly influenced by members of their faith community who are not in their own families. Does your church have give teenagers an opportunity to interact with other members of the community? If not, you may need to create those opportunities yourself. Teenagers need friends who share their beliefs. Naturally, they also need friends who do not, both to prepare them for interactions in the outside world and to give them an opportunity to be a good example. They also need practice standing alone when necessary to live up to high standards.
However, all this is easier when they also have friends who share their beliefs. Teens learn from each other and they can also provide a support network for each other. One teen, new to her faith, was unsure what to do when alcohol emerged at a teen party unexpectedly and with adult permission. Her friend, however, more experienced, took charge of them both and showed the newer girl how to get out of the situation gracefully. Having another friend show shared the standard made it easier to stay within the rules.
In addition, youth need to know other adults who share their faith, not just those in their youth program. The more adults there are who stop to speak with them at church, the more adults there are to serve as role models for your teens. Make a point of having great adults in your home or in other ways involved with your children.
Youth leaders in the church also play an important role in the lives of teens. A good youth program has a number of adults. This increases the likelihood your teen will connect with one of them. Often a teen will turn to a youth leader when he’s shy about approaching his own parents or wants an outside opinion. The Mormons, for instance, put a large number of adults into a teen’s church life. In a full program, teens are divided into classes with teens covering two ages (for example, twelve and thirteen year olds are together.) Each of these classes has two leaders present at all times. In addition, they have joint activities with the other two classes and their leaders, giving them six adults just in that program. Then they also have a Sunday school teacher, a Seminary teacher (for a religious class held most school days) and regular contact with the bishop, who is a lay pastor. Boys might also have Scout leaders at church and girls might have a camp leader. The teenagers have many adults to choose from when they need an adult to talk to or to look toward for role modeling. These leaders also help them feel connected to the adult world of church and watch over their special needs. The adults are not friends, but leaders who speak unafraid about the standards of their religion. Encourage your congregation to create a strong and leader-rich youth program.
Scriptural books were important to many of the teenagers. Parents can help them develop a relationship with their religious texts by reading and discussing them as a family and by encouraging children to read them on their own. Make sure young children have access to children’s materials. Use people in the scriptures as role models. Teach children how to read scriptures—they won’t learn to read or spell the religious words at school. Make scriptures fun for younger children by encouraging the children to act out the stories with puppets or dolls. Teens can be taught to ask what that story has to do with them. What message can they pull out of the story of David and Goliath for their own lives? This takes ancient stories and makes them relevant.
God and faith were the last two anchors teens found important. Children and teens need to know who God is and what role He plays in their lives. A recent study showed teens tend to see God as a “cosmic butler” who pops out when they need Him and stays out of their way when they don’t. This does not build a powerful relationship between the teen and their God. They need to know He loves them and is always there, watching out for them, ready to comfort and guide. They also need to know He loves them and because He loves them, He has standards. Many teens find comfort in knowing their faith includes strict rules of conduct that add order and security to their lives. The more they love God the more influence those standards will have on them.
Faith helps teens get through the challenging moments when their standards are put to the test or they face difficult trials. Faith is not something a parent can give to a child and it is not something a parent can pull out and hand over when it’s needed. It must be internalized and the child must have training in how to make it help through the difficult times. Share with your children your own experiences with faith. Encourage them to write own their personal experiences so they can refer back to them when they need to remember.
By helping your children develop these seven anchors, you can give your children the best possible chance to remain strong in their faith as they grow up and leave home.