Youth-centered Approaches to Religious Conversation

Selections from: Talking About Religion: How Religious

Youth and Parents Discuss Their Faith by David C. Dollahite and

Jennifer Y. Thatcher Brigham Young University

Forthcoming: Journal of Adolescent Research

Used with permission

Mormon Belief Youth

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.

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, 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….

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….”

Another way that parents tried to help their children understand their religious views was by reasoning on the child’s level…. 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…. Yuusif, a Muslim father, said:

“We try and take every situation that they face, the children, and show them the faith perspective of each thing that happens, good or bad, and to remind them when something good happens, that this is from God and how they should be thankful to Him. And when something happens by way of a trial, how to be patient and also to be assured that there’s going to be good in that too, because it has come from God with a purpose that we have not understood at this moment….”

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.”

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….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.”

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