Feb 28, 2005

From the Archives

Parents Describe How They Raise Their Children

Parenting is a controversial and complicated issue. Bookstores are filled with volumes written about the most effective methods of raising children, and millions of adults attend parenting courses and conferences each year. A new nationwide survey of parents, conducted by The Barna Group, offers some surprising insights into the outcomes parents are most eager to achieve in their children, the qualities they believe are most important for parents to have in order to be effective, and some of the critical choices and tradeoffs they make in their child-rearing efforts.

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What Makes A Parent Successful?

Each of two qualities was listed by one-third of all parents as contributing significantly to effectively raising children. Thirty-six percent said having patience is necessary to be effective, while 32% indicated that demonstrating love was indispensable.

The next most frequently cited attributes of effective parenting were enforcing discipline and being understanding. Each of these qualities was named by 22% of parents.

Having a significant faith commitment and an identifiable set of religious beliefs was mentioned by just one out of every five parents as an ingredient required for parental success.

Several other qualities were named by at least one out of every ten parents. Those included having good communication skills (17%), being compassionate (14%), knowing how to listen (12%), and being intelligent (11%).

Characteristics that were stated by at least 5% of all parents were being an encouraging person (9%), having substantial emotional strength (8%), making consistent choices (8%), having a clear philosophy of parenting (7%), and knowing how to plan and set goals (6%).

Smaller numbers of parents listed elements such as being a praying person (4%) or having integrity or good character (1%) as significant characteristics.

Most Desirable Outcomes for Kids

Parents described what they feel are the most important outcomes they are devoted to helping their children experience. By far the top-rated outcome was getting a good education. Four out of every ten parents (39%) listed that as a critical outcome they were committed to facilitating.

Helping the child to feel loved was the second most frequently mentioned outcome (24%), followed by enabling them to have a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ (22%).

The only other outcomes cited by at least one out of ten parents were fostering a sense of security (16%), helping them to feel affirmed and encouraged (14%), providing a firm spiritual foundation (13%), and delivering basic necessities such as shelter (12%) and food (10%). Ten percent also said it was crucial to help their children feel happy (10%).

Among the less common building blocks parents mentioned were having a sense of belonging or connection (9%), being and feeling safe (8%), and helping to establish appropriate moral values (4%).

Trade-Offs Parents Make

One of the most eye-opening portions of the research related to the choices that parents make in various situations. Four specific conditions were evaluated.

In the first, parents were asked if they were more likely to battle their children over every issue that emerged, in order to establish control and appropriate choices, or to instead limit those battles to particular issues the parent deemed to be significant. Three out of every four parents (77%) took the “pick your fights” approach, while one out of eight (13%) felt it was important to interact on every issue.

A second situation was whether the parent tells the child that the Bible teaches moral absolutes that must always be obeyed, no matter what the situation is, or instead teaches that there are no moral absolutes, so the child must be prepared to make good choices in every situation without any absolute guidelines. Parents were evenly divided on this matter: 43% said they teach there are some moral absolutes and 45% said they teach that there are no such absolutes.

How do parents determine whether they have been successful in raising their children? By more than a two-to-one margin (62% to 28%), they define success as having done the best they could, regardless of the outcomes. Less than three out of ten parents say the fruit of their efforts is the defining factor.Another tradeoff posed was related to the child’s media exposure. A majority of parents (56%) said they gave their youngsters general guidelines about the amount and quality of media they were allowed to access and then let the children regulate their media intake by themselves. One-third of all parents (36%) strictly limited the amount and quality of TV, music and other media the children were allowed to access.

Surprising Insights Into Parenting

In studying the findings, George Barna, who directed the research, noted that the faith commitment of parents made surprisingly little difference in how children were raised.

“You might expect that parents who are born again Christians would take a different approach to raising their children than did parents who have not committed their life to Christ – but that was rarely the case,” Barna explained. “For instance, we found that the qualities born again parents say an effective parent must possess, the outcomes they hope to facilitate in the lives of their children, and the media monitoring process in the household was indistinguishable from the approach taken by parents who are not born again.”

The California-based researcher pointed out that there was one substantial distinction. “Born again parents were twice as likely as others to teach their children that there are certain moral absolutes they should obey. However, even on that matter, less than six out of ten born again parents took such a position.”

One of the most startling observations, according to Barna, was how few born again parents indicated that one of the most important outcomes parents needed to help their children grasp was salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. “Only three out of ten born again parents included the salvation of their child in the list of critical parental emphases,” he noted. “Parents cannot force or ensure that their kids become followers of Christ. But for that emphasis to not be on the radar screen of most Christian parents is a significant reason why most Americans never embrace Jesus Christ as their savior. We know that parents still have a huge influence on the choices their children make, and we also know that most people either accept Christ when they are young or not at all. The fact that most Christian parents overlook this critical responsibility is one of the biggest challenges to the Christian Church.”

The author of the best-selling book, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions, Barna offered his thoughts on the significance of the research. “For years we have reported research findings showing that born again adults think and behave very much like everyone else. It often seems that their faith makes very little difference in their life. This new study helps explain why that is: believers do not train their children to think or act any differently. When our kids are exposed to the same influences, without much supervision, and are generally not guided to interpret their circumstances and opportunities in light of biblical principles, it’s no wonder that they grow up to be just as involved in gambling, adultery, divorce, cohabitation, excessive drinking and other unbiblical behaviors as everyone else. What we build into a child’s life prior to the age of 13 represents the moral and spiritual foundation that defines them as individuals and directs their choices for the remainder of their life. Garbage in, garbage out; there’s no magic that suddenly changes the young person from what they were trained to be in their formative years into a model Christian once they get older.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1004 adults conducted in November 2004 by The Barna Group. From that sample, 707 adults who are parents. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of parents is ±3.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The sample of parents included 366 born again Christians, giving that segment a maximum sampling error of ±5.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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