Jodi and Jason Engle of Hattiesburg, Miss., chuckle about their habit of saying grace before meals with their 3-year-old son, Wilhelm. After all, they're both skeptical of organized religion and aren't sure about God, either.
They started praying when Wilhelm insisted. Having learned in day care to bow his head and give thanks, he wants Mom and Dad to do the same. They now join him for a specific reason: They want to support his search for meaning.
"Until we had Will, I hadn't really put much thought into [religion] because I hadn't really gotten much out of it," Mr. Engle said after a Thanksgiving seder meal here at Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church. "But we think objectivity is important – to let him test it and make his own decisions – and not tell him, 'This is the way you have to believe.' "
"We want him to make his own decision one day about what he wants to believe in," Ms. Engle added. "We want him to ask questions. So if he wants to pray, then we're going to pray along with him."
Home is the primary setting where kids learn to make meaning of their place in the universe. That truth is never more poignant, it seems, than during the annual "December dilemma," when people of all faiths or no faith or mixed faith negotiate the Christmas rituals and images that loom so powerfully in American society.
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.
But competing with all this, he says, is the "pull of the culture of narcissism ... that religion was meant to confront, if not diminish."
He says a child can be like an agnostic who takes long walks, looks up at the sky with questions, and finds himself speaking to God. Children "are looking up at the sky just like that man," says Coles. "Parents can join hands with them and help them as they ask these questions and help them along the path of seeking the meaning of life."
In other ways, however, new dynamics are reframing how American families approach spiritual life at home. A shifting religious landscape, coupled with new insights from sociology, is heightening awareness that spiritual formation isn't something parents can effectively outsource to religious institutions.
Ties to organized religion are loosening. The percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation nearly doubled, from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, says the American Religious Identification Survey, which regularly polls more than 54,000 respondents. The percentage of unaffiliated young adults, ages 18 to 29, is 25 percent, a February 2010 Pew Research Center poll found. By contrast, only 20 percent of adults in that same age group were religiously unaffiliated in the late 1990s, and only 13 percent were unaffiliated in the late 1970s. In this new milieu, it seems, faith increasingly gets formed at home or not at all.
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Despite tenuous ties to religious organizations, American kids aren't turning their backs on religion or spirituality – not by a long shot. About 50 percent of teens say religion is important in their lives, says the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which has tracked more than 3,000 youth since 2002, when they were in their mid-teens. A notable 40 percent say they pray at least daily, worship at least weekly, and are active in a religious youth group.
But in this age of do-it-yourself religion, NSYR researchers find teens have such vague, poorly articulated beliefs that many who come from Christian homes have effectively replaced Christianity with a "moralistic therapeutic deism" that emphasizes personal happiness as a paramount goal of religion.
Since hearing this wake-up call, scholars and religious organizations have redoubled efforts to help parents weave faith traditions into home life. Foot soldiers in these efforts say parents used to expect professionals to create religious experiences for their kids. Today, they say, parents increasingly are reclaiming that domain.
Noting this "huge shift" in religious practices, Phyllis Tickle, author and former religion editor at Publishers Weekly, says: "Congregations and denominations that are not attending to the moral formation of prepubescent and pubescent children are the most threatened because parents of that age group tend to see religious formation in terms of moral formation."
She notes that the emergence of community service as a dominant value leads, in many cases, to a deinstitutionalization of faith: the practice of a "religionless Christianity" or a "religionless Judaism." She estimates that a third of American Christians are now these deinstitutionalized "emergents."
Aware of these growing voids, parents increasingly recognize the value of leading explicitly religious activities at home, says John Roberto, president of Lifelong Faith Associates, a Connecticut-based consultancy to Roman Catholic parishes. In the process, they're recovering some forgotten ways once known to their grandparents and great-grandparents.
"You now have a whole generation of families who don't know the days of dropping kids off for the church to share faith with them," says Mr. Roberto. "Now parents know that they need to share faith with [their children]. I think that's making a huge difference."
Over the past decade, staffers and lay leaders at more than 1,500 Catholic parishes have been trained to convene workshops where parents and children learn to do devotions and otherwise make home a center for Catholicism.
Other faith traditions are blazing similar trails. Parenting podcasts, launched earlier this year on the Union of Reform Judaism website – urj.org – coach parents to infuse Jewish meaning into kids' routines, from going to bed to washing hands to leaving the house for the day. These resources for Jewish home life are some of the site's most popular offerings, says Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, chief program officer for the URJ.
New Lutheran resources, aimed at guiding families in faith practices at home, seem to be striking a chord with a certain sector of Millennial generation parents, says Nathan Frambach, associate professor of youth, culture, and mission at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. "They buy it. They get it. They sort of give an 'amen'," he says. "But they wonder: 'How in the world does one do that? Where do you start?' "
Parents need to act on their own faith commitments in concrete ways, thus showing and telling kids how a faith tradition is a way of life, says Kenda Creasy Dean, a Princeton Theological Seminary professor and author of "Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church." Yet many parents are still finding their own way.
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Ms. Engle, whose son learned to pray at day care, has been reading "Religion for Dummies" in her search for a spiritual path that feels like a fit. She hasn't found one. Buddhism seemed interesting, but a temple visit left her less than satisfied. She and Mr. Engle attend a Unitarian church, and they may send Wilhelm to a Catholic school.
Those who promote home-based practices offer encouragement: Parents don't need all the answers. Seeking insight alongside their children is often all that's required.
"God's grace, mercy, and peace – that's what people long for," advises David Anderson, a coach at Vibrant Faith Ministries, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that helps churches and families bring faith home. "They want to experience it. They don't just want to hear about it from a pulpit."
• Correspondent Mary Beth McCauley in Philadelphia contributed research to this article.