PROVO — Usually when social scientists want to study the religiousness of teens, they pick a few variables, make a hypothesis and break out the bubble sheets. But this time, BYU professor of family life David Dollahite wanted to let the adolescents speak for themselves.
So, instead of asking, "How often do you pray?" "How often do you go to church?" and "How religious do you consider yourself?" he gave 80 teens from northern California and the New England area a chance to share their feelings through open-ended questions.
"What I was impressed about was how articulate many of these kids were in describing what it was about their faith that made a difference for them," said Dollahite, who spent several months interviewing the 10- to 20-year-olds and their parents. "They understood that they were asked to do some things that other kids weren't doing, in terms of religious activity, attending their services and in many cases refraining from certain kinds of substances. They were very strong in their willingness to be different."
As Dollahite and his then-master's student Emily Layton analyzed the interviews, they began organizing the comments into seven different categories of commitment.
In Layton's thesis — a condensed version of which was recently published in "The Journal of Adolescent Research" — she explained that teens were committing to their religion through parents, religious leaders, a faith community, rituals and traditions and faith tradition or denomination as well as through God and sacred texts.
"There's more going on here than what we see," she said. "We know that kids with religion in their life do much better, but we don't really understand why. I think it's because we're not quite understanding how they're experiencing their religion, these different commitments and relationships."
And those experiences vary by religious background, Layton explained.
Very few Jewish adolescents spoke about God, yet those same teens had a deep connection and commitment to traditions and rituals. And adolescent Muslims expressed a deep respect and commitment to their relationship with their parents.
"Every faith tradition has so many different things they're bringing to the table of how they're strengthening their youth," Layton said. "How can we see it as a whole picture so we can provide our youth with balanced commitment, and strengthen those things that our faith tradition is weaker in?"
Someday, Layton would love to see their new "Seven Anchors of Religious Commitment" list as a widely accepted tool to study adolescent religiosity. But in the meantime, the study has made her, a Mormon mother of four with one on the way, and her husband much more intentional about incorporating rituals and traditions into their religion and life.
Their family recently began the tradition of "Conference crepes," where they have crepes for breakfast as they watch the LDS General Conference held twice annually.
"Though we have only been doing it a couple years, it has made our children look forward to the event and be much more invested in the conference experience," she said.
To develop or strengthen the other anchors, parents can pray with their children, encourage children to participate in programs in their faith community, talk openly about their connection to God and apply scriptural stories as well as counsel from religious leaders to their children's lives.
But above all, Layton emphasized the importance of positive, fun relationships between adolescents and adults, whether it's with a parent, pastor or religious youth leaders. Talk to the teens, she said. Ask about their lives, their interests and their concerns.
"Things that don't seem to be religious at all," she said, "but are so important to helping the youth feel connected to the people who are examples of their religion."