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Linked Religious Lives Across Generational Time in Family Lineages: Grandparents as Agents of Transmission

  • Merril SilversteinEmail author
  • Vern L. Bengtson
Chapter
Part of the Frontiers in Sociology and Social Research book series (FSSR, volume 2)

Abstract

Religiosity is a trait deeply embedded within families and transmitted across generations through formal training, informal instruction, and behavioral modeling. This chapter examines the extent to which religiosity is stable across generations, specifically in order to understand how grandparents influence the religious orientations of their adolescent and young adult grandchildren. Drawing on the Longitudinal Study of Generations, a four-decade study of multi-generational families, the authors analyzed lineages consisting of grandchildren participating in 2000 (Mage = 23, N = 554), parents participating in 1988 (Mage = 38, N = 341) and grandparents participating in 1971 (Mage = 45; N = 257). Estimating a three-level hierarchical linear model, results indicate that grandparents and parents independently transmitted their religious orientations to grandchildren. However, parental divorce tempered the strength of transmission from grandparents. The authors conclude that religion still forms a common thread that stretches across multiple generations in the family, although divorce serves as a significant mitigating factor.

Keywords

Religion Generations Grandparents Grandchildren Divorce Family Life course Parent Linked lives 

Introduction

Cultural scholars have noted that over the last half century several core social institutions have weakened in American society, among them organized religion and the family (Putnam 2000). At the same time, intergenerational family life has received increased attention, particularly the role played by grandparents as inculcators of social values (Goyer 2012; King and Elder 1999) and material advantages in their grandchildren (Chan and Boliver 2013; Mare 2011). In this analysis we take advantage of a three-generation study to examine whether grandparents convey their religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices to their grandchildren, taking into account the religious contributions of parents and martial disruption in the parental generation.

Religious Change and Continuity in Families

Religious orientations have changed remarkably in recent decades in response to social trends toward greater individualism and weakening voluntary associations (Putnam 2000). After hitting a peak in the mid-1950s, formal religious involvement declined in an American society that became increasingly secularized (Bellah et al. 1985; Hout and Fischer 2002; Wuthnow 1988). Most recently there has been a substantial increase in the representation of “nones”—those who say they have no religious affiliation—in the young adult population (Hout and Fischer 2002; Pew Forum 2015). In 2014 the unaffiliated represented more than one-third of Millennials in the U.S. adult population (Pew Forum 2015). Much of the historical change in religiosity is attributed to Baby Boomers who broadened what it means to lead a religious life as a private spiritual matter (Roof 1999), and recent cohorts of young adults who have rejected religion outright (Chaves 2011).

On the basis of the evidence cited above, it might be expected that religious continuity between generations has declined over recent decades and that the influence of grandparents, in particular would be marginal at best. However, there is strong evidence that religion is reproduced within lineages across generations (Min et al. 2012). Religiosity may be stabilized within families through informal socialization, formal religious training, and behavioral modeling (Sherkat 2003).

Religious transmission across generations has analogs in other forms of intergenerational cultural transmission. There is a large literature showing how cultural information in the form of beliefs, values, and attitudes is transmitted from one generation to another (see Schönpflug 2008). For instance, research shows strong parental effects on the socio-political orientations of young adults (Alwin et al. 1991). We maintain that the influence of parents and grandparents on the religiosity of descending generations will be stronger than their influence on secular values, such as political views, which continue to be shaped by peers and the wider social environment into young adulthood (Alwin 2013). By contrast, religious training is primarily a domestic concern and religious identity is largely forged in the childhood home. For this reason, intergenerational transmission of religion is expected to be stronger and less resistant to change than it would be for other comparable forms of transmission. Indeed, Schönpflug (2008) suggests that, religion, as a form of cultural knowledge, may have a “transmission advantage” by virtue of its emotional salience and ability to address existential questions about the meaning of life and death. This proposed hyper-transmissibility is consistent with findings showing stronger parent-child associations in religiosity compared to other transmissible attributes such as gender role ideology (Min et al. 2012) and formal education (Kalmijn 2015). Whether or not grandparents exert an independent influence on the religiosity of their adult grandchildren has rarely been studied, and is the focus of this study.

Evidence suggests that grandparents have maintained their importance in families by providing childcare to working parents (Hank and Buber 2009), serving as sources of emotional support (Silverstein and Marenco 2001) and conveying religious values to their grandchildren (Copen and Silverstein 2007). Studies demonstrate that grandparents are commonly in frequent contact with their grandchildren and find deep meaning in the grandparent role. Over 50% of grandparents reported seeing a grandchild at least once a week, with another 25% report seeing a grandchild every few weeks; 68% talk with a grandchild by telephone at least once a week and 26% say they communicate weekly by email, text, or Skype (Goyer 2012). Indeed, nearly 60% of grandparents feel they play a “very important role” in the lives of grandchildren (Lampkin 2012).

Contributions made by grandparents to the social, emotional, and moral development of their grandchildren are well documented in the literature (Mueller and Elder 2003; Silverstein and Ruiz 2006; Kemp 2005). This influence extends to the transmission of religious beliefs, behaviors, and traditions to grandchildren. In one national study, three out of five grandparents reported having participated in religious activities with grandchildren in the past year (Silverstein and Marenco 2001). Findings that religious grandparents are more involved with their grandchildren (King and Elder 1999) implies that more religious grandparents are well positioned to pass down their religious orientations to their grandchildren.

Greater longevity and healthy aging imply that contemporary older adults are better able to engage and interact with their grandchildren than ever before (Bengtson 2001; Swartz 2009). Indeed, frequent contact between grandparents and young grandchildren is likely to build strong relationships that extend the influence of grandparents (AARP 2012; Geurts et al. 2009).

Family Change and Intergenerational Transmission

The historic rise in divorce over the past half-century might have led to a decline in the religious influence of older generations. Divorces rates surged in the 1970s, and by 1990 one out two marriages ended in divorce, with remarriage and complex step-families becoming increasingly common (Casper and Bianchi 2001; Cherlin 2009). Family strains produced by divorce have been implicated in substantially reducing contact and emotional closeness between grandparents and grandchildren (Drew and Smith 1999). Adult children in step-families are, on average, less emotionally close to their parents—both their step-parents and biological parents—compared to adult children in intact families (Steinbach 2013). Relationships between grandparents and grandchildren may be indirectly affected by step-family formation due to the intermediary or linking position of parents in three-generation families. In addition, children of divorce often experience the entry of step-grandparents into their lives which may further weaken intergenerational cohesion and reduce intergenerational influence (Lussier et al. 2002).

In terms of the transmission of religion from parents to adult children, evidence suggests weaker transmission to children raised in step-families compared to those raised an intact families (Myers 1996). Similarly, Kalmijn (2015) found in the Netherlands that step-fathers, divorced fathers, and divorced mothers more weakly reproduced church attendance in their offspring than parents who never divorced. Thus, it would seem likely that grandparents’ religious influence would be similarly weakened by marital disruption of their adult children. On the other hand, grandparents serve as important psycho-social resources for grandchildren who experience a parental divorce, emerging as important providers of emotional support to these vulnerable grandchildren (Cooney and Smith 1996; Gladstone 1988). This function of grandparents may mitigate against the disruptive potential of divorce for grandparent-grandchild relationships.

By extending our consideration of transmission to three-generations, we demonstrate the linked lives principle of the life course perspective which states that developmental pathways of family members are interdependent with each other (Hagestad 2003). Access of grandparents to their grandchildren, which provides the opportunity to exert influence, is sensitive to the social conditions of parents who effectively serve as gatekeepers to grandchildren (Michaleski and Shackleford 2005; Mueller and Elder 2003; Geurts et al. 2009). At the extreme, an estranged parent-grandparent relationship reduces the exposure of grandparents to their grandchildren and suppresses the amount of contact between them (Drew and Silverstein 2007). Because parents serve as mediators between older and younger generations, it is plausible that marital disruption in the middle generation disrupts the strength with which they influence their grandchildren, particularly on the traditionally weaker paternal side of the family (Chan and Elder 2000).

In this chapter, we ask three basic questions: Do grandparents religiously influence their grandchildren independent of the parental generation? To what degree do grandparents indirectly influence their grandchildren through the parent generation? How does marital history of the parents’ generation modify the strength of religious transmission between grandparents and grandchildren? This research, extends earlier work demonstrating religious continuity between grandparents and grandchildren (Bengtson 2013) by examining the religious influence of grandparents net of the influence of parents within the same multigenerational lineages.

Method

Sample

Data for this analysis derive from the Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), a study of 3681 respondents from 418 three- and four-generation families. Begun in 1971, the LSOG has collected eight waves of survey data through 2005 (for details see Silverstein and Giarrusso 2013). Three-generation families, consisting of grandparents (G1), parents (G2), and grandchildren (G3) were recruited through identification of potential grandfather participants randomly selected via a stratified random sampling procedure from 840,000 members of a health maintenance organization in Southern California. The intent of the study was to examine the relationship between intergenerational family relationships and mental health, with a focus on continuities and discontinuities across generations in beliefs, social attitudes, and family behaviors. Beginning in 1991, great-grandchildren (G4) began participating in the survey as they reached age 16.

The baseline LSOG sample was generally representative of the region’s adult population at the time and was comprised mostly of working and middle class families. Subsequent surveys took place in 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2000, and 2005. The LSOG has had high longitudinal participation rates considering the age of the original respondents, the duration of the study, the use of self-administered surveys, and the 14-year gap between the first two waves of measurement. The longitudinal response rate between 1971 and 1985 was 73%, and has averaged 80% between waves since 1985.

The multi-generation, multi-actor, and multi-panel design of the LSOG provides analytic leverage for examining change and continuity across generations within family lineages, and provides first-person assessments of subjective orientations about which proxy reports would be considered unreliable.

We used the three youngest generations from the LSOG to construct a sample of multigenerational triads consisting of G2 grandparents in 1971 (N = 257; Mage = 43 years), G3 parents in 1988 (N = 341; Mage = 37 years), and G4 grandchildren in 2000 (N = 554; Mage = 23). The staggered generational design maximizes standardization on age across generations and avoids the exclusion of grandparents who died over the course of the study.

It bears mentioning that for each grandchild, only one parent and one set of grandparents were represented in the data utilized. Consequently, our assessment is limited to a single lineage for each grandchild, providing a conservative estimate of grandparent and parent influence.

Measures

Religiosity in each generation was assessed with survey questions that measured religious beliefs, attitudes, behavior, intensity, and values, corresponding to the. following five domains:
  1. 1.

    Literalist religious beliefs were measured by two questions assessing the strength of agreement with the following two statements: God exists in the form as described in the Bible; All people today are descendants of Adam and Eve). Responses for each item were coded on a four point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” and added together.

     
  2. 2.

    Civic value of religion was measured as the strength of agreement with the following two statements: All children should receive religious training; Religion should play an important role in daily life. Responses for each item were coded on a four point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” and added together.

     
  3. 3.

    Religious participation was measured as frequency of attendance at religious services: How often do you attend religious services these days? Responses are coded on a six point scale ranging from “never” to “everyday”

     
  4. 4.

    Religious intensity was measured by the question: How religious are you? Responses are coded on a six point scale ranging from “not at all religious” to “strongly religious”.

     
  5. 5.

    Religion as valued goal was measured with an item from the Rokeach Values Inventory (Rokeach 1968) assessing the ranked importance of “religious participation, working with others in your own church or organization ” in relation to eight other social values and is coded 1–9 with higher values indicating greater importance.

     

In 59% of families, both grandmothers and grandfathers responded to the survey. In such families, we used the higher raw score for each measure to represent the grandparent generation as a single entity. Alternative specifications, such as using the average score, produced similar results.

Using exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis (not shown) we found little evidence of a multidimensional structure for the five items and concluded that a single dimension provided the best fit to the observed data. Factor loadings were equivalent across generations, indicating a consistent measurement model. Based on the five sub-dimensions, we computed standardized factor scores within each generation. Because factor scores have a mean of zero, they provided a metric for religiosity that was relative to the central tendency in each generation. As such, factor scores offered a convenient way to control for cohort and period effects and better insured that the transmission of religiosity was assessed as an intra-familial process. Further, associations between factor scores are interpreted as correlations, which are advantageous for assessing the strength of intergenerational transmission within a fixed range of 0–1 and allowing comparisons between coefficients indicating the strength of transmission.

Control variables included the following characteristics of grandchildren: age , marital status (0 = not married; 1 = married), parental status (0 = no children; 1 = has at least one child). About one-quarter of grandchildren were married (26%) and had children (23%).

Education of grandchildren was also controlled (0 = less than college graduate; 1 = college graduate or greater). For the 15% of grandchildren who were 16–24 years of age and who did not graduate from college, education was imputed using earlier waves of data to predict the probability of college graduation from stated educational aspirations, age, and gender. With this imputation, almost half the grandchildren (49%) were considered college graduates.

Gender of grandchildren and parents were also controlled (0 = male; 1 = female). About half of grandchildren were female (52%) and somewhat more than half of parents were mothers (58%).

Marital history of parents was assessed based on whether a divorce was ever experienced (0 = intact; 1 = divorced). By casting a wide net, this liberal definition captured both the experience and sequelae of marital disruption and the presence of a step-parent (who may or may not be the parent represented in the analysis). Almost half of parents (49%) experienced a divorce.

Analytic Approach

The sample for this analysis consisted of grandchildren nested within parents who are nested within grandparents. Consequently, we used hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to properly account for this data structure and the lack of independence of family members within and across generations (Bryck and Raudenbush 1992).

Our application of HLM required specifications at three-levels. In this approach, random effects are generated for grandchildren’s religiosity which are predicted by variables at parent and grandparent levels, along with cross-level interactions. At level-1, grandchild-specific variables predict grandchildren’s religiosity within parent and grandparent units:
$$ {y}_{ijk}={b}_{0 jk}+{b}_{1 jk}\left({x}_{ijk}\right)+{e}_{ijk}, $$
where, y ijk is grandchildren’s religiosity and x ijk is a characteristic of the ith grandchild within the jth parent and kth grandparent . The estimate b 1jk is a fixed effect slope and b 0jk is the random intercept evaluated as the adjusted mean value of religiosity for grandchildren of the jth parent and the kth grandparent, and e ijk is the error term.
At level-2, or the parent-level of analysis, the random intercept from above is predicted as follows:
$$ {b}_{0 jk}={p}_{00k}+{p}_{01k}\left({z}_{0 jk}\right)+{r}_{0 jk}, $$
where z 0jk the religiosity the jth parent within the kth grandparent and p01k is the parents’ religiosity transmission effect within the kth grandparent, p 00k represents the adjusted mean value of grandchildren’s religiosity for the kth grandparent, and r 0jk is the error term.
Finally, at the third or grandparent level, the following equation predicts the random intercept above from grandparents’ religiosity:
$$ {p}_{00k}={g}_{000}+{g}_{001}{\left({w}_{00k}\right)}_{+}{u}_{00k} $$
where w 00k is religiosity of the kth grandparent and g 001 is the effect of grandparents’ religiosity on grandchildren’s religiosity controlling for parents’ religiosity.
To test the moderating role of divorce on the strength of grandparents’ transmission, we estimated a random effect for parental divorce (z) at level-2 and estimated the following level-3 equation:
$$ {p}_{01k}={g}_{010}+{g}_{011}\left({w}_{00k}\right)+{u}_{01k} $$
where g 011 represents the effect of grandparents’ religiosity on the effect of parents’ divorce—the joint or interactive influence of both factors on grandchildren’s religiosity.

Results

In Table 19.1, we present mean values for the five dimensions of religiosity by generation. ANOVA tests reveal that group differences were statistically significant on all dimensions. Further, post-hoc tests reveal that that the strength of religiosity generally followed a predictable generational pattern, with grandchildren expressing weaker religiosity than parents and/or grandparents. Attitudes toward the civic value of religiosity and religious intensity follow a steady decline from grandparents to parents to grandchildren. The other dimensions demonstrated discontinuity, with grandchildren and parents differing from grandparents on literalist beliefs and valuation of religion but not differing from each other. Grandchildren were significantly lower in religious attendance than their parents and grandparents. Generally, these reported generational differences indicate strong cohort effects that parallel the precipitous decline of religion in the United States over the period studied.
Table 19.1

Cross-generational comparison of religion variables

Religion Measures

Range

Grandchildren

M

(SD)

Parents

M

(SD)

Grandparents

M

(SD)

ANOVA

F-statistic*

Literalist religious beliefs

1–4

2.60b

(1.07)

2.70c

(1.13)

3.10

(1.02)

15.32

Civic value of religion

1–4

2.59ab

(0.96)

3.01c

(0.92)

3.56

(0.59)

83.92

Religious attendance

1–6

2.77a

(1.74)

3.22

(1.65)

3.03

(1.89)

5.34

Religious intensity

1–4

2.33ab

(1.04)

2.69c

(0.93)

3.10

(0.77)

46.25

Valuation of religion

1–9

3.39b

(2.87)

3.23c

(2.58)

4.52

(2.37)

15.03

*All F-statistics are significant at p < .05

Bonferonni post hoc multiple comparisons test (p. < .05)

aGrandchildren < Parents

bGrandchildren < Grandparents

cParents < Grandparents

The results of the HLM analysis are shown in Table 19.2.. It is important to reiterate that our use of generation-specific factor scores to represent religiosity rendered cohort effects inconsequential in these analyses because religiosity in each generation is considered relative to its internal average. The first equation shows the main effects and the second equation adds an interaction term between parental divorce and grandparents’ religiosity.
Table 19.2.

Three-level hierarchical linear model predicting grandchildren’s religiosity (N Grandchildren = 565; NParents = 341; N Grandparents = 257)

 

Main effects model

Interaction model

 

Coefficient

SE

t-ratio

Coefficient

SE

t-ratio

Grandchild level-1

      

 Female

.100

.071

1.40

.098

.071

1.38

 Age

.005

.012

.39

.005

.011

0.43

 College graduate

−.027

.031

−0.87

−.032

.030

−1.04

 Married

.328

.104

3.15**

.344

.102

3.37**

 Has child

.174

.105

1.66+

.176

.102

1.72+

Parent level-2

 

 Female

−.059

.089

−0.67

−.064

.088

−0.73

 Divorce

−.073

.092

−0.80

−.095

.093

−1.03

 Religiosity

.375

.052

7.21***

.356

.053

6.66***

Grandparent level-3

      

 Religiosity

.103

.046

2.21*

.076

.044

1.71+

 Intercept

−.048

.042

−1.15

−.077

.042

−1.83+

Cross-level interaction

      

 Grandparent

−.205

.097

−2.11*

 Religiosity*

      

 Parent divorce

      

Random effect

Variance component

Chi-Square

df

Variance component

Chi-Square

df

Error

.477

.473

InterceptParents

.190

514.6***

81

.140

InterceptGrandparents

.070

297.6*

255

.021

47.1

127

InterceptParentDivorce

   

.427

60.0

127

Deviance

1395.1

  

1387.8

  

+ p < .10; *p < .05; **p <. 01; ***p < .001

In the main effects model, both parents’ religiosity and grandparents’ religiosity predicted grandchildren’s religiosity, with the effect for parents more than three times that of grandparents (.375 vs. .103, respectively). We also anticipated that grandparents would indirectly influence their grandchildren through their influence on parents. To calculate this indirect effect, we estimated the effect of grandparents on parents (.32) and multiplied this term by the direct effect of parents on grandchildren (.38) to produce indirect effect of .12. Adding this indirect effect to the direct effect of grandparents, the total effect of grandparents is .22, a moderately sized standardized coefficient which suggests a substantively meaningful religious influence of grandparents.

Other significant variables revealed that grandchildren who were married and had children tended to be more religious than their counterparts. These results suggest that religious grandchildren adopt more traditional family roles, or alternatively that these roles create the conditions for religiosity to emerge.

In order to gain a fuller understanding of the magnitude of familial similarity in religiosity, we make use of the variance components of the first equation (bottom of Table 19.2.) to calculate intra-class correlations (ICC) of grandchild religiosity for nuclear family and grandfamily clusters. The ICC expresses the strength of within cluster similarity ranging from 0 (no similarity) to 100 (perfect similarity) and is calculated as: between-cluster variance /between-cluster + within-cluster variance. The ICC for total familial resemblance (nuclear family + grandfamily) exceeded 35% and broke down to 25.8% within nuclear families and 9.5% within grandfamilies. As expected, siblings were more alike than cousins. Although grandfamily consistency was modest, the ratio between the two sources of similarity is in-line with expectations—particularly given that only one set of grandparents was observed for each grandchild.

The interaction model added a cross-level interaction between parental divorce and grandparents’ religiosity. The coefficient for this interaction term was significant, implying that the direct influence of grandparents was different for grandchildren from divorced families than for grandchildren from intact families. Although the negative interaction coefficient implies weaker transmission in divorced families, its interpretation is aided by plotting predicted values based on model coefficients. We show predictions based on −1 and +1 standard deviation units in the distribution of grandparents’ religiosity, with other variables held constant at their means. Figure 19.1 demonstrates a positive association between grandparents’ religiosity and grandchildren’s religiosity among grandchildren in intact families. However, no such association was observed among grandchildren in divorced families; in these families, the religiosity of grandchildren was consistently low across all levels of grandparents’ religiosity.
Fig. 19.1

Grandchildren’s religiosity by grantparents’ religiosity and parent’s marital history

Discussion

The purpose of this investigation was to identify unique and conditional contributions of grandparents to the religiosity of their grandchildren. Analyzing data within three generation lineages spanning several decades of time, we found that grandparents influence their grandchildren independently of parents, and their influence is stronger when parents’ marriages are intact than when they have experienced a divorce. This evidence supports the proposition that the multigenerational family remains a source of relative stability in core religious beliefs and attitudes, albeit with divorce as an important mitigating factor.

In addition to finding great religious change at the generation-cohort level, we also detected intergenerational religious continuity between generations within family lineages. Grandparents influenced their grandchildren directly and indirectly through socialization of their grandchildren’s parents, illustrating the long reach of grandparents beyond what young adults may be fully aware. In our analysis we standardized the religiosity scores of each generation through factor analysis. Advantages to using standardized scores included the ability to “control” for cohort effects related to each generation having unique historical exposure to religious culture, and compare the strength of transmission between parents and grandparents. The total transmission effect for grandparents was somewhat more than half that for parents (.22 vs. .38), demonstrating the utility of taking a systemic view of family influence when studying the transmission of values, beliefs, and attitudes within an intergenerational context.

Our results reveal the family to be an anchoring institution within society that provides cross-generational continuity as a conservative counter-weight to social change that moves impressionable young adults to adopt novel ideologies of the immediate Zeitgeist (Alwin et al. 1991). Religion represent a prime candidate for studying this family-society tension because few aspects of life have changed so radically at the societal level while remaining so relevant at the family level.

Since we represented religiosity using factor scores, the transmission effects observed imply that families reproduce a similar rank-order of individuals in descending generations. Although the generations are, on average, not equivalent in their religious orientations, our results nevertheless suggest that families are stabilizing institutions—and grandparents and parents stabilizing agents—in terms of their ability to maintain the relative standing of their descendants in the shifting terrain of religious life.

Divorce in the middle generations served to inhibit religious transmission, and appeared to suppress religiosity in grandchildren regardless of the religiosity of grandparents. This effect is likely to have emerged from custody arrangements that split the influence of any one parent—and corresponding grandparents as well. In the case of remarriages, the influence of step-grandparents may be muted compared to biological grandparents, particularly when a step-parent enters the family when the grandchild is already an adolescent .

In light of custody arrangements that favor mothers and remarriage rates that favor fathers (Cherlin 2009), we also tested whether parents’ gender modified the interaction between parents’ divorce and grandparents’ influence (not shown). However, we found that this three-way interaction was not statistically significant and, thus, cannot conclude that the lower rate of grandparents’ religious transmission due to parental divorce is different in maternal vs. paternal lineages. We also did not find that grandparents’ gender altered the strength of religious transmission. This is somewhat surprising given that most research on grandparenting in Western countries finds both a maternal and matrilineal advantage in grandparent-grandchild relationships (Chan and Elder 2000; Michaleski and Shackleford 2005; Uhlenberg and Hammill 1998). It may be that overall matrilineal strength is offset by patrilineal dominance in the process by which religion achieves a legacy status and is reproduced across generations. Future research with a larger sample, and one measuring both maternal and paternal grandparents in the same families, may grant the statistical power to detect lineage and gender effects. It would also be fruitful to compare gender differences between transmission of religion and transmission of other cultural content in the context of multigenerational families.

Because socialization to values invariably takes place through meaningful interaction between family members, we postulated that early exposure of grandchildren to their grandparents would enhance communication and later adoption of grandparents’ religious orientations. Since religiosity of grandchildren in our study was primarily assessed in adulthood, when many grandparents were deceased, it was necessary to rely on parents’ reports of contact with grandparents 20 years earlier as a proxy for early childhood contact by grandchildren. We estimated this effect as an interaction between early contact with grandparents and religiosity of grandparents. Our working hypothesis was that this interaction might explain why divorce inhibited transmission from grandparents. Although we found suggestive evidence that the amount of exposure to grandparents positively predicted the rate of transmission (not reported), the contact interaction could not be simultaneously included with the divorce interaction in the multilevel model due to sample size limitations.

We note several limitations of our research. First, the sample of families studied is less than representative of the nation as well as the region from which it derived. Extrapolation to the broader population should be done with caution. Second, our measure of religiosity was broad (though empirically verified), and may mask compositional differences in generational continuity if sub-dimensions of religiosity are differentially stable across generations. Third, the possibility that grandchildren influence the religiosity of their parents and grandparents requires consideration of a two-way flow of transmission; however, the lagged nature of the empirical design mitigates against this possibility. Finally, we did not consider religious denomination in this analysis due to the complexities of examining transitions in nominal affiliations. However, we note that previous research using this sample has found greater religious stability among grandparents who self-identified as Evangelical Protestant and Mormon (Bengtson and Silverstein in press).

In conclusion, religiosity remains a thread of influence linking both adjacent and non-adjacent generations in the family through time. We suggest that future research on this topic account for new technologies, such as social media and Skype, which will allow more frequent and low cost exchanges between grandparents and grandchildren. If these technologies increase exposure of grandchildren to grandparents, then grandparent influence may grow commensurately. In addition, owing to increases in healthy life expectancy, grandchildren will likely spend more time with grandparents, increasing opportunities for shared activities and mutual influence (Uhlenberg 2005).

Grandparents have been little considered in social science research on intergenerational transmission of beliefs and attitudes. Our results suggest that grandparents directly and indirectly influence the religiosity of their grandchildren, providing a “window” into family traditions and cultural scripts. Extending the study of intergenerational transmission to include grandparents as influential actors takes into account the wider family system of “linked lives” that shape the values and belief systems of young adults. By considering members of three-generations as embedded within micro-social networks of influence, we hope to have contributed to the mission of this volume of bridging life course and network perspectives on family life.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologySyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA
  2. 2.School of Social WorkUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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