Date of Thesis


Thesis Type

Masters Thesis (Bucknell Access Only)

Degree Type

Master of Science



First Advisor

Chris Boyatzis


Spiritual Discourse, Mother-Child, Religious Spiritual Development, RSD, Bidirectionality, Reciprocity, Discourse, Spirituality, Religiosity, Religion, Family


Parents and children, starting at very young ages, discuss religious and spiritual issues¿where we come from, what happens to us after we die, is there a God, and so on. Unfortunately, few studies have analyzed the content and structure of parent-child conversation about religion and spirituality (Boyatzis & Janicki, 2003; Dollahite & Thatcher, 2009), and most studies have relied on self-report with no direct observation. The current study examined mother-child (M-C) spiritual discourse to learn about its content, structure, and frequency through a survey inventory in combination with direct video observation using a novel structured task. We also analyzed how mothers¿ religiosity along several major dimensions related to their communication behaviors within both methods. Mothers (N = 39, M age = 40) of children aged 3-12 completed a survey packet on M-C spiritual discourse and standard measures of mothers¿ religious fundamentalism, intrinsic religiosity, sanctification of parenting (how much the mother saw herself as doing God¿s work as a parent), and a new measure of parental openness to children¿s spirituality. Then, in a structured task in our lab, mothers (N = 33) and children (M age = 7.33) watched a short film or read a short book that explored death in an age-appropriate manner and then engaged in a videotaped conversation about the movie or book and their religious or spiritual beliefs. Frequency of M-C spiritual discourse was positively related to mothers¿ religious fundamentalism (r = .71, p = .00), intrinsic religiosity (r = .77, p = .00), and sanctification of parenting (r = .79, p = .00), but, surprisingly, was inversely related to mothers¿ v openness to child¿s spirituality (r = -.52, p = .00). Survey data showed that the two most common topics discussed were God (once a week) and religion as it relates to moral issues (once a week). According to mothers their children¿s most common method of initiating spiritual discourse was to repeat what he or she has heard parents or family say about religious issues (M = 2.97; once a week); mothers¿ most common method was to describe their own religious/spiritual beliefs (M = 2.92). Spiritual discourse most commonly occurred either at bedtime or mealtime as reported by 26% of mothers, with the most common triggers reported as daily routine/random thoughts (once a week) and observations of nature (once a week). Mothers¿ most important goals for spiritual discourse were to let their children know that they love them (M = 3.72; very important) and to help them become a good and moral person (M = 3.67; very important). A regression model showed that significant variance in frequency of mother-child spiritual discourse (R2 = .84, p = .00) was predicted by the mothers¿ importance of goals during discourse (ß = 0.46, p = .00), frequency that the mother¿s spirituality was deepened through spiritual discourse (ß = 0.39, p = .00), and the mother¿s fundamentalism (ß = 0.20, p = .05). In a separate regression, the mother¿s comfort in the structured task (ß = 0.70, p = .00), and the number of open-ended questions she asked (ß = -0.26, p = .03) predicted the reciprocity between mother and child (R2 = .62, p = .00). In addition, the mother¿s age (ß = 0.22, p = .059) and comfort during the task (ß = 0.73, p = .00) predicted the child¿s engagement within the structured task. Other findings and theoretical and methodological implications will be discussed.