Date of Thesis



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.


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

Access Type

Masters Thesis (Bucknell Access Only)

Degree Type

Master of Science



First Advisor

Chris Boyatzis