Preacher's Kid syndrome refers to the alleged propensity for children of preachers, pastors, and other religious public figures to rebel against their parents' theology and be the "bad seed" -- often becoming atheists, converting to a different religion or sect, taking drugs, etc. as a response to increased communal pressure to be perfect. The "preacher's kid" is both a stereotype applied to actual children, and a common archetype in fiction, especially fiction taking place in the highly-religious American South.
Though not every child in this situation feels pressured, many do, especially in religious communities. Many preacher's children feel like they have a spotlight shone on all their actions. Some preachers have been known to share details about their kids and use their kids' lives as examples in their sermons.1 The actions of the child can be used to determine the suitability of the parents to be a part of the church. Oftentimes the stereotype of the preacher's kid being a bad kid causes stress and anxiety for all family members, for the parent can feel obligated to force their kids to be faithful, potentially doing more harm than good, and the child can feel like they must be perfect, robbing them of a "normal" mistake-laden childhood.
I'm sure you've heard the popular expression preacher's kid ... with the follow-up comment that those are the worst ones. ... Even as young children we're savvy enough to determine that this is a derogatory reference to us. ... Under the spotlight, everything that we say, do, and are will be scrutinized.... The gossip mills operate in full force ... our embarassment is compounded by the public awareness of our screw-up. ... It's no wonder that many children of pastors and other public figures break under the pressure of the spotlight.
—Aundria H. Hawkins Ford2
Most stereotypes form from a "kernel of truth", and the preacher's kid syndrome is no exception.3 A survey done to determine the veracity of the syndrome showed that a significant percentage of respondents (slightly over 20%) did fit the stereotype to some degree, mostly by becoming atheists. However, the majority of preacher's kids did not change their religious beliefs after their childhood, did not consider their upbringing to be significantly stressful, and were still affiliated with the same church as their parents. All respondents reported either learning about the stereotype at a very young age, or "always" knowing that it existed simply because of the way they were treated.4
The preacher's kid syndrome may not necessarily be true, but it still contains a large enough kernel of truth that it persists to this day. The effects of the expectations placed upon the children have yet to be fully studied, but given the well-known role that societal expectations have on developing minds, you can probably safely assume that it's bigger than the surface might indicate.
- "Being the Preacher’s Kid." Friendly Atheist. N.p., 4 June 2008. Retrieved 20 March 2012. Link.
- Ford, Aundria H. Hawkins. From the pastor's daughter: a testimony of life in the ministry through the eyes of the pastor's child. Mustang, Okla., USA: Tate Publishing & Enterprises, 2009. Pg 88. ISBN 1607998033.
- Schneider, David J. The Psychology of Stereotyping. New
York: Guilford Press, 2004. Pp 17-18. ISBN 1572309296.
- Allman, Tara J. An analysis of the stereotypes of preacher's kids and its application on their spouses. Huntington, WV: Marshall University Libraries, 2007. Link.