Hold your hats. Gird your loins. Scrunch up your face like you’ve just witnessed your Dad on the dance floor at a wedding.
Ready? Good, because I’m writing about religion. Even worse, this column is about religion…and children.
But fear not. For my own sanity (and safety!), this column won’t dip its toe into the pool of ethical and moral arguments attached to the teaching of religion to children. This debate has been covered extensively by polemicists from both sides.
Rather, I’d like to try and take a dispassionate look at whether growing up in a religious household conveys advantages or disadvantages in the behavioural and emotional development of children.
So, with hats held and loins girded, let’s see what research is out there.
My interest in this area was piqued by a 2008 article by Bartowski and colleagues, which provided the largest study to date on how religion may influence different aspects of child development.
Data for this study came from one ‘wave’ (burst of data collection) of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) in the United States. The ECLS is a large study of children from around the US, who were selected so as to be representative of the broader population. The data in this study were collected during the Spring of 2000, and included around 15,000 kindergarten-aged children.
The parents of these children were asked about their own religiosity, including the frequency of their religious attendance, the religious environment in the household, and the religious attendance ‘homogamy’. (This last one being a rather odd word, which sounds very much like they assessed the abilities of the parents to wrestle and eat a wild pig – but apparently it means how [dis]similar the parents were in their attendance of religious services).
In the same questionnaire, the researchers asked the parents to rate their children on how often they displayed a range of behaviours relating to different aspects of child development. These included self-control, social interaction, internalising problems (anxiety/depressive symptoms) and externalising (attention problems and impulsivity) problems.
The researchers then looked for the relationships between parent religiosity and children’s behaviours. Data on parent religiosity and child development were collected on 10,000 or so of the children, and this was the final sample under investigation.
The analyses are many and complex, and I would only recommend reading the Results section of the paper, if you have nothing better to do (I mean, anything better to do – watching a close-up of Matt Preston from Masterchef slurping crème caramel was more enjoyable than reading the dense matrices of statistics).
Nevertheless, for those with a terrible case of scholarly masochism, Table 12 would probably provide you with your best fix. But for the rest: I’ve done the hard yards for us all, so keep reading.
The results turned out to be a bit of a landslide in favour of more religious parents. Children of religious parents were rated by both parents and teachers as having greater self-control, better interpersonal skills, and less likely to have depressive or impulsivity problems. All of these findings were observed even after taking into account ‘sociodemographic’ variables, such as parental education, family income, and child’s gender.
The one aspect that didn’t come up trumps for religious household, was when there was conflict between parents about religiosity (or ‘heterogamy, of course!). The more that parents argued about religion, the more their children were at risk of internalizing and externalizing problems.
So, this interesting study appears to provide evidence that a religious household may be beneficial for child development. But before we start forming any conclusions (religious householders, put the ‘Rocky’ theme tune on hold), I’d like you take note of this next section.
In that terribly annoying way that researchers tend to look for holes in arguments (Joke: ‘What did the scientist say to the wine maker? Show me the proof.’ Boom boom), I had a closer look at the research design and came up with a few thinking points.
The first issue that came to my mind was whether the questions about parents’ religiosity may in fact be tapping other factors. By asking ‘how often parents attended a worship service’, the researchers may not actually be determining whether a child is taught to believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing God, but rather they may be measuring other factors that come along with religiosity, such as a particular style of parenting, a certain family structure, or a child’s exposure to a tight-knit and supportive community - all of which are highly influential to child development.
Another issue, which the authors fully acknowledge, is that there were no data on which religion parents’ adhered to. This is a critical piece of information. Given the sheer range of religions – and variety of parenting styles these religions promote – I don’t think we would expect a similar relationship across all faiths.
To my mind, combining all religions in the same category makes little more sense than lumping all food together when examining a person’s weight gain. What you eat is just as important as how much you eat.
So, what conclusion can we draw from this study? Is religion good for children?
Certainly, the findings of this study seem to indicate that religion has a positive effect on child development. But, when weighing up the issues that I’ve raised above, I’m led to the conclusion that we still don’t have an answer to this question. (Yes, the fence on which I’m sitting is very sturdy, thank you very much).
For what it’s worth, my own experience is that the explicit teaching of key morals, such as the ‘golden rule’ (do unto others…), is an important ingredient for the development of an emotionally healthy and well-adapted child.
Religion is certainly one way through which children can come to understand about their relationships with people and the broader world.
But it’s not the only way.
I welcome your comments.