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Simple science: Kids and religion

Research, including brain-imaging studies, concludes that teens who are religious are better off in significant ways than secular peers.

March 29, 2004|Laura Sessions Stepp | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Here's a crazy idea: After all our ambitious child-rearing with Discovery toys, Suzuki piano lessons, conflict-avoidance classes, 4 a.m. swim practices, SAT prep classes, driver education and summer flights to study folk music in the Republic of Georgia, we might have done as well (and saved money) by just sending our kids to church, temple or mosque.

Late last year, a commission convened by Dartmouth Medical School, among others, studied years of research on kids, including brain-imaging studies, and concluded that young people who are religious are better off in significant ways than their secular peers. They are less likely than nonbelievers to smoke and drink and more likely to eat well; less likely to commit crimes and more likely to wear seat belts; less likely to be depressed and more likely to be satisfied with their families and school.

"Religion has a unique net effect on adolescents above and beyond factors like race, parental education and family income," says Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and panel member. Poor children who are religious will do better than poor children who are not religious, he adds -- and in some cases better than nonreligious middle-class children.

Meanwhile, a social groundswell may be underway, as a larger proportion of teenagers than a decade ago say religion is important. In 2001, about three out of five teenagers said religion was "pretty important" or "very important" to them -- a significant increase, according to Child Trends, a research organization that analyzes federal data. The biggest jump occurred among young achievers who anticipated finishing four years of college.

Such teenagers have helped make a hit out of "Joan of Arcadia," a CBS show about a 15-year-old who talks to God; it has been renewed for a second season. They've sustained a decade-long growth in the number of high school Bible clubs to about 15,000. They are swelling the enrollment at Christian colleges at three times the rate of other degree-granting schools. Religion is getting bigger in teenagers' lives, and the Dartmouth panel's findings may suggest to some that it should.

Though one of its sponsors, the Institute for American Values, publishes a good bit about God and faith, the commission was no conclave of religious conservatives. It included professors and researchers at the medical schools of Harvard and UCLA as well as longtime experts on child-rearing, including T. Berry Brazelton, Robert Coles and Michael Resnick.

The commission members said that religious congregations benefit teenagers by affirming who they are, expecting a lot from them and giving them opportunities to show what they can do. As the panel noted, the same could be said of clubs, sports teams and other youth organizations (such as the YMCA, which helped fund the study). What sets religious groups apart, however -- and makes a surprisingly big difference to kids, according to the panel -- is that they promote a "direct personal relationship with the Divine."

Adolescents, said the Dartmouth group, are "hard-wired to connect" to people and God.

Panels of academics and medical practitioners don't usually refer to "the Divine." But these experts couldn't ignore what the data suggested, in particular two things: Religion or spirituality may influence young people's brain circuits, reducing their levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and personal devotion is twice as likely to protect them from risky behavior as it would adults.

"Their brains are changing, their relations with family, friends and the opposite sex are changing, and they're beginning to figure out what their purpose in the world will be," Wilcox says. "We know that people often turn to God in the midst of momentous changes. Adolescents are no different."

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