Study: Faith reduces childhood problems, improves academic achievement

The traditional nuclear family of a married father and mother raising children has undergone an inside-out makeover in recent decades. Single-parent families borne out of a wide variety of circumstances have become commonplace. The impact of the wide variety of parenting structures has been debated at length. But what about the importance of faith coupled with stable parenting on childhood development? In a recent presentation to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), William Jeynes unpacked long-term data suggesting faith is a central component in driving down childhood problems and raising up academic achievement and pro-social behaviors. Jeynes has earned a Ph.D. and is an education professor at California State University-Long Beach. He holds degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard University and has spoken and researched extensively on education-related topics. This particular study was done using meta-analysis, a strategy that blends and compiles research done elsewhere – in addition to original research – to create as diverse a picture as possible. Jeynes said most of the studies included in his analysis came from the 1990s and early 2000s and that he defined children of faith as kids who went to church with their parents at least three times a month and were involved to some degree in a youth group or other church activities. In doing detailed accounting, Jeynes said he was struck by how the subtle actions and cues parents give through their actions had long-lasting effects. “Understanding that the most ideal parent is one who provides love and structure for their children, out findings that that some of the more subtle aspects of parenting are the most important is somewhat of a surprise and also the most humbling,” Jeynes said. “For example, while it’s certainly important to have household rules and to be in attendance at school functions, what we’ve found is that they’re not as important as setting parental expectations and setting the expectations for a child to excel at his or her certain level.” Jeynes used an example from his own life, saying he shocked his oldest son when he told him that if he decided a career path that didn’t take him to college he would be supportive as long as he made the effort necessary to succeed. He said his son was taken aback and had every intention to pursue higher education, but the overarching point is about setting an established bar. The same process is true when it comes to building a life of faith and Christian perspectives in children, Jeynes said. “There are some very distinct benefits of faith. The first thing is it gives a lot of kids a sense of purpose. The concept of a purpose-driven life was popular as a book (by internationally-known Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren) and has been extremely successful as something a lot of people are looking for in their lives. This is especially appealing to youth who see through relativism and the cultural notion that all behaviors are equal. I think a lot of adolescents see that there needs to be a greater reason for being driven to succeed.” Such connections can be particularly meaningful in single-parent households, which Jeynes can relate to. “We wanted to see what factors could mitigate problems from non-intact families,” he said. “What we found is that if the children were of faith, the problems were cut in half, in part because the sense of community can be so strong. If a child doesn’t have a physical father, the idea of having a heavenly Father becomes very appealing. I know the idea of a heavenly Father was very appealing to me personally growing up as my parents were divorced and I didn’t have much contact with my own father.” To emphasize his point Jeynes pointed to Psalm 27:10, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” (NIV) “The idea we can have spiritual mothers and fathers in the church and the aspect of surrogate parenting can have a definite benefit.” The study also underscores the importance of families placing a high priority on their children. Jeynes and his wife have worked as counselors for about 25 years. He has seen a notable decrease in the number of couples who put concerns about children first and foremost when contemplating separation or divorce. “As much as possible it is important in a single-parent situation to set your own feelings aside and get the non-custodial parent involved,” he said. “I understand there are circumstances with abuse and other issues and you can’t discount that. … We always talk about deadbeat dads, but one of the reasons we see this is because a mother may deny access to their children after a divorce and the father sees no need to continue child support payments if he’s not going to be involved in the child’s life. “Denying or neglecting access to kids from both parents can involve not only a lot of emotional consequences in the short-term, but economic consequences for those kids as they get older and their ability to handle challenging situations.” And that is where a life of faith can help fill the void. “We need to not be in a state of denial. There is a sense that a lot of parents exhibit, perhaps out of guilt, that they like to deny family transitions and divorce don’t have that much of an effect on a child. That simply isn’t true. One thing that can make a difference is a person of faith can derive strength from that for themselves and also encourage the child to be a person of faith as an adult.” Jeynes also has specific public policy views that come from his work in presenting for government institutions. An appearance at the National Press Club appearance in 2007 with fellow researchers at Baylor University – where he is a non-resident scholar – led him to be tabbed by the Bush Administration to conduct research on the relationship between faith, family and education. He was part of a series of policy recommendation presentations, including a closed-door session with President Bush and other high-ranking officials. His three primary views are greater emphasis on parental involvement by public schools, greater public support of religious schools including vouchers or tax breaks for parents, and a greater degree of tolerance for religious thought. Jeynes said he remembers as a boy when Bible reading was removed from public schools through the 1963 Supreme Court decision of Abington Township School District vs. Schempp. He quoted statistics pointing to declines in SAT scores and a rise in the divorce rate at the same time as evidence of the advent of a general moral decline, which he said schools need to address today in the form of enhanced character education. “From what we’ve seen, when you have a kid, religious or not, receive quality character education regardless of ethnicity, that need to be taught values of honesty, sincerity, courage and responsibility is very important.”

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