A new study suggests that growing up in a religious household can be a mixed blessing for childhood development. The findings, published in the journal Religions, show that children raised in religious families tend to have enhanced social and psychological skills but may perform less well academically, compared to their non-religious peers.
For the study, researchers from The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS)-Kindergarten Cohort. They looked at the effects of parents’ religious attendance and how the religious environment in the household (frequency of parent-child religious discussions and spousal conflicts over religion) influenced a nationally representative sample of third-graders.
They also reviewed the children’s psychological adjustment, interpersonal skills, problem behaviors, and performance on standardized tests in reading, math, and science.
The findings show that third-graders’ psychological adjustment and social competence were positively associated with various religious factors. However, students’ performance on reading, math, and science tests were negatively tied to several forms of parental religiosity.
The results suggest that parental religiosity can be a mixed blessing that produces significant gains in social psychological development among third-graders while potentially undermining academic performance, particularly in math and science.
“Religion emphasizes moral codes designed to instill values such as self-control and social competence,” said Dr. John Bartkowski, professor of sociology at UTSA.
“Religious groups’ prioritization of these soft skills may come at the expense of academic performance, which is generally diminished for youngsters raised in religious homes when compared with their non-religious peers.”
The new findings add to the 2008 study conducted by Bartkowski and colleagues, which was the first to use national data to look at the impact religion has on child development. That study found that religion was linked to enhanced psychological adjustment and social competence among primary school-age children (kindergartners).
The study also found that religious solidarity among parents and communication between parent and child were linked to positive development characteristics while religious conflict among spouses was connected to negative outcomes.
Bartkowski said there are many ways to pursue well-rounded development, and religion is only one avenue.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, religion occupies an important place in that village. But it certainly doesn’t have a corner on fostering positive developmental trajectories for children. In fact, religion may be best paired with other community resources such as academically oriented school clubs and activities,” he said.
Bartkowski also noted an important limitation in the new study.
“Some religious groups may more effectively balance soft skill development and academic excellence than others,” he said.
“Regrettably, our data set does not inquire about denominational affiliation, so we cannot say if children from Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Muslim or other denominational backgrounds are especially likely to strike the delicate balance between social psychological development and academic excellence.”
A major takeaway from the study is that religion can be an important influence, generally for good and sometimes for ill, as children navigate their way through the grade school years, said Bartkowski.