Beleaguered adherents to most religious creeds are accustomed to having their beliefs and lifestyles mocked and derided in our post-modern, God-is-dead society. So it’s rather refreshing, if not vindicating, to read an article like this one by Andrew Whitehouse, Associate Professor, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia.

He cites a 2008 study that looked into “whether growing up in a religious household conveys advantages or disadvantages in the behavioural and emotional development of children.”

Whitehouse seems to assume that his audience is overwhelmingly non- (or even anti-) religious: his tone is meek and apologetic. It’s therefore ironic that he should begin his article with the common biblical phrase “gird your loins”—the meaning of which, both literal and metaphorical, might be lost on those lacking a biblical grounding (literary or otherwise). It’s a mere side note, I know, but it serves to illustrate how much western culture owes to the Judeo-Christian tradition, that is perhaps often taken for granted.

But back to the study, the findings of which, in Whitehouse’s words,

…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. 

As with many such studies, however, there were numerous factors and variables that were not, to Whitehouse’s satisfaction, taken into account.

The first issue … 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 was 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.

I agree, and would go one further and suggest that how the faith is taught is also a crucial factor: how many young people have abandoned not only religion, but also any pretence of morality for having had (as a friend once described) “religion shoved down [their] throats”? It’s certainly a vivid metaphor and not a very pleasant one.

Nevertheless, for all its methodological shortcomings, the study is encouraging to those of us striving to ‘keep the faith,’ and raising our children to do the same. In short, you don’t have to be religious to be a good, kind, and effective parent, but apparently, it helps.

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...