In the last several years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the role of religion in socializing young people (among recent studies, see Chiswick and Mirtcheva 2013
; Petts 2011a
; Petts and Kysar-Moon 2012
; for reviews, see Bartkowski 2007
; Hemming and Madge 2011
; Holden and Williamson 2014
; Nelson 2009
). While the bulk of early research had detected the beneficial effects of religion on adolescent dispositions and behaviors (e.g., Smith and Denton 2005
), increasing attention is now being given to religion’s influence on the development of elementary and middle school-age children (e.g., Bartkowski et al. 2008
; Chiswick and Mirtcheva 2013
; Miller et al. 1997
; Petts 2012
; Petts and Kysar-Moon 2012
). One of the earliest studies to use national data revealed that parental religiosity, especially the frequency of couples’ worship service attendance, was associated with enhanced psychological adjustment and social competence among primary school-age children (Bartkowski et al. 2008
). Religious solidarity among couples and parent–child communication about religion were also linked with positive developmental characteristics, while religious conflict among spouses either failed to yield salutary effects or was connected to adverse outcomes. More recent inquiries have revealed that parental religiosity can have beneficial effects on child development even under challenging circumstances, such as within single-mother households (Petts 2012
) and among disadvantaged fathers in urban areas (Petts 2011b
). In short, religion can be a vital part of a children’s developmental foundation.
At the same time, our investigation augments the current body of scholarship in three distinct ways. First, we examine the extent to which the household religious environment, namely, the frequency of parent–child discussions about religion and the frequency of spousal arguments about religion, may affect the development of young children over time. These factors produced significant effects in a previous cross-sectional study (Bartkowski et al. 2008
), but have not been examined longitudinally. Second, we explore a wide range of developmental outcomes, including children’s (1) psychological adjustment (e.g., self-control, internalizing problem behaviors); (2) social competence (e.g., interpersonal skills, externalizing problem behaviors); and (3) academic performance (i.e., approaches to learning as well as standardized test scores). The last of these domains is particularly important to examine given scholarly inquiries about religion’s potential to undermine educational achievement (Darnell and Sherkat 1997
), verbal acumen (Sherkat 2010
), and scientific literacy (Sherkat 2011
). Third, our study combines subjective assessments of child development (rendered by teachers) with objective measures of developmental outcomes (children’s performance on standardized tests). Subjective ratings offered by parents, teachers, or others can be subject to bias, thus underscoring the utility of more objective outcome measures.
1.1. Religion and Child Development: Prior Research and Theory
Despite the vast attention paid to structural and cultural predictors of child development (e.g., household income, family composition, race-ethnicity), religion had long been ignored until recently. Significant findings emerged with nationally representative data. Bartkowski et al.
) found that parental attendance, and especially high rates of couple attendance, were associated with enhanced self-control, interpersonal skills, and positive learning styles, as well as a diminished incidence of internalizing problem behaviors in children beginning elementary school. These results differed from those observed for older youth (ages 10–17) and young adults (18–23) for whom parents’ religious heterogamy did not significantly influence self-esteem or life satisfaction (Petts and Knoester 2007
). While findings published in previous research (Bartkowski et al. 2008
) were generally more robust for parents’ ratings of children’s behavior, significant effects also surfaced in teachers’ ratings of child development. Moreover, the frequency of parent–child discussions of religion was directly associated with a number of positive parent ratings of children (e.g., self-control, social interaction skills, approaches to learning), though fewer of these findings surfaced in teacher ratings of child development. Likewise, the deleterious effects of spousal conflicts over religion (e.g., diminished self-control, increased emotional problems) were associated with parents’ ratings of children but not those of teachers. Bartkowski et al.
) were quick to call attention to one significant limitation to their study, namely, the use of cross-sectional data and, hence, their inability to establish causal order in a definitive fashion. They acknowledged that selectivity bias (e.g., the willingness of parents with well-behaved children to attend religious services more frequently) could influence the results in their cross-sectional investigation.
A group of more recent studies, quite notable for their use of longitudinal data, have corroborated and augmented these findings. A series of investigations conducted by Petts
) have demonstrated that religion is a valuable resource for promoting positive child developmental outcomes within households facing social disadvantage (e.g., single-mother-headed families, urban fathers in economically depressed environments). Moreover, salutary effects of parental religiosity have been observed with other nationally representative data, such that families’ religious involvement has been shown to facilitate positive psychological health outcomes among children during their preteen and early teenage years (Chiswick and Mirtcheva 2013
). This last study corroborated an earlier investigation that revealed protective effects of religion in the intergenerational transmission of depressive symptoms (Miller et al. 1997
This is not to say that religion produces uniformly positive developmental outcomes for children and youth. For example, spousal arguments about religion often undermine children’s psychological adjustment and social competence, even when controlling for other types of spousal arguments (Bartkowski et al. 2008
). And internalizing behaviors are more common when (1) children have two parents or a father with strict religious beliefs, and (2) children are raised in single-parent or cohabiting households in which only one parent believes religion is important (Petts 2011a
). Moreover, while only marginally significant, the importance of religion among children ages 6–11 is associated with lower levels of psychological health (Chiswick and Mirtcheva 2013
). Finally, cross-national data collected from children, including those in the U.S., revealed that household religion fosters greater empathy among children but is also linked with more punitiveness and less altruism (Decety et al. 2015
Why would religion have such pronounced effects on the development of young children? On the positive side of the ledger, religion has been shown to enhance the parent–child bond for both mothers (Pearce and Axinn 1998
) and fathers (Bartkowski and Xu 2000
; King 2003
; Wilcox 2002
). It is not surprising, then, that religion and spirituality are meaningful to many children (see Bartkowski 2007
; Holden and Williamson 2014
). Moreover, a principal concern of religious communities entails the provision of resources to parents and families (Mahoney 2010
; Mahoney et al. 2001
; Wilcox 2008
). For this reason, scholars have underscored religion’s sanctification of family relationships (Bartkowski et al. 2008
; Mahoney 2010
; Mahoney et al. 2003
) whereby domestic bonds are imbued with special meaning and significance. As Mahoney and colleagues (2003:221) have argued: “Religion is distinctive because it incorporates peoples’ perceptions of the ‘sacred’ into the search for significant goals and values … [that] deserve veneration and respect … Indeed, part of the power of religion lies in its ability to infuse spiritual character and significance into a broad range of worldly concerns,” including those in the home. Hence, families can use religion as a cultural resource to enhance cohesion, resolve conflicts, and pursue desired goals. In short, religion casts parental responsibilities as covenantal. However, given prior research on the potentially adverse outcomes associated with religiosity (e.g., Bartkowski et al. 2008
; Petts 2011a
), sanctification must be understood in a contextually specific fashion. Although religion may serve as a bridge in same-faith homes, it can function as a wedge in mixed-faith families. In households in which couples do not share a common faith or argue about religion, children often have poorer developmental outcomes.
This study therefore provides a ripe opportunity to clarify sanctification theory. The process of sanctification would be expected to produce positive outcomes for child development factors that fall squarely within the province of religiosity but not for those that fall outside of religion’s sphere of influence. A great deal of research has indicated that major religions, and Christianity in particular, have a central focus on promoting the well-being of families and children (e.g., Bartkowski 2001
; Bartkowski et al. 2008
; Bartkowski and Grettenberger 2018
; Browning and Clairmont 2007
; Browning and Miller-McLemore 2009
; Wilcox et al. 2004
; see Marks and Dollahite 2017
for a comprehensive and accessible review). Such research underscores the prevalence of family ministry programs in American congregations. Moreover, the Bible and other religious scriptures focus extensively on fostering healthy marital unions and parent–child relationships (Bartkowski 2001
; Browning and Clairmont 2007
; Browning and Miller-McLemore 2009
). Therefore, it is reasonable to hypothesize that parental religious involvement would influence young children’s psychological adjustment and social competence because religions aim to sanctify family relationships and primary attachments that are often viewed as foundational for young children’s personal development. By contrast, outcomes that are beyond the purview of family sanctification, such as academic performance, would be expected to be less subject to the influence of religious involvement or perhaps adversely affected by parental religiosity if religious commitment is stressed at the expense of academic mastery. In short, the remarkably robust institutional synergy that marks that religion–family nexus, including widely prevalent congregational family ministry programs, is manifested across denominational traditions (Wilcox et al. 2004
). Yet, this same synergy is not evident with respect to the linkages between religion and other social institutions (Bartkowski and Grettenberger 2018
). To be sure, religion can influence educational attainment, economic arrangements, and political circumstances, but not with the same principal focus—some might say preoccupation—directed at families. In fact, religion’s extensive focus on family and social relationships may detract attention from other considerations. The argument that religious involvement can undermine children’s academic performance and educational attainment has been demonstrated in previous research (Darnell and Sherkat 1997
; Sherkat 2010
), thereby hinting at the limits and context-specific nature of sanctification. We therefore introduce the theoretical construct of selective sanctification and anticipate differential effects with respect to religion and particular types of child outcomes. Children’s psychological adjustment and social development are expected to be enhanced by parental religiosity while their academic performance will not.
Despite the empirical and theoretical insights to emerge from previous research, there are a number of important questions left unanswered that will be addressed by the present investigation. First, while the publication of several longitudinal studies of religion and child development in recent years is quite welcome, the small size of this research literature could benefit from additional scholarship. Augmenting the few longitudinal studies on this topic is necessary to establish with greater confidence the causal influence and enduring impact of religiosity on child development.2
Second, very little research has previously examined the extent to which the religious environment within households may affect the development of young children over time. Because religion is best understood as a group property (i.e., a product of social relationships rather than merely an individual attribute), the collective nature of religion clearly needs additional attention. To this end, we examine the longitudinal effects associated with the frequency of parent–child discussions of religion and spousal conflicts over religion. These factors produced significant effects in a previous cross-sectional study (Bartkowski et al. 2008
) but have not been examined longitudinally. Finally, our study is able to examine a diverse array of developmental outcomes, including children’s psychological adjustment, social competence, and academic performance, thereby complementing subjective ratings of children’s behavior with more objective performance measures.
To conduct our study, we use data collected during two different waves of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), from baseline (1999) to outcome (2002). Extant research and theory (reviewed above) lead us to generate several hypotheses that are tested in this study. All relationships anticipated in these hypotheses are net of controls, which include child development characteristics at baseline, thus providing a more rigorous test of the effects of religious factors.3
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
More frequent parental religious attendance at baseline will result in (a) more positive psychological and social child development outcomes over time and (b) more negative academic outcomes over time.
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
More frequent parent–child discussions of religion at baseline will result in (a) more positive psychological and social child development outcomes over time and (b) more negative academic outcomes over time.
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
More frequent spousal conflicts over religion at baseline will result in (a) more negative psychological and social child development outcomes over time and (b) more negative academic performance outcomes over time.