The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Better than Preschool

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

For at least a generation, policy elites have considered “early education”—a euphemism for more institutional daycare and nursery schools—the Rosetta stone that unlocks the mysteries of the healthy development of young children. Yet a study by researchers at Mississippi State University, finding “robust and quite clear” links between parental church attendance and several measures of child development, suggests that the well being of children depends more on parents than on parental substitutes.

Crunching data on more than 21,000 children enrolled in kindergarten and first grade from the spring 2000 wave of Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class, the sociologists discovered that among several aspects of parental religiosity, church attendance exerts a consistent and positive effect on five measures of child development. A father’s and a mother’s church attendance, they found, each strongly correlated with a child’s “approach to learning” as evaluated by parents and by teachers (p<.001 for all four coefficients). In other words, the more that a child’s mother or father participates in public worship on a weekly basis, the higher the rating of a child’s eagerness to learn, variety of interests, creativity, persistence, and responsibility.

Each of these two church attendance variables were also strongly linked to evaluations of child self-control by parents and teachers (p<.001 for three coefficients, p<.05 for one), to the evaluation of a child’s social interaction by parents (p<.01 for both), and the evaluation of a child’s interpersonal skills by teachers (p<.001 for mother’s attendance, p<.05 for father’s). In addition, the two independent variables yielded numerous, although not all, statistically significant correlations with scales measuring child sadness/loneliness and impulsiveness/overactiveness.

A third variable, “both parents attend [church] frequently,” was statistically associated with all five measures of child development as rated by parents and teachers (p<.05 for nine coefficients; p<.10 for one).

Explaining their findings, the researchers emphasize the “multiplicative effect” of parental church attendance on the well-being of children: “It is not simply generic homogamy (couple similarity regardless of religiosity), but rather the amount of religion (e.g., stocks of ‘religious capital’) that a couple can jointly import into the family that bolsters child outcomes, especially for child performance outside the home.” Given how much policymakers are looking for ways to boost the “school readiness” of children, these findings point to an overlooked and often ignored means to that end.

(Source: John P. Bartkowski et al., “Religion and Child Development: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study,” 37.1 Social Science Research [2008]: 18–36.)