Is Religion a Tonic for Kids? You Better Believe It, Say Teens and Scholars
Here’s a crazy idea: After all our ambitious child-rearing with Discovery toys, Suzuki piano lessons, conflict-avoidance classes, 4 a.m. swim practices, SAT prep classes, driver education and summer flights to study folk music in the Republic of Georgia, we might have done as well (and saved a lot of money) by just sending our kids to church, temple or mosque.
Late last year, a commission convened by Dartmouth Medical School, among others, studied years of research on kids, including brain-imaging studies, and concluded that young people who are religious are better off in significant ways than their secular peers. They are less likely than nonbelievers to smoke and drink and more likely to eat well; less likely to commit crimes and more likely to wear seat belts; less likely to be depressed and more likely to be satisfied with their families and school.
“Religion has a unique net effect on adolescents above and beyond factors like race, parental education and family income,” says Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and panel member. Poor children who are religious will do better than poor children who are not religious, he adds — and in some cases better than nonreligious middle-class children.
Meanwhile, a social groundswell may be underway, as a larger proportion of teenagers than a decade ago say religion is important. In 2001, about three out of five teenagers said religion was “pretty important” or “very important” to them — a significant increase, according to Child Trends, a research organization that analyzes federal data. The biggest jump occurred not among poor and unambitious teenagers — the stereotyped believers — but among young achievers who anticipated finishing four years of college.
Such teenagers have helped make a hit out of “Joan of Arcadia,” a CBS show about a 15-year-old who talks to God; it has been renewed for a second season. They’ve sustained a decade-long growth in the number of high school Bible clubs to about 15,000. They are swelling the enrollment at Christian colleges at three times the rate of other degree-granting schools. Religion is getting bigger in teenagers’ lives, and the Dartmouth panel’s findings may suggest to some that it should.
Though one of its sponsors, the Institute for American Values, publishes a good bit about God and faith, the commission was no conclave of religious conservatives. It included professors and researchers at the medical schools of Harvard and UCLA as well as longtime experts on child-rearing practice including T. Berry Brazelton, Robert Coles, Peter Benson and Michael Resnick.
The commission members said that religious congregations benefit teenagers by affirming who they are, expecting a lot from them and giving them opportunities to show what they can do. These are not exactly earthshaking observations; as the panel noted, the same could be said of clubs, sports teams and other youth organizations (such as the YMCA, which helped fund the study). What sets religious groups apart, however — and makes a surprisingly big difference to kids, according to the panel — is that they promote a “direct personal relationship with the Divine.”
Adolescents, said the Dartmouth group, are “hard-wired to connect” to people and God.
Panels of academics and medical practitioners don’t usually refer to “the Divine.” But these experts couldn’t ignore what the data suggested, in particular two things: Religion or spirituality may influence young people’s brain circuits, reducing their levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and personal devotion is twice as likely to protect them from risky behavior as it would adults.
“Their brains are changing, their relations with family, friends and the opposite sex are changing, and they’re beginning to figure out what their purpose in the world will be,” says Wilcox. “We know that people often turn to God in the midst of momentous changes. Adolescents are no different.”
Kimbrey Pierce, a Columbia high school senior, puts it more simply. “God isn’t just a part of my life, He’s the whole thing,” she says. “I like knowing He is making the best decisions for me. That way I don’t worry too much.”
Growing the Church
On Sundays you can find Kimbrey and 100 or more young people hanging out at Glen Mar United Methodist Church, an Ellicott City congregation that doubled its membership in the 1980s and again in the 1990s and now counts 1,500 active members.
Senior pastor Anders Lunt realized long ago that the way to grow a church was to attract baby boomers and the way to attract boomers was through their kids. The church youth program took off six years ago when its first full-time youth director, D.C. Veale, was hired.
Veale, a bearded, Tolkienesque figure in his early thirties, recruited adults to help him with a struggling group of fewer than 20 regular members. Today he calls on about 30 adult volunteers to lead a youth choir, handbell choir and rock band, a video tech team, plays and scavenger hunts, Bible groups, community service projects and mission trips.
Youths also play major parts in more traditional worship, teaching Sunday school, reading scripture, and three times a year preaching sermons so popular that people squeeze in at the back of the sanctuary and spill out into the front hall.
Lunt has instructed his Howard County congregation that no place is off-limits to the young. When babies cry during a sermon, he has been known to stop mid-sentence to assure parents it’s okay.
“I have been in churches where there are no children,” the congenial, sandy-haired pastor will say, “and those are awful places.”
It is Veale’s job to keep the children coming, and coming back, even when they wander away as teenagers are wont to do. He drops by soccer games, wrestling matches and school plays. Several years ago, he noticed that a quiet middle-school boy named Andrew Flanigan had been absent for a while, so he called Andrew’s mother, Brenda, and asked, “How’s Andrew doing? Would he like to go on a trip?”
Andrew, now a high school senior, is telling this story, sitting in the living room of his mother’s cozy townhouse in Laurel. In his frayed jeans, T-shirt and fuzzy goatee, he would easily go unnoticed in any group of kids. Which is how he likes it.
In elementary school he had a stutter and learning problems. “Everyone made fun of me,” he says. “Everyone.” Then one afternoon in sixth grade he came home to hear Brenda in the bathroom, sobbing. His father had walked out on the family without warning.
Andrew’s grades tanked. Brenda, who had been taking him and his younger sister to Glen Mar, stopped for a year. Then she resumed, desperate to find for herself and her kids some semblance of a family activity and a safe place to vent their feelings.
(The number one reason kids say they go to church is because their parents take them.)
“I’d be long gone if it weren’t for this church,” he says. He remembers the night he returned to the youth group after having been away. “Several people said, ‘Hey, you’re back!’ The love I felt coming out of everyone was amazing. The hurt went away for a while.”
“What really reached me is that God cared so much He gave up his son. That God could love me unconditionally like that was pretty amazing. It’s the kind of love parents have for their kids — or should have for their kids.”
Every child confirmed at Glen Mar has an adult sponsor. Andrew’s was a media specialist named Brian Slack. Slack got Andrew interested in running the church sound system and soon he was doing it for church plays and Glen Mar’s rock band, appropriately named Second Chance. He even attracted groupies, a handful of girls who hung around at band practice and were jokingly described by one church member as “Andrew’s little harem.”
One weekday afternoon, with county roads blocked by snow and ice, Andrew couldn’t get a ride to band practice. Second Chance members who did fumbled around with the soundboard. It wasn’t pretty.
Told of their confusion, Andrew sighed. “I should have been there.” He needed them and they needed him. Pretty cool.
His D’s became C’s and B’s. He made up for a year of lost credits in summer school.
He still runs with a crowd that indulges occasionally in alcohol and marijuana. When he’s tempted, all he has to do is glance at his wrists, encircled in stretch cotton bands depicting religious images. What would friends like Slack say? Or Mom? Or God?
Strength in Numbers
“A substantial minority of American teens are quite active religiously,” says Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Then there’s another large group who’s sort of involved. If their dad is visiting and he goes to synagogue, they might go, or if there’s a crisis they might pray.” The rest of kids, he says, “have no clue what you’re talking about.”
Smith is in the middle of a four-year project on youth and religion, one of several efforts underway by universities and foundations to better understand this under-researched part of many kids’ lives.
One factor contributing to the uptick in youth religiosity, some researchers suspect, is the rise in the number of immigrant families entering the United States. As sisters Amanda and Amy Katru, Christians from India, will tell you, a church like Glen Mar can feel like a little piece of home in a strange land.
The Katrus started going to Glen Mar last fall, a time of discontent for Amy, a slender, dark-haired senior at Long Reach High School in Columbia.
Amy felt like the odd girl out at school. Her parents didn’t allow her to date or go to parties or dances. When classmates asked her to join them for weekend slumber parties, she had to say no so often that they stopped asking. When she told them she didn’t drink on the weekends, they gave her funny looks. Feelings of isolation and resentment slowly ate away at her spirit. “I was angry at everyone in my family,” she says, “my parents, my sister, myself.”
Amy and Amanda were invited to join the Bible Thugz, a Sunday night discussion group for high school students. Amy told the group late last fall about her problems at school and at home. Her fellow Thugz nodded in sympathy; they’d been there, done that. “Leave it to God,” the group advised. “Keep praying.”
She needed to hear other people say that, to know they were trying to follow the same rules of the Bible that she was. “Since New Year’s, things have been better,” she says.
Other confidence-boosters — heart-to-heart talks with a close friend, yoga, even reading “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul” — might have gotten her to a similar point. But the advice of the Thugz resonated with the principles of earlier generations. That was powerful stuff.
Glen Mar “gives us the confidence that comes with being a part of the Christian community,” Amy says. “Here we are not the only ones who are weird.”
New friends are what drew Kimbrey Pierce into Glen Mar six years ago and a power saw is what made her stay, sort of.
Kimbrey lives in Elkridge, a community where girlfriends were always moving in, then moving away. Her mother, Kathy Pierce, started taking her to Glen Mar when she was in middle school and there she found a permanent set of pals. Six years later and a senior, she still meets with several of these same people every other Monday night for a girls-only Bible study. “It definitely makes my week better if I’m able to see everyone,” she says.
Some girls in the study group don’t challenge the Bible or church teachings. Kimbrey, however, is a questioner, and her questions are taken seriously, she says. One discussion she remembers centered on the ordination of gay clergy. Wendy Brubaker, her Bible group sponsor, said gays shouldn’t be ordained but Kimbrey argued that “all sins are equal in God’s sight.” She isn’t convinced that homosexuality is a sin, but if it is, she argued, “you can’t judge a person just by the sins you see.” The church unknowingly ordains ministers who commit abuse and other acts condemned by the Bible. Why should homosexuals be excluded?
“I won the argument,” she says proudly.
A self-possessed young woman with a penchant for pink sweaters and pearls, Kimbrey is hardly the type you’d expect wielding a power saw in a mountain holler. But on a church trip after ninth grade to repair a home in Southwest Virginia, she was asked by her chaperon, Rob Boyle, to saw a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood into pieces for the roof. Using a power saw is noisy, messy and potentially dangerous and most of the kids stopped after their first cut. Kimbrey, however, kept going. On another mission trip to a housing project in Philadelphia, Kimbrey taught songs to preschoolers, holding the hand of a little boy one morning as gunfire erupted outside.
Mission work at Glen Mar can be just around the corner, literally — like the homeless shelter where kids in February took turns delivering food they had cooked themselves. Wherever service takes them, it sometimes is the very thing that will turn around a kid in trouble, says youth director Veale.
Kimbrey’s life never needed turning around. This year, she is captain of the color guard at Long Reach High School. She’s carrying a 3.96 grade-point average, won early acceptance to St. Mary’s College in Maryland for the fall, and planned a Valentine’s dinner-dance for senior citizens in Glen Mar’s neighborhood. She will take another mission trip this summer.
“I know some kids do service because it looks good for college,” she says. “I do it because I like to. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met through mission and church. They gave me a sense of worth, boosted my confidence.”
So could her schoolteachers, couldn’t they? Or a Girl Scout troop leader?
“But they don’t connect me to God. Helping other people is how I feel close to God.”
Sociologist Wilcox would not be surprised to hear Kimbrey say this. “Too often, youth organizations try to foster virtue by appealing to self-interest,” he says. “These programs don’t seem to realize that adolescents are also looking for something bigger than themselves.”
The last testimonial comes from, of all people, a would-be Wiccan — Andrew’s 12-year-old sister, Kathleen. Her mother bribes her to Sunday school with doughnut holes.
“My brother is like one of the sheep,” Kathleen says one Sunday morning with all the disdain someone her age can muster. “He’ll go along and do as he’s told, pretty much. I’m one of the little lambs that keeps wandering off and my mom is the shepherd pulling me back into the fold.”
Becoming an atheist “felt weird,” she says. “I had this empty space that I didn’t know how to fill. What should I do? Meditate? Sing or dance?” She decided that she did need God, whom she defines as “a bigger power you can confide in, find comfort in, someone who makes you feel more safe and secure.”
Wicca, a form of pagan nature worship, could be the answer, she says. Because “in Wicca, you have a goddess and a god. God will still be there for me.”
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