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My Son Refuses to Go to Church. What Should I Do?

Is it ever okay to force religion upon your children? When can you let your kids skip church, or gloss over a Zuhr prayer, or duck out of Hebrew School?

Most religious parents want to share their faith with their kids. And, until a certain age, most kids are content to follow along. But at some point, they inevitably push back. Which raises a crucial parenting question: Is it ever a good idea to force religion upon your children? When, if ever, can you let your kids skip church, or gloss over a Zuhr prayer, or duck out of Hebrew School? In your home, at what point should religion be optional and at what point should it be mandatory?

The question is really twofold. First, is religion statistically beneficial for children? If so, perhaps participation should always be mandatory. Second, if it is not statistically beneficial, how hard can a parent push the faith without causing harm? An evidence-based answer is, unfortunately, not forthcoming. Part of the problem is the vague nature of “religion”. Try controlling for the different religious traditions, the parenting styles associated with them, and the unique backgrounds of each child, and then standardizing the data to account for greater and lesser observance. It has yet to be accomplished. But the upshot seems to be that pushing your kids to remain involved in faith is usually fine and sometimes beneficial — as long as you remain consistent and avoid family fights.

How Does Religion Help Children?

There is some evidence that religious children, from any religious background, turn out better than children raised without a particular faith. Studies have linked church attendance to better mental health, stronger self-control in the classroom, and more respect for discipline. In the long-term, children raised in religious households are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have lower rates of depression and suicide, and higher levels of life satisfaction.

Does this mean that non-religious children are missing out? Probably not. Indeed, some studies have shown that religious children are less altruistic than kids raised without religion. And even the studies that show better outcomes for religious kids do not mean that god favors the righteous. It is possible that religious parents are more engaged, or wealthy, in general, or that more sheltered children have less access to negative influences and illegal substances. There’s also Sanctification Theory to contend with—psychologists suspect that constantly reinforcing the meaning of life and the cosmic stakes of morality engender a certain adherence to societal norms. Religion teaches us to conform, and that conformity is usually to a moral standard.

Basically, there is some evidence that religion helps kids but insufficient evidence to suggest that parents should raise their kids with religion. Religion may be of the utmost importance to some parents, and that is fine. But whereas insisting that your children stay in school and avoid drugs and alcohol are parenting imperatives, insisting upon church attendance is probably not.

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How Does Religion Harm Children?

So from a scientific perspective, religion is something of a neutral activity. It can benefit, it can harm, but it usually functions in child development like any other extracurricular. So the question of when to push children into religion, and how hard to push, is a tough nut to crack.

A handful of studies have shown that religion is harmful when parents argue over it. Mothers and fathers who disagree about god and faith leave their kids confused, and the data suggests that family fights surrounding religious observance make everyone less happy and more disobedient. By fighting over faith, it seems parents can counteract the prosocial advantages that religion boasted in the first place. So it is probably never a good idea to get into a screaming match with your children over church attendance. Once it escalates into a family fight, all benefits of religion tend to go out the window, and help turns into harm.

Meanwhile, religion only helps when it is consistent. Studies suggest that parents who insist that their children attend a prayer service or adhere to a religious injunction while otherwise ignoring the faith are likely not doing their kids any favors. “The benefits of religion for adolescents seem to be largely attributable to differences between the most religiously involved teens compared to those who are disengaged from religion,” writes Annette Mahoney, a professor of psychology who studies how religion impacts families. “Religion is not especially helpful for the roughly 53 percent of US adolescents whose faith is sporadic or poorly integrated.”

The Bottom Line: When to Encourage Religiosity

The evidence suggests that, if you appreciate religion, are consistent about it, and able to promote observance without fighting about it, pressuring your children to adhere to your faith is probably harmless and may even benefit them in the long run. If, on the other hand, you’re not particularly religious or consistent about observance, and religion is a regular point of family contention, shoving your kids into church won’t help and may make matters worse.