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Pandemic measures, children’s well-being, and the effects of religious practice

Written by William C. Duncan

August 31, 2022

As students head back to school, child welfare advocates are paying increasing attention to the impact of measures such as masking and school closures on children.

Research suggests that the pandemic response hurt children’s education. A Brookings report found “alarming and potentially demoralizing” drops in test scores of American students in grades 3-8 from fall 2019 to fall 2021. The researchers said it was even “more concerning” that “test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20% in math (corresponding to 0.20 SDs [standard deviations]) and 15% in reading (0.13 SDs), primarily during the 2020-21 school year.”

Similarly, an analysis of research by the Kaiser Family Foundation found the

pandemic may have worsened children’s mental health or exacerbated existing mental health issues among children. The pandemic caused disruptions in routines and social isolation for children, which can be associated with anxiety and depression and can have implications for mental health later in life. A number of studies show an increase in children’s mental health needs following social isolation due to the pandemic, especially among children who experience adverse childhood experiences.

The Human Flourishing Project at Harvard found something similar. Tyler VanderWeele explained that the most recent data indicates “that young adults (especially those aged 18–25 years) are not doing especially well, and they are not doing well across multiple aspects of well-being.”

The pandemic likely contributed to this challenge, but other factors, like political polarization, war and economic stresses, may also provide part of the explanation.

This sobering data raises the inevitable question of what can be done. An intriguing, and perhaps counterintuitive, suggestion comes from another body of research. This research suggests that at least part of the answer could be found in religious practice.

Discussing the data, W. Bradford Wilcox and Riley Peterson point out why this suggestion might seem counterintuitive. Most of the discussion of religion and young adults follows a narrative of alienation – that because of traditional moral views of churches and scandals involving clergy, young people are losing their faith.

For adults, the experience of religious practice seems to have clear advantages: “In study after study, what we find is that religiously devout adults are happier, less depressed and more involved in their communities than those who attend services less frequently.”

This raises a question. Is the observed benefit of religious practice confined to adults? If so, perhaps this would help explain why youth seem to be disengaging. If not, the decline in religious practice could have the effect of robbing youth of important protections of their well-being.

Wilson and Peterson explain that the second answer is more consistent with findings of a Baylor Religion Survey:

Based on data from the Baylor survey, we can see clearly that childhood religiosity predicts a variety of positive outcomes. Adult men and women who attended religious services at least weekly at age 12 were more likely to report that they were currently “very happy,” more likely to report that they receive “a lot” of attention from others, and less likely to indicate that they were frequently bored, when compared to those who attended less frequently or not at all. For instance, those who attended as children were about 6 percentage points more likely to report they were “very happy” as adults and 9 percentage points less likely to report they were “frequently bored.”

These differences are all statistically significant even after controlling for age, sex, education, race and ethnicity, suggesting that childhood religiosity has a lasting effect on people’s emotional and relational lives. In fact, these differences are particularly significant for happiness and boredom. These differences do not merely reflect current circumstances, but a faith factor which was still evident decades later; the median age of the survey respondents was 57.

The authors stress that the importance of weekly attendance to this result supports other findings “that religion is not practically beneficial without consistent practice. Sporadic attendance does not predict these outcomes, likely due to the lack of communal integration and personal conviction it tends to imply.”

Another way to understand why and how religious attendance and observance as a child may benefit a person through childhood and into adulthood is through social capital. Social capital is an economic measure of our “social connectedness,” defined as “the strength of the connections and relationships between people that can help them thrive socially, financially and in many other ways.”

Organized religions bring people together through religious services and other (e.g., social) gatherings, and most teach their members the importance of befriending and caring for the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs of others. In other words, they facilitate relationships between their members that are designed to improve the happiness and well-being of everyone (i.e., social capital). For a child participating in a faith tradition, it would make sense if some of these mutually beneficial relationships would last into adulthood. This might help explain one mechanism by which religious participation as a child helps lead to happiness as an adult.

Protecting children’s well-being from a number of long-term and episodic threats is a critical priority for our communities. It seems clear, through the lenses of both human happiness and social capital, that religious practice is – or ought to be – an important part of that response.

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