Pushing Religion the Statistical (and Dobson?) Way

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 at 08:45 PM

How do you make religious attendance (going to formal religious services) sound more important to the well being of children than it might actually be? Try discussing the religious factor in combination with family stability, underemphasizing some info while overemphasizing other info, and comparing detailed statistics on religious attendance in general terms to unrevealed data on other factors like poverty. Put it all together and you have a statistical study of the role of religion and family stability in child behavior released just last week.

It's titled "National Survey of Children’s Health Finds Intact Family and Religious Participation Are Associated with Fewer Developmental Problems in School-Age Children" and authored by Nicholas Zill, Ph.D. and Philip Fletcher, Ph.D. I found it on the web site of the Wisconsin Family Council (WFC), and the study may have been commissioned by that group (it's unclear to me at this point who commissioned it). If so, it would explain a lot, since the WFC, according to its web site, was "founded in 1986 to forward Judeo-Christian principles and values in Wisconsin" and is "Fully Associated State Family Policy Council with Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family." For what it's worth, here's a video of that group's CEO advocating prosecution of Wisconsin gay couples who travel to California to get married.

Here's what the study has to say about the roles of family integrity and religious attendance in fostering good child behavior, and string relationships between children and their parents (emphasis added):

New analyses of data from a large-scale federal survey of child health and development show that children and adolescents are less likely to exhibit problems in school or at home if they live with both their biological parents and attend religious services regularly. For example, young people not living with both parents and not attending services regularly are five times more likely to have repeated a grade in school than those living with both parents and attending religious services weekly or monthly. Thirty-four percent of the former group had repeated a grade, compared with six percent of the latter. And 53 percent of the former group – versus 21 percent of the latter – had their parents contacted by the school because of conduct or achievement problems the youth was having at school. These differences hold up after controlling for family income and poverty, low parent education levels, and race and ethnicity.

An intact two-parent family and regular church attendance are each associated with fewer problem behaviors, more positive social development, and fewer parental concerns about the child’s learning and achievement. Taken together, the two home-environment factors have an additive relationship with child well-being. That is, children who live in an intact family and attend religious services regularly generally come out best on child development measures, while children who do neither come out worst. Children with one factor in their favor, but not the other, fall in between, scoring less well than those who have both factors going for them, but better than those who have neither factor in their favor. Grade repetition, school contacts, and parental concern about child achievement are more strongly linked to a lack of an intact two-parent family than to a lack of religious participation. For problem behavior and social development, the strength of the association with religious attendance is about equal to that with family integrity. An intact two-parent family and regular religious participation are also associated with the parent reporting less parenting stress and a better parentchild relationship. These family functioning differences may help to explain the parallel differences in children’s well-being.

The study also tries to short circuit criticisms that the religious attendance and/or intact family status are merely surrogates for poverty or other factors (emphasis added):
Some social scientists even contend that family structure and religious participation are only linked to developmental outcomes because of their association with socioeconomic disparities. (See reviews by Glenn & Sylvester, 2008; Bridges & Moore, 2002). However, when these socioeconomic factors are taken into account through multiple regression analysis of the survey data, the lack of an intact two-parent family and of regular religious training continue to be linked with developmental problems among children and adolescents. The strength of the statistically-adjusted regression coefficients is somewhat reduced compared to that of the uncontrolled correlation coefficients, but family structure and religious participation remain statistically significant explanatory factors. And their associations with children’s developmental difficulties are comparable in magnitude to the associations with family income and poverty, low parent education, and minority-group membership.
Strangely, the study does present graphics which undermine its strong statements about the role of religious attendance. For example, while its text almost always combines the effect of both family "intactness" and religious attendance, it presents several graphs which show that family intactness has a considerably stronger effect on child behavior than does religious attendance. Two graphs break correlate the need for a child to repeat a grade in school with (a) family status, and (b) religious attendance. 10.2% of kids who attended religious services at least once a week had repeated a grade, compared to 8.7% of those who attended services less than once a week but at least once a month, 20.7% of those who attended less than once a month but at least one or two times a year, and 20.6% of those who attended less frequently than that.

That compared to 6.5% of kids who lived with both biological parents or two adoptive parents, 21.8% of kids who lived with one biological parent and a stepparent, 19.9% of kids who lived with their mother only, and 21.9% of kids who lived with other parental figures.

Then you get a graphic which combines family status and religious attendance, showing that the need to repeat a grade among kids with intact families varied only from 6% for those who attended religious services at least once a month to 8% for those who attended less than once a month. For kids whose families were not intact, need to repeat a grade varied much more, from 15% of those who attended religious services at least monthly to 34% of kids who attended less frequently.

Another finding that undercuts the announced importance of religious attendance: the relationship between that attendance and "mean positive relationship scores" between parent and child. For kids who attended services at least weekly, the mean score was 50.7, for those attending at least monthly it was 49.5, for those attending less than monthly but at least once a year it was 49.8 and for those attending less than once a year, it was 48.4. Not very large differences, huh?

And no where do you get the actual info on how child behavior or strength of relationship correlates with things like poverty. You just have to take the authors' word for it that "associations with children’s developmental difficulties are comparable in magnitude to the associations with family income and poverty, low parent education, and minority-group membership."

As I read the information from this study, religious attendance has very little effect, certainly much less than an intact family and, I strongly ssupect, much less than poverty. And I'll be really surprised if we don't someday figure out that "security" and "resources" are the keys to most child behavior and devleopment. Less secure? More likely to act out. Have less support? Acting out more likely to get you in trouble. Have fewer resources? Less likely to succeed. All in all, it's pretty sad to have material so obviously slanted to an agenda, especially when offered up by a group "founded...to forward Judeo-Christian principles." Honesty must not be one of those principles. Maybe the 6th Commandment has been rescinded by a Bush appointee to the Supreme Court.

If anyone actually knows the "genesis" of this study, I'd be mighty interested. Is this just the WFC group misrepresenting a legitimate study? Was the study produced by the WFC? If so, who are the authors and how could they.....


of course an atheist isn't going to understand things such as you should have a daddy and a mommy not 2 mommies or 2 daddies. The important detail isn't the number of adults in the house.

But that's not what you were talking about. Church works hand and hand with parenting. If the parents aren't raising their kid... They aren't going to see any desired effects. But I thought that was just common sense.

That's pretty unbelievable. Exactly what does atheism have to do with understanding family structure or appreciating a stable household? You really think I wouldn't have respect for stability and the like unless I believe in God?

Not to mention that simply having one mommy and one daddy is not synonymous with stability or support or good things in general. I know lots of two-parent households where the kids are psychologically and emotionally tortured.

Nor am I sure how your 2d paragraph relates to what I wrote. My point was the rather obvious attempt to make attendance at religious services seem more important than the study says it is. How do you feel about that?