In a predominantly Catholic country like the Philippines, most families are accustomed to bringing their kids to church every Sunday. It turns out that this practice can actually benefit the mental health and physical well-being of children and teenagers, no matter their religion or spiritual practices, says recent research from Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Researchers analyzed health data from mothers in the Nurses’ Health Study II program in the United States and their children, which totaled up to 5,000 youth between the ages of nine to 14. They followed the children between eight to 14 years, with controlled variables like maternal health, socioeconomic status, and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms, to try and isolate the effect of religious upbringing.
At the end of the study, researchers found that adults who attended religious services at least once a week as children or teens were 18% more likely to say they were happier in their twenties and thirties than those who never attended services.
That’s not all. According to the study, which was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, adults who went to church as children were 33% less likely to use drugs in their twenties, were less likely to have sex at an earlier age, and less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease. Those who prayed and meditated every day, whether at church or on their own, said they had higher life satisfaction, were more forgiving of others and were better at processing emotions. The study also connected church attendance with decreased levels of smoking and increased level of voting.
Having a religious or spiritual practice can also benefit the whole community, as researchers noted that 29% of kids who were raised in church opted to do volunteer work in their respective communities.
“These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices,” says Ying Chen, one of the study’s authors who recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard School of Public Health, in a statement. “Many children are raised religiously, and our study shows that this can powerfully affect their health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”
Whether parents grow up to be religious or not, they might still feel obligated to raise their children with religion, especially if the parents were raised in a spiritual home themselves. Nuris Novis Deutsch, a writer for The New York Times, says in an opinion piece she felt a need to encourage her kids to believe in God, even though she didn’t (she describes herself both as a “religious Jew” and an “agnostic.”).
“Sometimes, we teach them things we don’t believe in just because we want so badly to see that sweet innocence at work and experience unquestioning faith, if only by proxy,” she shares.
At the end of the day, whatever religion or spiritual practice parents adhere to, they are still primarily responsible for raising kids who will grow up to be good people. If exposing them to religious beliefs can help achieve this, then it would not do any harm to encourage children to attend church services.
“While decisions about religion are not shaped principally by health, for adolescents who already hold religious beliefs, encouraging service attendance and private practices may be meaningful avenues to protect against some of the dangers of adolescence, including depression, substance abuse, and risk-taking,” says Tyler VanderWeele, the study’s senior author. “In addition, these practices may positively contribute to happiness, volunteering, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and to forgiveness.”