December 8, 2013

Children of divorce happier as adults if they attended church growing up

Since the share of children growing up under divorced or never-married parents has been growing for decades, we ought to try harder to find ways to lessen the maladjustment that children of divorce experience. They didn't ask for their homes to become broken, so they shouldn't have to pay the costs.

One of the most severe and enduring forms of damage done by divorce is rupturing the child's sense of social connectedness, for certain within the nuclear family but also tending to rip them away from their existing social circle and community in the process of changing residence. Hence, whatever can be done to provide the child with a larger social group to belong to, ought to soften the hard landing they're about to take.

Going to church not only embeds the kid within their larger community, but protects the bond with a sacred aura. It's not just any old group that he's meeting up with. They're setting aside their ordinary forms of interacting with each other in order to commune with the supernatural. This makes the kid feel like their membership is less tenuous there than in other settings, leading them to expect greater support during difficult times.

The General Social Survey asks a question about how happy you are in general. I restricted respondents to whites who were not living with both parents when they were 16 years old. They have another question about how often you attended Sunday school or religious instruction growing up.

Going more frequently didn't affect the share who said they were "very happy" as adults. And at any rate, what's the difference between "very happy" and "pretty happy"? It did affect the share who said they were "not too happy," marking a clear boundary with the other two choices. The more frequently you went to Sunday school growing up, the happier you ended up as an adult. Those who said they weren't too happy made up 18% of "never" attenders, 13% of "sometime" attenders, 11% of "most of the time" attenders, and 10% of "always" attenders.

Treating the "not too happy" response as a threshold within a normal curve of happiness, we can turn those percentages into z-scores and find out how far apart the averages are for the various groups. For example, the "never" and "always" attenders are separated by a gap of 0.36 standard deviations. If we thought of happiness as a kind of "height," it's as though the "never" attenders were 1.1 inches shorter on average than the "always" attenders.

What would that imply for more extreme forms of unhappiness? Instead of the average, look out to 2 standard deviations unhappier than the average of kids who always went to Sunday school. At 2 s.d., just over 2% will be this depressed. This point will only be about 1.6 s.d. away from the average of "never" attenders, raising their prevalence to 5%. Folks that depressed with be more than twice as common among "never" attenders than "always" attenders. The myriad costs to the individual, their social circle, and the broader society rise sharply as you look at more and more depressed people. They may be more or less out of the job market for good and be totally cut off from the whole world. So even what seems like a small jump -- from 2% to 5% -- may have even greater costs that follow.

Raising your children's happiness in adulthood by that much just by sending them to socialize with their age-mates in Sunday school must be one of the most effective ways to make sure you don't mess them up too badly by breaking up their home and ripping them out from their community. It's just one hour a week, and you the parent don't even have to pay attention to the sermon or believe anything you're hearing, as long as you don't bad-mouth the whole experience afterward in front of your children. For all we know, maybe the effect takes hold even if the parents didn't stay for services themselves, just dropped the kid off and picked them up after running some errands.

Still, the least you can do is park your butt in the seat at church for an hour a week while your kid develops social connections within a sacred setting, and winds up happier as an adult. However, since we don't know what the relative timing of events were for the survey respondents, we don't know that it would work if you only started taking them to Sunday school once you got divorced. Probably the respondents had been going since they were little, before their parents' divorce. So you'll have to make it a regular thing -- just in case, because you never know if yours will become another broken home statistic.

Unfortunately, things don't seem to be heading that way. The "always" and "most of the time" attenders took a drop during those born in the 1960s, although at least it stayed flat after that through late '70s births. The question was only asked in 1988 and 1998, so nobody born after 1980 shows up among respondents. I have a hunch that Sunday school was even rarer for Millennials growing up in the '90s and 2000s. Parents these days are so smug about not needing religious practice in their kids' lives.* They're teaching them how to read and write, memorize factoids, and show poor manners inside the house and out -- so like, what else could socializing with peers in church possibly add to their lives?

Young children of divorce must really be taking a beating these days. At least in the '80s, they weren't locked inside the house their whole lives. And those people and places outside the home were willing to pick up the slack left by the divorcing parents. There was church, sports teams, Scouts, the library, school (back when kids could socialize at school), friends' homes and their parents, the mall, and on and on.

Where is a kid from a broken home supposed to turn to these days? Helicopter parents seal off all external influences, leaving the kid trapped in a social-emotional void. Perhaps there ought to be a legal requirement of divorced or single parents to register their children at a Sunday school program. If the parents aren't going to provide the stability and care for the child to grow up to be as well adjusted as a child from an intact family, somebody or something else has to make up for it. Religious youth programs are among the most time-tested, so why not start there?

I know it sounds ridiculous to talk about legislating this kind of stuff, but it's not the '80s anymore, so kids are no longer free to seek out alternative sources of connectedness when the parents bail on them. Today, helicopter parenting and cocooning are compounding the disconnecting effect of divorce on children. Extreme times call for extreme measures to correct them.

* Forget beliefs -- the effect above was shown for practice, and most kids don't understand complex beliefs... or adults for that matter, when it comes to religious beliefs. It's behavior, practice, and ritual that make the difference.

GSS variables: happy, family16, sunsch16, race


  1. A child of devout Trotskyite parents who always take them to meetings might get similar benefits.

  2. They would be plugged into a group, but ideologies aren't religions. No communion with the supernatural, and generally not much in the way of ritual, ceremony, or iconography either.

  3. Wonder how robust across time periods this is. Maybe abstruse theological views don't matter much, but a lot of liberal churches these days pretty much preach the divine command of admiring and deferring to queers. Take your kid to an Episcopalian Sunday school with a tattooed-and-pierced lesbian youth minister, and you're basically socializing into bratitude.

  4. Recently, there's been a revival of Polytheistic Reconstruction movements. Seems to be mostly comprised of professors at this point, but it might be a sign that things are getting more wild(since cultic activity is a definite sign of rising-crime, as is fascination with the supernatural).

    The 60s, 70s, and 80s were the eras of Scientology, communes, and other cults.


  5. I remember reading a few children's or young adult novels in which the parents get divorced and then remarry.

    I can't remember the names of the book or find the titles.

    I don't remember church ever being mentioned. Except for a Babysitter's club book in which a widower marries a divorcee. The widower is a strict father who prays every day.

  6. In one series of books, a twelve year old boy has to deal with his parents unexplained divorce, the move to a new home, and his mother's remarriage to a tree pruner with two children. The boy's protests at every step are presented as just so much bratty whining.

    At one point point, the author has the twelve year old stomp out of the house and then sit in a tree with a helicopter beanie on his head for warmth. His mother then takes him to see a shrink.

    The books are comic in tone, which makes them that much worse.


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