My heart aches every time I see the data about teen sex — 114 women murdered by intimate partners last year in Texas, another 15 million young people infected with sexually transmitted diseases every year, 20 percent of AIDS cases infecting college-aged young adults. We know what works in delaying teen sexual activity and preventing promiscuity, but researchers are hesitant to keep repeating the same simple recipe: parental involvement, good friends, strong faith, participation in church activities.
But, a just released report from Child Trends and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy not only added their data about the connections that correlate with teens delaying sex until after age 18; they also review the vast body of previous scientific research that corroborates their findings.
Specifically, teens are less likely to have sex before age 18 if their parents hold strong religious beliefs and explain them to their children, attend services together regularly, and are affiliated with a denomination. Further, those teens who worship with their family and have a strong mother-teen relationship are more likely to delay having sex. In addition, teens with a network of friends from their church are much more likely to resist early sexual activity.
The Child Trends research, of course, analyzes the data and shows the correlations, as is necessary and desirable for such analyses. The bottom line, though, is that parents and friends have tremendous influence on their children regardless of socio-demographic or economic background and characteristics.
The relationship that parents establish with their children determines — to a very large extent — the outcomes for children. Further, peer influence is vitally important; during the teen years, especially, having friends who attend the same church produces positive effects on teen sexual behavior.
The Child Trends brief ends with a statement that “future research should focus on gaining a better understanding of why parent religiosity affects teens’ decisions about sex.” In fact, general agreement on this point is so widespread that in 2001 the Lilly Endowment Inc. funded a four-year study to identify those religious, social and moral practices that so effectively shape young people’s lives.
Pending the publication of the Lilly findings, here are some possible explanations.
Parental Religious Beliefs: It is a “given” that parents influence their children’s outcomes. However, a 2000 study from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology explains just how very important both doing and explaining are when it comes to influencing our children toward our own values and beliefs. The author of the study, Lynn Okagaki, reported that children are more likely to adopt their parents’ beliefs when they have a clear understanding of exactly what the parents believe and what are their values.
Further, the study reported that a child is more likely to adopt parental beliefs when they know that the beliefs are vitally important to the parents. In other words, if parents think something is unimportant or if parents say that many different religious attitudes and positions are equally important, the child is unlikely either to have strong religious beliefs or have those beliefs influence their behavior.
Religious Attendance: Abundant research — from various top-level universities and government agencies to research institutions like the Barna Research Group — documents that active church participation is the key to raising well-adjusted, happy children who have a life-long moral compass and avoid the typical pitfalls of the teenage years. When researchers try to isolate “what works” in terms of raising children, invariably they find this key: “active participation” in a “faith community.” In an analysis of the Adolescent Health Survey last year, the Heritage Foundation’s Patrick Fagan found that girls from intact families who attended church regularly averaged only .47 sex partners, whereas girls from broken families that never attended church averaged 1.55 sex partners.
Religious Activities: The aforementioned Barna study found that a “symbiotic partnership” between parents and the church is essential for children’s well-being. According to a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, the rate of couples living together without marriage is seven times higher for those who never attended church services than for those who attended church several times a week. Young people who are affiliated with a church have higher rates of marriage than those who substitute cohabitation for marriage.
Denominational Affiliation: A unique finding of the Child Trends and National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy study is that denominational affiliation is an important factor in delaying teen sex. Perhaps it should be obvious that churches and denominations with carefully delineated theology and worship rituals, including hymns that have stood the test of time, would more effectively impact families than churches or denominations that have more emphasis on feelings and emotions than doctrine, are driven more by a strong, dominant personality than by Biblical beliefs, and use less theologically orthodox music in worship.
Peer Religious Attendance: Numerous studies indicate that teens acquire friends based on similar sexual behavior. Numerous studies also indicate that peer influences are pivotal during the teen years. Obviously then, having a network of friends with similar values reinforces attitudes and behaviors consistent with those beliefs. But there are also studies indicating that the strength of peer influence is determined by the teen’s relationship with his or her parents. In fact, a 1993 study of seventh-graders showed that when the parent-child relationship is characterized as “distant,” the teens are more likely to associate with friends who are sexually active and to have sexually permissive attitudes and behavior. The Journal of Adolescent Health revealed that women who did not attend church in their adolescence were more than twice as likely to report having multiple sex partners compared with those who attended services regularly.
Positive Mother-Teen Relationship: While much has been written in the popular literature about the importance of parents and fathers in teen well-being, there has been little focus on the role of mothers. Yet, the scholarly research is plentiful that an adolescent’s relationship with his or her mother is pivotal in determining whether he or she engages in teen sex and other risky behaviors. A growing body of information is available about the ways that a mother socializes her children according to her personal beliefs, cultural norms and religious values.
For instance, numerous studies indicate that mothers communicate more often with their children than do fathers. Ideally, beliefs are based on a solid foundation of reason and logical consistency, but the motivation to internalize those beliefs is an emotional response. When a father and mother work together in parenting, children internalize both sound reasons for appropriate behavior and the emotional strength to withstand external pressures to conform to societal trends.
With overwhelming evidence about “what works” in protecting our children from the harmful results of early sexual activity, those who truly care about their children ought to make church involvement a priority. Far too many parents focus on providing material benefits and forget that they need to meet their children’s spiritual needs. If we as parents don’t feed their souls, they will seek to fill that emptiness with drugs, alcohol or sex — or they will turn to the dozens of other ways teens mess up their lives seeking a parental and faith substitute.