- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In family matters, there is renewed interest in the topic of child well-being. Certainly, some leaders - Marian Wright Edelman comes to mind - have been championing children’s health for decades. Myriad more groups now sound the battle cry for children.

For a long time, we have been given a long list of must-haves for children.

This list includes (but is not limited to) economic opportunity for parents; education, including preschool; immunizations and doctor visits; nutrition, including school lunches and summer programs; caring adult relationships (e.g., kinship care, mentoring, quality day care); and positive community programs, such as sports teams, music and service projects.

Absolutely nothing on this list is bad for children.

But according to Mapping America, a new research project at the Family Research Council (FRC), this list is missing the two most important ingredients for the well-being of a child - growing up with two biological parents who have a life of faith.

I expect some minds might snap shut at this point. “Kids do best with their two parents and a church? Yadda, yadda,” some might say. Or, “Oh, yeah? Let me tell you about [insert horror story about parents and/or religion here].”

But set disdain aside for a minute and look at the data with a cool eye.

Social scientist Patrick F. Fagan has long been studying the nation’s largest surveys of children and families. Under his leadership, FRC is producing charts that illustrate a simple point, which is that children do best when they grow up with their two biological parents who regularly worship.

“Children thrive most” when their family upholds the two great loves - love of God and love of spouse, Mr. Fagan says.

The religious data are the strongest. When children who attend weekly religious services are compared with children who never go to services, the religious children are likely to have the highest grade-point averages and least amount of substance abuse, fighting, shoplifting and school suspensions.

Data on family structure are less conclusive. For instance, in Mapping America’s seven categories to date, children with married biological parents are tops in four. But when it comes to substance abuse, children of single parents are least likely to use hard drugs or drink. When it comes to shoplifting, children with cohabiting biological parents are less likely to have sticky fingers than those with married biological parents.

When Mr. Fagan and his colleagues overlay family structure on religious attendance, however, there’s no question that this combination is a powerful asset for kids.

No doubt some people will see Mapping America as more hoopla for “white, married Christian Republicans,” aka the Religious Right. The fact that FRC produces these charts may be sufficient evidence for scoffers.

But these data come from huge, long-term, national studies. They most assuredly include children and families who are Democrats, independents, Libertarians, Greens, gnostics and atheists.

Moreover, these studies don’t care who’s in the White House or the statehouse or who said what yesterday. They simply ask the questions, gather the answers and wait for researchers to step back far enough to see what the children are really saying.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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