The old adage “the family that prays together stays together” is now supported by science. Researchers at the University of North Carolina say teenagers in religiously involved families tend to have stronger relationships with their parents than teens from non-religious households.

Youth from families that are heavily involved in religious activities are significantly more likely to have strong relationships with their mothers and fathers and participate in family activities like eating together, and they are less likely to run away from home, according to preliminary findings in a four-year National Study of Youth and Religion funded by the Lilly Endowment.

The study involved early adolescents, ages 12-14, and gauged religious involvement by the number of days per week that a family does something religious and how often the parents attend worship and pray. It measured quality of family life by a variety of indicators.

All three dimensions of involvement in religious activities were found to be “associated significantly” with characteristics of positive family relationships, researchers Christian Smith and Phillip Kim wrote in a report of their research.

Nearly three fourths of younger teens in families that in a typical week do something religious from five to seven times–such as go to church, pray or read the scriptures together–viewed their mothers as a positive role model. Seventy-four percent from the most religiously involved families said they want to be like their mother, as did 65 percent from families that do something religious three-to-four times a week. For families involved in religious activities once or twice a week, 61 percent aspired to be like their mom, while the percentage dropped to 51 percent for youth from families reporting zero religious activity in a typical week.

The numbers rating fathers as a positive role model were five-to-seven times, 70 percent; three-to-four times, 63 percent; once or twice, 63 percent, and zero times, 48 percent.

Religiously involved youth were also more likely to say they enjoy time with their parents, admire them, find their parents helpful with things that are important to them and receive praise from their parents for doing well. They also view their parents as more supportive, stricter and less likely to cancel plans they have scheduled with their children.

Religious parents were also more likely to know their children’s friends, their friends’ parents, their social contacts and about their education, according to youth reports.

Youth from religiously active families also reported eating dinner at home with their families more often than those in non-religious homes. Sixty percent of families heavily involved in religious activities said they eat at home seven days a week, compared to 38 percent of those not religiously involved.

Religiously active families were also significantly more likely to participate together in a recreational activity like playing a game, attending a sporting event or swimming.

Youth from very religious families were half as likely to run away from home as those from non-religious homes. Fifteen percent of kids whose parents never attend church said they have run away from home, staying away at least overnight without their parents’ permission, compared to 7 percent of those whose parents attend church once a week or more.

The researchers said it is hard to determine whether religion is the cause or the effect. It might be that religion improves family relationships, or that people already committed to strong families choose to attend church as a strategy to that end, or a combination of both, they said.

“What is clear in this report’s findings, however, is that, for whatever reasons, early adolescents living in religiously involved families in the United States appear more likely to enjoy stronger, more positive relationships in their families than to early adolescents in families that are not religiously active,” the report said. “This understanding may be an important starting point of knowledge for considering ways to enhance the quality of life of U.S. adolescents.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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