Do Children of Intermarriage Do Worse?

That’s the question posed by a study published in the September 2007 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, reports Christianity Today:

The authors noted studies confirming positive effects of religious participation on the lives of children in the form of higher self-esteem, overall satisfaction, higher grades, and reduced usage of drugs and alcohol. Given the likelihood that mixed-faith marriages would tend to reduce religious participation and cause marital conflict, the authors hypothesized that children would be negatively impacted by these marriages.

The study produced surprising results. Children of religiously unmatched parents did not manifest lower grades, lower self-esteem, or lower satisfaction. But they were far more likely to use marijuana and engage in underage drinking.

Hunter Baker of Christianity Today interviewed Richard Petts, the Ph.D. student at Ohio State who co-authored the study. I can’t tell for certain–the study is subscription-only–but the tenor of the interview suggests that the study looked at mixed-faith marriages among different Christian groups rather than Jewish-Christian intermarriages.

Here’s Petts’ explanation for why mixed marriages didn’t produce as many negative results as he expected:

This finding was especially surprising to us, because we figured that internalized well-being (such as self-esteem) would be more affected by religious heterogamy because youth would be less sure about beliefs and [would likely have] a weaker sense of identity.

I suspect that part of the reason that we did not find negative effects [in those areas] is that being raised in a religiously heterogamous family may actually be beneficial to youth in some ways. If interfaith parents teach their children that it is important to find a religion that best suits them [as individuals] and accept religious differences in others, then youth may actually develop a strong sense of identity and have an opportunity to find out which religious beliefs are important to them.

In addition, being raised in a diverse family is likely to increase one’s tolerance and acceptance of others. These benefits likely have a greater effect on outcomes like self-esteem, life satisfaction, and school performance than delinquency, which may explain the results of our study.

But he also has interesting arguments for the greater use of drugs and alcohol among children of intermarriage:

…youth raised in religiously heterogamous marriages may be less exposed to the social control that religion provides, increasing the likelihood that they become involved with drugs and alcohol. Most religions encourage youth to lead good and meaningful lives, which includes living a healthy lifestyle free from these types of substances. Youth who are highly involved in religious communities may be more likely to adhere to these teachings and have fewer opportunities to engage in substance use. Without this social support network, youth in religiously heterogamous families may be more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Although educational performance may also be part of living a “good and meaningful life,” the pressure from religious institutions to get good grades may be less than the pressure to avoid behavior like drug use.

I have issue with the authors’ assumption that children of intermarriage would be more troublesome than children of inmarriage, but I respect their willingness to let the data produce their conclusions, not the other way around. No doubt there is still much more research to be done in this area.

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