Religious involvement among rural young people can enhance popularity, grades

May 20, 2001

University Park, Pa. -- Rural teenagers who remain active in church affairs throughout high school are more likely to achieve better grades and enjoy greater peer popularity than teens not involved in church activities, according to a Penn State researcher.

"In communities where churches are strong, especially in the rural Midwest and South, the involvement of adolescents and their friends in church youth programs establishes a culture that supports personal integrity, the virtues of civic life and civility, and an ethic of achievement," says Dr. Valarie E. King, assistant professor of sociology, demography and human development and family studies.

Economically disadvantaged youth tend to perform more poorly in school than young people who grow up in economically secure families. However, King found that less affluent youth who remain actively involved in church did not show this pattern. Instead, these resilient youth made higher grades and were more socially successful than their disadvantaged backgrounds would suggest.

King, Dr. Glen H. Elder, Jr., the Howard W. Odum Professor of Sociology and research professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Dr. Rand D. Conger, professor of sociology and psychology at Iowa State University, analyzed data from a survey of 451 families in rural Iowa. They published their findings in the "Church, Families and Friends" chapter of the book "Children of the Land: Adversity and Success in Rural America" (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

"For religiously involved teenagers in our study, their peer group was a moral ally, not an adversary, of the adult community of parents," the Penn State researcher says. "Their friends did not encourage rule-breaking activities and problem behavior, including cheating on tests and alcohol or drug abuse. Rather, their friends favored working hard in school and performing service to others.

Surrounded by adults and peers who value worthy accomplishments, religiously involved youth tended to score higher than other adolescents in the areas of academic achievement, social success, confidence in self and personal maturity."

According to King and her co-researchers, many of the most active young people in church youth programs gave credit to such programs for bolstering their self-confidence. Church programs appear to have aided these teens in learning social and leadership skills, which led in turn to affirmation by peers, parents, teachers, coaches and community leaders.

"Young people who demonstrate trustworthiness and the ability to manage difficult situations are generally sought for advice," King notes. "Our data showed that teenagers with these qualities, if also active in church and respectful toward parents, were even more likely than un-churched teens to be approached by their parents for advice, especially fathers."
EDITORS: Dr. King can be contacted at (814) 863-8716 or at by e-mail.

Penn State

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