Study shows religion has strong influence on mother-child bond

April 27, 2007

ANN ARBOR—When religion is an important part of a mother’s life, she’s likely to feel she has a better relationship with her adult children, and her children are likely to report having a better relationship with her.

That’s one of the findings from a study of 867 women and their children, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and conducted over a period of 23 years by University of Michigan researchers.

Mothers who attend religious services on a regular basis also report having better relationships with their adult children than moms who rarely or never attend services, but their children are not more likely to report having better relationships with them, report William G. Axinn and Lisa D. Pearce, sociologists at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

For the study, Axinn and Pearce, who is completing her doctoral dissertation at Pennsylvania State University, analyzed interviews with the mothers which were conducted seven times, starting in 1962, the year after the children in the study were born. The children were interviewed twice, when they were 18-years-old and again when they were 23.

All the mothers were married when they were first interviewed, and all initially lived in the Detroit metropolitan area. Eleven percent described themselves as conservative Protestants, 30 percent as non-conservative Protestants, 54 percent as Catholics, and 5 percent other, including Jewish.

Both the mothers and the young adult children were asked whether a series of statements about the quality of their emotional relationship with each other were always, usually, sometimes or never, true.

Among the statements: “My mother’s ideas and opinions about the important things in life are ones I can respect.” “My mother accepts and understands me as a person.” “When something is bothering me, I am able to talk it over with my mother.” “I enjoy doing things together with my mother.”

The mothers were asked to respond to similar statements about how much they trusted, enjoyed, respected, understood, and felt affectionate toward the young adult child in question.

The researchers controlled for mother’s age, family size, parents’ marital quality, and many other characteristics, including parents’ education, income, and marital status, that might influence the quality of the relationship between mother and child.

According to Axinn, they found that the personal importance a mother places on religion is a powerful predictor of the quality of her emotional relationship with her child, starting before that child was born through age 23.

“The more a mother sees religion as an integral part of her identity,” says Axinn, “the better both she and her child view their relationship.”

While a mother’s frequent attendance at religious services predicted that she would have a positive view of the relationship, it did not predict a similarly positive assessment by the young adult children.

Pearce and Axinn suggest that attending religious services may or may not reflect the degree to which religion pervades a person’s entire life, while the personal importance individuals place on religion may tap a deeper aspect of how religion influences other realms of life, including family relationships.

The researchers also found a connection between changes in a mother’s religiosity over time, and changes in the quality of her relationship with her child.

“It’s common for adults to increase their participation in religious services after they have children,” notes Axinn. “If a mother becomes more religious over the first 18 years of her child’s life, she reports higher relationship quality with that child, at age 23. Conversely, mothers who attend religious services less often report lower relationship quality with their 23-year-old children.”

Altogether, conclude Pearce and Axinn, the study shows that the effects of religiosity on mother-child relationships are both long-term and enduring.

“Exposure to religious themes such as tolerance, patience, and unconditional love may provide both parents and children with resources to improve their relationships,” the researchers suggest, particularly as children move into adolescence.

Pearce and Axinn found no differences in the quality of mother-child relationships by religious affiliation, indicating that the type of religion to which one belongs is not as important as the inner importance that one places on religion for the quality of mother-child relationships.

Religion is just one of many different social institutions which promote the mutual involvement of family members, the researchers point out. Probably the most important reason for the relationship between devotion to religion and the quality of mother-child relationships, they add, is that mothers and children are involved in a common set of social activities that advocate a common set of social values.