Honoring your mother and father may be on the Top 10 list of commandments, but most parents can tell you that there are times when raising a child can try their souls.
What has been less known is how faith relates to parental stress.
Do religious teachings set up impossibly high standards that increase parental guilt? Or does the idea that God stands with them in times of both joy and anxiety reduce stress and lead to increased parental satisfaction?
The answer is a little of both. But new research suggests that there is a positive relation between some faith practices and beliefs and being a happier mom or dad.
People who regularly attend services were in general more likely to report parental happiness and less likely to say they are overwhelmed by parenting, according to one study of more than 5,500 mothers and fathers that found, “Generally speaking, religiosity is a modestly positive influence on parenting attitudes.”
The belief that “you are doing God’s will” may equip parents with a positive outlook that can help them through the ups and downs of parenthood, says Baylor sociologist Jeremy Uecker. He presented the study, conducted with Samuel Stroope of Louisiana State University and W. Matthew Henderson of Baylor, at the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in New York.
Not all groups receive the same benefits, however. Gender and parental status can make a difference, the research indicates.
Their study is not alone in offering evidence that religion may help some parents experience more joy and less stress. Some of the factors that may make a difference include:
Prayer: Daily prayer seemed to particularly reduce stress for married mothers, the study by Uecker, Stroope and Henderson indicated. They analyzed data from thousands of mothers and fathers who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
Worship: Single mothers who attended services weekly were more likely than those who rarely or never attend services to strongly agree they are happy in their role as a parent, the Uecker, Stroope and Henderson study found.
Importance of religion: Fathers who said religion is important were more likely to strongly agree they are happy in their role as a parent, their study also found. A separate study analyzing data on 1,134 single mothers from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study indicated that religious participation “was associated with greater involvement with children, reduced parenting stress and a lower likelihood of engaging in corporal punishment.” Sociologist Richard Petts of Ball State University reported the findings in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Sharing the workload: Fathers who shared more in childcare had little effect on either parent’s levels of aggravation, with the notable exception of religious mothers, according to a study of 178 married couples becoming first-time parents.
“Among higher-sanctifying mothers, the more their husbands contributed to daily infant care, the lower their parental aggravation,” researchers Alfred Demaris, Annette Mahoney and Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green State University reported in the journal Fathering.
There are several reasons faith appears to help parents, from receiving social support from co-believers to practical assistance from other families in areas such as babysitting, Uecker notes.
But some researchers have suggested a key reason also may be the idea of the sanctification or the “sacralization” of parenthood, the idea that being a mother or father is a sacred responsibility and part of God’s plan.
This may provide particular support for fathers, who in the larger culture have fewer expectations to be involved as a parent in the lives of their children. There is a general attitude “it’s nice” when fathers are involved as parents, Uecker notes.
In church, however, fathers receive a different message.
“They’re getting validation from being involved” as parents, Uecker says. “Religious institutions actually emphasize being involved as a religious duty.”
Not all religious practices make for happier parents, however.
People who believe in a punishing, judgmental God may find themselves under greater stress if they interpret the trials of parenthood as a reflection of their own failure to live up to a divine norm of parenthood.
In a study of 149 parents of preschoolers, researchers found individuals who responded to parenting challenges in ways that expressed fear or anger, questioning the power of God or wondering if God has abandoned them, were the least likely to express satisfaction with their role as mothers and fathers.
Religious parents who are less satisfied may “see their parenting difficulties as evidence of divine anger or punishment,” researchers Jean E. Dumas of Purdue University and Jenelle Nissley-Tsiopinis of New York University said in an article in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.
Difficult times come with the job of being a parent. And no one response works the same way for every parent.
Children with behavioral issues can cause greater stress even for parents who believe in a loving God, and some parents emerge from struggling with doubt to develop a stronger faith that enables them to be happier mothers and fathers, notes Mahoney, a psychology professor at Bowling Green.
Yet research indicates that in general religion can be a positive influence on parenting, providing a resource for a less stressful and more joyful parenthood.
If only children can work a little more on that honoring their father and mother part.