To say I was a wild teenager might be an understatement. I was 14 the first time I was arrested for stumbling home drunk from a party. By the time I was in high school, I regularly drank at parties with college-aged adults. I once left a bonfire with some friends to catch a hockey game, but I was so drunk that I have no memory of the game or how I got home. Lots of teens rebel, but I wasn’t rebelling. I was numbing the pain of a chaotic family life marked by neglect, abuse, and instability. I frequently went overboard. This is why I was so deeply impacted by the family lives of my leaders and fellow youth when I joined the Church.

It wasn’t easy leaving my old life behind; as destructive as it was, that coping served a purpose. But well before I could fully appreciate the truths of the restored gospel, I felt the effects of living them in the families around me. I enjoyed youth activities, but I especially cherished time spent in church members’ homes. It was as though I could feel the anxieties I carried evaporate when I entered these spaces of warmth, safety and shared purpose.

Of course, no family is perfect and even religious families can be abusive. Last month, Utah-based parenting influencer Ruby Franke was convicted on four counts of aggravated child abuse, for which she will serve at least four years in prison, and possibly much longer. Compared with situations like my own, where dysfunction and abuse correlated with chaos and poverty, this abuse appears to have stemmed instead from apparent ideological distortions, as Franke herself has now acknowledged.

Still, Franke as a religious parent is an outlier and exception to the general pattern. Indeed, there is a surprising amount of research bearing out my own anecdotal experience that faith and religious devotion more often function as a protective factor.

Religiosity and parenting

I checked in with Justin Dyer, a BYU professor who has studied this for years. He told me the data for the effects of religiosity on individual and family wellbeing is fairly clear according to the available research. As the authors of the Handbook of Religion and Health, Harold G. Koenig, Tyler VanderWeele, John R. Peteet conclude, “Overall ... religious involvement appears to be associated with greater marital and family stability, less child abuse and domestic violence, and may be useful in preparing couples for marriage.”

One fascinating study of maternal religiosity and child functioning was intentionally conducted in Northern Ireland, because it had long been subject to serious religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The researcher wanted to know whether this brutal history would translate into more family and personal conflict among local believers.

The researchers found that maternal religiosity--how much a mother valued and participated in her religion--was correlated with greater mother-child attachment and inversely correlated with family conflict. As mom’s devotedness and participation in her faith increased, maternal psychological distress and child adjustment problems decreased.

Even in the context of religious strife, then, the mother’s religious devotion still improved mental and emotional outcomes for both her and her children.

Christopher Ellison, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who specializes in the sociology of religion, has likewise found that men who regularly attend religious services are less likely to abuse their female partners, even after controlling for religious attendance’s indirect effects on reducing other risk factors for family violence (like substance abuse).

In a 2007 study published in the journal Violence Against Women, Ellison and colleagues found that “men who attend religious services several times a week are 72% less likely to abuse their female partners than men from comparable backgrounds who do not attend services.”

In an earlier study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Ellison and Kristin Anderson, a professor of sociology at Western Washington University who specializes in domestic violence, found that religious attendance decreased partner violence. Even after measuring ways that religious attendance also limited substance abuse, improved mental health, and created more social support, they found that “robust religious effects persist even with controls for these factors.”

Ellison and Anderson propose that religious teachings themselves may explain why. They suggest that positive role models could play a role as well as the fact that “many religious communities also expressly condemn family violence and try to foster an awareness of its destructive consequences.”

Faith communities do more than condemn the bad, of course, with positive messages about young people also common. Another recent cross-sectional study of 30,000 adults in 24 countries found that religious people were more likely to see children as providing joy and happiness, rather than as burdensome.

Latter-day Saint faith and parenting

Latter-day Saint theology makes a unique contribution to our understanding of family life. Most religions understand that families can make us better disciples, and that religious practice can create stronger families. But Latter-day Saints understand family relationships to be the ultimate purpose and the final expression of discipleship. We are saved as individuals, but we only become like God as families.

Conceived in this way, Latter-day Saint discipleship aims itself at producing people who are capable of forming and maintaining eternal bonds with God and one another. This is no small feat, as eternity is a long time--long enough for even small character flaws to wreak interpersonal havoc.

This is why the church teaches that “abuse cannot be tolerated in any form and that those who abuse will be accountable before God.” As the Franke incident suggests, when the focus is on individual perfection, relating to children with harshness may seem justified or even necessary. But if the goal is to live in harmony and true emotional intimacy with our family members, the way we relate to them is no longer a means to an end. It is the end. I appreciate the way Blake Ostler describes religious faith as “far more the product of intimacy with the divine” than of conceptual conviction, “more a product of relationships than of logical necessities.” Perhaps faith is relational in nature by necessity, because the nature of ultimate happiness is itself relational.

This bears itself out in the way Latter-day Saints live their faith. Princeton theologian Kenda Creasy Dean wrote in 2010 that “The most important faith community in Mormon life is the family,” suggesting that when it comes to Latter-day Saint culture, “separating family and church is inconceivable.”

This endows parental and filial responsibilities with great significance for Latter-day Saints, but it also emphasizes faith and family relationships as transformative, rather than simply performative. While Latter-day Saints are frequently noted for wholesome outward behavior, Dean points to research showing that LDS youth also experience more “hope for the future, and overall health and wellbeing” than their peers.

“When belief and ‘social outcomes’ are measured,” Dean says, paraphrasing available research, Latter-day Saint kids “tend to be on top.’”

More recently, professor Dyer’s research for the Family Foundations project surveyed 1600 older youth in diverse households across Utah, California, and Arizona, starting in 2016. Each youth was randomly sampled, and asked about their experience with verbal hostility at home (“My parent yells or shouts when I misbehave...My parent scolds and criticizes to make me improve”) and parental warmth (”My parent gives comfort and understanding when I am upset...My parent encourages me to talk about my troubles”).

In terms of parental warmth, Latter-day Saints were comparable to youth from other religious households (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist), but statistically higher than children in households identifying as atheist, agnostic and formerly religious. In the measures of how often parents shouted, scolded, or criticized them, the one statistically meaningful difference that emerged was that Latter-day Saint children experienced less verbal hostility than children in homes with parents that were formerly religious.

My early experiences have impressed upon me the importance of creating a stable, positive family environment. Children may forget much of what we say, but not how they felt in our care. One of my favorite scripture stories is the return of the prodigal son. We learn that “he came to himself” when all of his fears and shame could no longer compete with the memories of the abundance he experienced in his father’s house.

My main strategy for passing our religious convictions to my children has been to use them in creating a family life of abundance. One day they’ll strike out on their own and I’ll have far less influence over their choices. My hope is that they will remember the happiness they felt in their parents’ home, and that this will tether them to the religious teachings and practices that have filled my own life with so much joy.