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September 28, 2002
Column #1100

Religion: Its Impact on High School Seniors

     "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it," says Proverbs 22.6

     If you have children, do you take them to Sunday School and to worship God? If not, a new study suggests you should do so, "Religion and American Adolescent Delinquency, Risk Behaviors and Constructive Social Activities." 

     After interviewing 2,500 high school seniors, researchers Christian Smith and Robert Faris at the University of North Carolina found that 31% of students attended religious services weekly or more often. Result: 30 percent said that religion is "very important" in their lives. Conversely, 15 percent never attended. Not surprisingly, 15 percent said religion wasn't important to them.

     Interestingly, only 16 percent had been attending a church youth group for six years, while 31 percent had been doing so for two or less years. Parents: that means it is not too late to get them involved as a sophomore or junior. 

     When my family moved to Maryland, we chose a church with 200 high schoolers in Sunday School, though it was not in our denomination, because we had a high school sophomore.

     The least religiously active teens are about twice as likely to drink heavily or use drugs as weekly attenders.

     Asked how often did they drink to "feel pretty high," 36 percent of the least religious do so virtually all the time, while only 18 percent of the most religious do so. Seventy percent of those who say religion is very important have never tried marijuana vs. 46 percent of those who say faith in unimportant.

     Two-thirds of Mormon teens never drink vs. 41 percent of Baptists and three in ten of other Protestants or Catholics. 

     The differences are similar on smoking. Only 12 percent of the religiously active smoke regularly (2 percent of Mormons) while 30 percent of those who never attend church, smoke.

     However, no matter how often a teenager goes to church, he or she is nearly as likely to get a ticket for a moving violation, such as speeding or running a red light as the least religious (72 v. 67 percent). Expecting that as a parents, we set a rule in our house years before our three sons turned 16 that no one would get a driver's license until age 17. That cut their risk in half.

     It made me exceedingly unpopular. "Dad, how old were you when you got your driver's license?" they asked. "Sixteen," I acknowledged. "But I own the cars and pay the insurance."

     "Hypocrite!" they countered. I acknowledged the double standard but remained firm.

     In the past 12 months, only 8 percent of those who say their faith is very important have been in trouble with the police, while 16 percent of the least religious are in trouble for such offenses as stealing something worth more than $50.

     Another study, "America's Youth: Measuring the Risk" by the Institute for Youth Development, notes that 94 percent of teens believe in God and 53 percent attended religious services in the past week. 

     It reports two-thirds of students have a role model, who provides a good example for their personal behavior. Who? Only 10 percent named a friend while four in ten named a parent!

     Alcohol use begins first with both male and female students, followed 17 months later by cigarette smoking and their first sexual intercourse 10 months later. High school students who report drinking on one occasion are seven times more likely to have had sex than nondrinkers.  

     In fact, those who drink heavily are four times as likely to have had multiple sexual partners as those who don't drink. 

     "The importance of early substance use is that it places the child on a deleterious trajectory for future drug use. If a child smokes tobacco or drinks alcohol, he or she is 65 times more likely to use marijuana than a child who never smoked or drank," reports Shepherd Smith of the Institute for Youth Development (

     .The conclusions for parents from this data are obvious. Be absolutely intolerant of any substance abuse in teens. Take your kids to a vibrant church youth group. And most important, BE a person that your teen admires. 

     "Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death," advises Proverbs 19:18.

- - -

     This is my 1,100th weekly column. 

     I want to thank the newspapers that publish it, and you who read it. It has been a high privilege to write Ethics and Religion for 21 years.

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