A new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family examines how single mothers’ religious participation may influence their young children’s behavioral outcomes.

Using a Princeton University survey that followed over 1,100 urban single-mother families for the first five years of the children’s lives, the study finds that mothers’ religious attendance was associated with lower risk of displaying aggressive and delinquency behaviors among five-year-olds. Compared to no religious attendance, even a moderate level of attendance (e.g., several times a year on average) was associated with reduced risk of behavioral problems in children.

Moreover, single mothers’ religious attendance was also linked to their being more involved in their children’s lives, more support from the children’s fathers, less parenting stress, and lower likelihood of using corporal punishment. Even when these relationships were accounted for—along with the mothers’ other religious characteristics, age, race, education, previous marital status, and receipt of governmental assistance—the link between single mothers’ religious attendance and behavioral outcomes persisted.

Specifically, compared to children of single mothers who never attended religious services, children whose mothers always attended on a weekly basis—and those whose mothers who increased their attendance from hardly ever attending when their children were born to attending weekly over the course of five years—were less likely to exhibit aggressive and delinquent behaviors.

About 40 percent of urban single mothers attend religious services at least monthly, according to the Princeton survey. These attendance patterns are comparable to other national samples of single and married mothers.

In light of how religious involvement contributes to individual and social well-being, policymakers concerned about children’s well-being would do well to consider how policy can allow the institutions of marriage and religion to promote this goal.