When my oldest daughter (in the picture above with her grandma) was just a baby, I remember the sense of mystery I used to feel when my friends told me about their kids who were getting into good colleges with more detailed life plans that I ever had. I remember looking at Gracie when she was just an infant in a high chair with strained carrots all over her face and asking God to show me what to do with her. Grace turned 18 last week. She just resigned from her job waitressing at a local Coney Island so that she can start her senior season of lacrosse. She is choosing between two colleges she loves with plans of becoming a family nurse practitioner. God answered my prayers beyond my hopes.
Gracie’s journey has not been easy. She started out in Detroit Public Schools when I was on Detroit’s school board and then was home-schooled before attending four schools by the seventh grade. On the bright side, she learned how to make friends quickly. We put her in violin, piano and singing lessons. At the age of four, she played soccer with her cousins at Clark Park, and went on to become skilled enough to play volleyball, basketball and lacrosse in high school. Life got much harder for Grace when I read an article shortly before her twelfth birthday called, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Realizing the simple truth that the only difference between an “A” and a “B” was the amount of hard work behind it, I became a Tiger Dad virtually overnight and “B’s” became unacceptable in our home.
We tried everything to help all our daughter be prepared for college. But there’s one single thing that was more important than everything else, and it wasn’t lectures about hard work or finding the right school or excelling in music and sports.
The biggest difference for our child is that we took her to church. Church changes things. Every Sunday morning has the potential to be a catharsis for our children in worship, a challenge to them during the message, and an encouragement to them in the lobby afterward by scores of people who love them and want the best for them–all for absolutely nothing in return. It’s a deal you just can’t find anywhere else, but increasingly less and less people are taking advantage of it.
In his must-read book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam shows that church attendance is down for all people, but it’s decreased even more for children in poverty (p. 225). This is but one example of a much larger series of differences in the way that low-income and affluent children experience life in America, and this widening gap threatens the promise of the American Dream like never before for millions of young people born into poverty. Just a few examples:
- The percentage of Americans living in middle income neighborhoods has dropped from 65% in 1970 to 40% now–with increasingly more people living in super-affluent bubbles or in high concentrations of poverty (p. 38).
- The percentage of children in those homes who received a college degree rose from 40% to 77% for high-income families while only moving from 6% to 9% for low-income families in that same time span (p. 187).
- This yawning gap continues to grow between the two communities in quality-of-life issues like single-parent homes (p. 70), employment of parents (p. 71), families dinners (p. 124) , extra-curriculars (p. 177-179) and the amount of money spent on children at home (p. 126).
- Sweeping changes in public policies increased incarceration rates from an average of 100 people out of 100,000 in the 1970’s to 500 people out of 100,000 now, disproportionately affecting people of color and in poverty. According to Putnam, “More than half of all black children born to less educated parents in 1990 experienced parental imprisonment (p. 76).”
These trend-lines should disturb anyone who loves this country and wants the best for it, as hard work alone is rarely enough to bridge these divides into the middle class and beyond. One of the most effective ways to help young people break out of this rut, Putnam finds, is going to church. He writes:
Compared to their un-churched peers, youth who are involved in a religious organization take tougher courses, get higher grades and test scores, and are less likely to drop of of high school…a child whose parents attend church regularly is 40 to 50 percent more likely to go on to college than a matched child of nonattenders.
Churchgoing kids have better relations with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities, are less prone to substance abuse…risky behavior…and delinquency…As with mentoring, religious involvement–when it happens–makes a bigger difference in the lives of poor kids than rich kids, in part because affluent youth are more exposed to other positive influences (p. 224).
In The Jonathan Effect, I argue that churches should partner with schools to help their students achieve their destiny–and there are literally thousands of churches who can do so much more in the community. But this relationship should not be one-sided. Just as churches can do more to reach out to the community, we in the community should explore how we can do more to help kids get to church. Research make clear that going to church is one of the best things that young people can do to have a better chance at graduating from college. Let’s not hide that truth from them.