Parenting Teens: Investing in Human Capital

Linda Benedict  |  1/6/2006 11:01:26 PM

Robert D. Laird, Diane Sasser and Holly Bell

Experiences during the teenage years play a large role in determining whether teenagers go on to become productive and engaged citizens as adults. Although common depictions of adolescence as a time of “storm and stress” are often exaggerations, adolescence is a period of great transition both for teenagers and their families. In fact, parents report being more nervous and apprehensive about adolescence than any other period in their child’s life. One particular challenge faced by parents of teenagers is figuring out when and how to offer increased freedom and responsibility.

Simultaneous increases in freedom and responsibility are evidence of increased autonomy. Autonomy is similar to independence, but autonomy denotes the freedom to act independently while maintaining social responsibility. When making decisions, autonomous adolescents and adults are expected to make appropriate and wise choices and to accept responsibility for their actions. The development of autonomy has great relevance for human capital because appropriate autonomy prepares adolescents to face new challenges as adults in an ever-changing world.

The primary challenge for parents is to grant sufficient freedom to their children without being overly permissive. Successful parents find a way to balance their desire to supervise and guide adolescents’ behavior and development with their desire to promote independence and independent thinking and decision-making. Parenting that promotes autonomy provides children and adolescents with opportunities to make their own decisions and form their own opinions while also providing guidance and support to enhance the development of responsibility.

Parental monitoring has been identified as a key parenting practice during the teenage years because of its role in promoting autonomy. Parental monitoring implies that parents are aware of their children’s whereabouts, activities and friends. Parents’ knowledge of their teenagers’ whereabouts and activities is considered a protective factor for a range of problem behaviors and outcomes including conduct problems, violence and delinquency; drug, tobacco and alcohol use; early initiation of sexual intercourse and risky sexual behavior; and poor school performance.

Despite strong and consistent evidence that well-adjusted adolescents have well-informed parents, little is known about how parents obtain information and maintain their connection to their children. Parents are often encouraged to obtain information by asking questions and by having and enforcing family rules as evidenced by the advice offered through the National Youth Anti-Drug Campaign’s public service announcements (for example, “The more you know”) and Web page (www. theantidrug.com). However, some recent research conducted in Sweden suggests that adolescents’ willingness to inform their parents of their whereabouts and activities, rather than whether parents ask questions and have rules, is the key to parents becoming and remaining informed.

Research funded by the Louisiana Board of Regents is being conducted through the LSU AgCenter to further understand how parents in Louisiana get and stay informed. For the past two summers, interviews have been conducted with 12- to 15-year-old adolescents and their mothers. Interviews have been conducted with boys and girls and with white and African-American families. Parents and teenagers are interviewed separately, but the interviews contain many of the same questions for each. The interviews include standard questions about parenting, parents’ and teenagers’ expectations for freedom and responsibility, how well the parents and teenagers communicate and get along with one another and whether the teenager is involved in several different problem behaviors. More than 85 families have been interviewed.

So far, results from this AgCenter research tell us that parents believe they know nearly all there is to know about their teenagers’ whereabouts and activities. Although the teenagers agree that their parents know a lot, they tell us their parents do not know everything that goes on in their lives. Parents tell us they ask lots of questions and have and enforce rules concerning with whom their teenagers are allowed to spend time, where they can go, what they can do and what time they have to be home. Teenagers agree that their parents do these things, but they don’t think they do them very often or very consistently. Parents and teenagers agree that teenagers tell their parents whom they were with and what they were doing a little over half of the time.

Why are some parents more knowledgeable about the lives of their teens than others? Parents participating in the AgCenter study are more knowledgeable when they have and enforce rules and when they engage in more-frequent conversations with their teenagers about their friends, interests and activities. It does not matter whether the conversations are started by the parents or by the teenagers – what matters most is that parents and teens talk about these things. Parents also are more knowledgeable when parent-teen conflict is relatively infrequent and minor, when parents and teens can talk openly with one another and when teenagers feel supported and trusted by their parents.

Positive experiences in the parentteen relationship – limited conflict, open communication, support and trust – make parents more likely to ask about the teenagers’ friends and activities and make it more likely that teenagers will respond truthfully and follow their parents’ rules. Thus, positive parent-teen relationships appear to facilitate parenting behaviors that encourage autonomy and produce well-adjusted teenagers. However, it is surprising that other research results also tell us that negative parent-teen relationships and frequent teen behavior problems also result in increased freedom from parental supervision. This premature and undeserved independence is likely to undermine true autonomy and lead to maladjustment.

When teenagers receive too much independence – and particularly when such independence is poorly monitored by parents – teenagers are much more likely to become involved in problem behavior and are less likely to go on to be productive citizens as adults. However, parents can facilitate and encourage autonomy by providing increased freedom and responsibility. In doing so, parents should actively monitor their teenagers’ behavior and work to maintain positive and supportive relationships with their teenagers.

Robert D. Laird, Associate Professor, and Diane Sasser, Associate Professor, School of Human Ecology, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.; Holly Bell, Instructor, LSU-Eunice, Eunice, La.

This research was supported by a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents through the Board of Regents Support Fund.

(This article was published in the fall 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Click here for article "Laird receives $336,898 Grant"
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