Address correspondence to the author, at the Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA,
or by e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org
This morning, I'd like to discuss the major findings that have emerged over the past several decades from research on adolescent development in the family context and examine the implications of this research for working with and developing programs for families at risk - more specifically, families with teenagers who are at risk for developing emotional and behavioral problems.
Over the past two decades, no area of inquiry within the field of adolescent development has generated as much enduring interest as the study of the family. While fads and fashions in other topic areas have come and gone, research on parent-adolescent relationships has maintained a constant presence in the literature, dominating the scientific journals, overwhelming the review panels of funding agencies, and capturing the lion's share of popular publications on teenagers and how to ensure their health and well-being.
During the last 10 years, for example, 28% of all articles published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence concerned family relationships, and, of all the articles on adolescence published in the journals Child Development and Developmental Psychology, a remarkable 34% focused on the parent-adolescent relationship - twice the proportion that focused on adolescents and their peers. One would think that after a period of such focused and concerted effort one would think that we would know some things. In the next hour or so, I hope to persuade you that, in fact, we do.
More specifically, I'm going to trace and summarize for you the most important ideas to have emerged from 25 years of focused research on adolescent development in the family context. My rationale for using the mid 1970s as the starting point for this journey is simple: Before that time, there was no systematic empirical literature on the family on adolescence to speak of. There were a handful of scattered studies in the journals and some widely-read theoretical treatises, but it would have been a challenge, to say the least, to stare any coherence into the published literature on adolescence and their parents, even as late as 1980. Indeed, in 1980, the first ever Handbook of Adolescent Psychology did not even include a chapter on the family.
The state of the literature today is remarkably different. Indeed, I believe that there are some questions that have been so conclusively answered that I shall suggest that we do not need further research on them, and that our efforts would be more fruitfully directed at other issues. So, rather than end my talk by calling for further research, I'm going to begin mine by calling for a halt - at least with respect to some areas of study.
I have organized my talk around the two major sets of questions, which have been the focus of my own research for the past quarter century. The first set of questions concerns the ways in which family relationships change during adolescence.
Specifically, how can we best characterize normative family relations during adolescence? How and why do relationships change as the child moves into and through adolescence? What is the extent of individual differences in this process of transformation? What do these changes mean for parents and teenagers? What are the special implications of this research for understanding development in at-risk families?
The second set of questions concern the impact of the family on adolescent development and mental health. In particular, how do variations in parent-child relationships affect the developing adolescent? Are some types of parenting "better" for the adolescent than others, in the sense that they decrease risk or increase resilience? What should we make of recent arguments, such as those in Judith Harris's book, The Nurture Assumption, that question the belief that parents have a significant influence over their children's development at all? Are there factors in the non-family environment that impinge on the parent-child relationship in ways that enhance or attenuate parental influence? What does this research tell us about programs and interventions for at risk families?
Let me begin by reviewing what we have learned about transformations in family relations during adolescence.
Prior to the 1970s, the dominant view of the family at adolescence was one that emphasized the nature and function of parent-adolescent conflict. Parents were told to expect oppositionalism and defiance from their teenager and to worry if they were not present. The absence of conflict was seen as indicative of stunted development. The focus for those who work with families was not on promoting positive youth development but on helping parents "survive" what was presumed to be an inherently difficult and tumultuous transition.
During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, these ideas came under attack by a number of empirical studies that challenged the view that conflict was desirable, or even typical. Between 1966 and 1972, several studies of community samples of adolescents, drawn from schools rather than clinics, were published. These studies found that around 75% of teenagers reported having happy and pleasant relationships with their parents. If detachment, identity struggle, and individuation were taking place, they did not seem to be taking their toll on the family. Soon thereafter, other research showed not only that the 75 percent estimate was on target, but that most of the remaining one fourth of families had histories of family difficulty that preceded their child's entry into adolescence. In other words, it looked as if there was little evidence that familial storm and stress emerged in adolescence in very many families. And, adolescent mental health was found to be better in families with close, not conflicted, parent-child relationships, casting doubt on the notion that family conflict was a necessary prelude to mental health in late adolescence.
How was one to account for the discrepancy between these empirical studies, which did not find adolescence to be a remarkably difficult time, and the earlier portrayals of adolescence as a time of storm and stress? The chief explanation was that the original writings had come from clinicians' reports, whereas the newer studies drew their conclusions from research on community samples. The error was in taking findings based on observations about families of psychologically troubled teenagers and generalizing these to the population as a whole. In other words, while storm and stress may be the norm in families of teenagers with depression or conduct disorder, conflict is not normative in average families. Despite scientists' uneasiness with the storm and stress view, the public seemed unwilling to buy this more temperate view of things. Still today, there is a dramatic disjunction between what is being said in academic circles and what is being sold to parents through the popular media. Authors of contemporary advice books aimed at parents of teenagers continue to portray the period as a difficult one.
The next time you visit your local bookseller, take a look at the titles in the child-rearing section. You'll find dozens of books on how to love your cuddly infant alongside their companion guides, on how to survive your spiteful teenager.
This poses a dilemma for those of you who are on the front lines, working with parents and developing programs for families. Should we program for parents as if adolescence is a difficult time, or should we break from this tradition and assume that what most parents need is reassurance, not assistance? Social scientists say one thing, but those who write books for parents say another. Is this simply the usual lag between scientific discovery and its popular dissemination, or is something else going on?
In the past several years, I have given dozens and dozens of talks to nonacademic audiences, mainly parents, and I have come to believe that something else is going on. I now question the wisdom of scientists' assertion that the storm and stress view is entirely off-base. At the very least, I think the story is a lot more complicated than this characterization. The answer to the question of whether adolescence is a time of conflict depends on what you mean by conflict and, more importantly, whom you ask. We need a new perspective on the family, one that emphasizes the different viewpoints and stakes that family members bring to the kitchen table. When you look at research that takes this perspective, you find that there is a need for both assistance and reassurance.
What does research tell us about conflict in the family at adolescence? We are now fairly certain that frequent, high-intensity, angry fighting between parents and teenagers is not normative. But to characterize the storm and stress view as entirely wrong - as many writers, including myself, have done - is not entirely true. The truth is that different members of the family have different views of parent-adolescent conflict and are differentially affected by it.
Just as research on siblings tells us that two siblings can experience the same family context in very different ways, research on parents and adolescents tells us that mothers, fathers, and teenagers may experience their interactions with each other in very different ways. It is my impression, as a researcher and as the father of a teenager, that parents are more bothered by the bickering and squabbling that takes place during this time than are adolescents, and that parents are more likely to hold on to the affect after a negative interaction with their teenager. The popular image of the individual sulking in the wake of a family argument may be a more accurate portrayal of the parent's than the teenager's emotional state.
Teenagers may recover from parent-child conflicts more quickly than their parents because of the different perspectives that parents and teenagers bring to their relationship. Several years ago, my wife, Wendy, and I reported on this in a book entitled Crossing Paths, which was based on a study of about 200 families with early adolescents. Although the design of the study was initially limited to questionnaire data, our preliminary analyses of these survey data led us to believe that there were aspects of the dynamics of the parent-child relationship that warranted not only a second look, but a closer look, through structured face-to face interviews.
Part of the impetus for this addition were some very interesting findings that emerged from a part of the study designed and conducted by Susan Silverberg, who was doing her doctoral dissertation with me at the time. Sue found significant relations between parental mental health and transformations in family relationships - to my knowledge, the first systematic empirical documentation of this phenomenon. We had known from other research that parents describe adolescence as a relatively more difficult time than other periods of the child's development, but we did not know how parents were affected by the family's entry into adolescence. Our findings suggested that the day to day conflicts over mundane matters that psychologists had dismissed as unimportant were in fact unimportant to teenagers but were a significant source of distress for parents.
Recent research, by other investigators, helps us understand why this may be so: Parents and adolescents have different sets of expectations and ideas about the social conventions that regulate family life. Certain aspects of parent-adolescent conflict can be understood by asking whether and how interactions between family members violate their expectations. Many of the conflicts that parents and teenagers have reflect not only differences of opinion but differences in the way that issues are framed and defined. Many of the matters that parents and teenagers argue about are seen by parents as involving a code of right and wrong - either a moral code or, more likely, a code that is based on social conventions. But these very same issues are seen by teenagers as matters of personal choice. To a parent, maintaining a clean room is something that people do because it is the right thing to do -- after all, cleanliness is next to godliness. To the adolescent, how one keeps one's room is one's own business. When individuals define issues in such different terms, differences of opinion can not be reconciled.
More importantly, the feelings that parents and teenagers have when they walk away from these sorts of unreconciled conflicts may differ. By defining these conflicts as moral debates, parents may view them as rejections of basic values that they have tried to instill in the teenager and, as such, as a violation of their expectations - expectations that their socialization efforts were successful. The adolescent, in contrast, imbues the conflict with far less meaning; it's nothing more than an argument between people who disagree. This is why it is the parent, and not the adolescent, who walks away upset and who stays upset.
These mildly upsetting interchanges over day-to-day issues are not relationship-breakers. But their repetitive nature takes a toll on parental mental health, especially among mothers, who bear the brunt of the front-line action in most households. (One described arguing with her teenager as something like "being bitten to death by ducks.") About 40% of the parents we studied experienced two or more of the following over the family's transition into adolescence: lowered self-esteem, diminished life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, or more frequent rumination about middle age. The distress is worse among parents whose adolescents are actively caught up in the individuation process, worse among parents whose adolescent is the same sex, worse among parents who have invested relatively less energy in work and marriage, and worse among parents who have been divorced. The deidealization of the parent by the adolescent - to borrow one of Woody Allen's expressions, placing the parent under a pedestal - is especially difficult for many parents to cope with. Part of the difficulty may inhere in the clash between the psychological issues of adolescence, and the psychological issues of midlife, with which many teenagers' parents are grappling.
We now understand that early adolescence is an incredibly important period for the negotiation of autonomy-related changes in the parent-child relationship. Perhaps what is most surprising about research on the family's transition into adolescence is that it looks as if negotiating the family's transition into adolescence is not an especially difficult challenge or a significant source of stress for most teenagers. To be sure, there are teenagers who are under stress or who have psychological difficulty, but these conditions can almost always be attributed to a major life event or chronic difficulty that would be stressful regardless of the individual's age, such as parental divorce, poverty, victimization, or the illness of a family member. In other words, some families may be at risk during adolescence, but they are not at risk because of adolescence. Indeed, even within risky contexts, many adolescents are remarkably resilient in the face of the normative challenges of the period, especially if they have the support of one or more caring adults and, as we shall see, especially if their parents or caregivers practice authoritative parenting.
In our unsuccessful quest to explain the storm and stress of adolescence, we may have been looking for the wrong phenomenon. More specifically, I believe that we have not paid enough attention to the mental health or psychological needs of parents with teenagers. The vulnerable individuals in families with teenagers may not be adolescents, but in fact may be parents, especially mothers. Many parents approach adolescence with trepidation and insecurity about their abilities. It is our job to both reassure them and empower them, but in order to do this, we need to better understand parents' own feelings, anxieties, and concerns.
There is reason to suspect that the problems parents experience during the transition of their child into adolescence are exacerbated among at risk families. I say this for several reasons. First, we know that stress has a cumulative impact; that is, the impact of any one stressor, such as having a child become a teenager, is accentuated under the presence of a second stressor, such as poverty. Second, we know that the impact of stressors are greater under conditions of diminished social support; thus, to the extent that parents in at-risk families have fewer social and instrumental resources to draw upon, they will be affected more adversely by the transition into adolescence than other parents whose support systems are more extensive. Finally, to the extent that parents in at-risk families are exposed to more stressors and have fewer supports, the impact of adolescence on them will more likely disrupt their own parenting, which in turn will adversely affect the adolescent's behavior. This will create an additional source of stress for the family that will induce more problem behavior in the adolescent, which will adversely affect the parent's mental health, further disrupting his or her parenting. When it comes to family relationships, over time, the psychologically poor get poorer.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the psychological adjustment of teenagers to adolescence, future research on transformations in family relations at adolescence needs to examine whether, why, and in what ways this transition is stressful for parents; how this sort of stress affects parental mental health; whether parents who find the transition difficult are more likely to parent in ineffective ways; and whether educational programs aimed at parents of teenagers can help alleviate some of this difficulty. As I will suggest later in my talk this morning, I believe that we need to consider a shift in emphasis in our programming for families toward an approach that educates and empowers parents.
I'd like to turn now to a second set of questions, ones that have dominated my own work for the past 10 years. These questions concern the impact of parents on adolescent development and mental health, whether certain approaches to parenting are more effective than others, and whether the impact of parenting is moderated by the broader context in which the family lives.
For some time, now, my colleagues and I have been studying what many psychologists refer to as "authoritative" parenting. Authoritative parenting is a terrible name for a wonderful construct, initially described by Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind. The authoritative parent is warm and involved, but is firm and consistent in establishing and enforcing guidelines, limits, and developmentally appropriate expectations.
Although these basic elements of authoritativeness - responsiveness and demandingness - are significant across different periods in the child's development, there is one added dimension that is important to assess in adolescence: the extent to which parents encourage and permit the adolescent to develop his or her own opinions and beliefs, something called "psychological autonomy-granting." Psychological control, its converse, is experienced by the child as intrusive, overprotective, and sometimes passive aggressive.
For many years, developmental psychologists have known that preschool and elementary age school children who are raised by authoritative parents fare better than their peers who are raised in other types of households, on virtually every indicator of psychological health studied. This work had not been systematically extended into adolescence, however, and, although it was suspected that this sort of parenting would benefit teenagers as well as their younger counterparts, it was not known if this in fact was the case. This was the impetus for much of the work my colleagues and I have done over the past decade.
In our work, as in the work of others who have studied parenting and its impact on development, we have compared teenagers from authoritative households with their peers from homes that are authoritarian (controlling but aloof or hostile), indulgent (warm but overly permissive), or disengaged (uninvolved or neglectful).
Perhaps the most important conclusion to emerge from our work is that adolescents raised in authoritative homes continue to show the same sorts of advantages in psychosocial development and mental health over their non-authoritatively-raised peers that were apparent in studies of younger children. Here are some examples of findings from our own work, based on data collected from a sample of about 10,000 high school students in California and Wisconsin. Adolescents from authoritative homes achieve more in school, report less internalized distress, such as psychosomatic symptoms or depression, score higher on measures of psychosocial maturity, such as work orientation and are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior, including delinquency and drug use. These findings now have been replicated over and over again, by researchers in different parts of the world using different methods, different measures, different samples, and different labels for what they are studying. I know of no study that indicates that adolescents fare better when they are reared with some other form of parenting. I am often asked about the impact of having two parents whose parenting styles differ. The brief answer is that this does not happen terribly often by the time the child has reached adolescence. The few studies that have looked at this find that mothers and fathers are in agreement about 75% of the time, partly because parents influence each other over time, and partly because those with serious disagreements may divorce. Nevertheless, it happens often enough to investigate its effects. Of course, the prevailing wisdom is that it is important for parents to agree on matters of discipline - to present a united front, as it were.
This may not be the case, however, according to our data on the subject. While it is true that having two authoritative parents is slightly better than having one, having one is better than having none, even if having one means having parents who do not see eye-to-eye. This is especially true when it comes to academic performance. When we compared adolescents with one authoritative parent with adolescents with two consistent, nonauthoritative parents, on several indicators of academic performance we found that the differences between adolescents with one versus two authoritative parents were much smaller than the differences between adolescents with only one authoritative parent versus those with two parents who agree, but who are permissive, authoritarian, or neglectful.
We have probably overstated the importance of parents presenting a united front, at least in homes with teenagers. Perhaps it is important for parents to be consistent when children are younger. But in adolescence, parental consistency is less important than having at least one parent who is authoritative. This is an important message that we ought to be communicating to parents.
My colleagues and I have also examined the over-time impact of authoritative parenting in longitudinal studies. This research is important, because it helps to firm up the notion that adolescent competence is influenced by authoritative parenting, rather than the reverse. We find that the disadvantages of nonauthoritative parenting accumulate over time; across each year of high school, adolescents from homes in which parents are neither responsive nor demanding - parents we call indifferent - lose ground to their authoritatively-reared counterparts. We have demonstrated this with regard to various aspects of antisocial behavior, academic performance, and general psychosocial development. We might think of authoritative parenting in preadolescence as placing young people on a trajectory that maintains or even increases competence and psychological well-being over the adolescent decade. In contrast, neglectful or indifferent parenting places youngsters on a downhill trajectory that makes them increasingly vulnerable to psychological and behavioral problems.
Why does authoritative parenting work?
To answer this, it helps to think of authoritative parenting as an emotional context rather than a compilation of specific parenting practices. Parenting practices are best seen, not as instantiations of authoritativeness, but as specific actions that often have different meanings depending on the emotional climate in which they occur, a climate that is determined by the style of parenting. Authoritative parenting works because it does three things: First, the nurturance and parental involvement make the child more receptive to parental influence, enabling more effective and efficient socialization. Second, the combination of support and structure facilitates the development of self-regulatory skills, which enable the child to function as a responsible, competent individual, even when parents are not around. And, third, the verbal give and take characteristic of parent-child exchanges in authoritative families engages the child in a process that fosters cognitive and social competence, thereby enhancing the child's functioning outside the family. For example, research shows that adolescents whose parents encourage their child's psychological autonomy are more competent in their interactions with peers. Perhaps the most interesting thing about authoritative parenting is the way in which it changes the impact of parents' practices. We tested this notion by looking at what is more or less considered to be a given in the study of adolescent development - that parents' academic encouragement and involvement in adolescents' schooling is beneficial for their school achievement. In the aggregate, this turns out to be true - students whose parents attend school functions, monitor course selection, stay on top of children's school performance, and encourage their achievement do better in school than their peers whose parents are less actively involved.
However, the relation between parental school involvement and adolescent achievement varies as a function of how authoritative the family's style is. Parental encouragement and involvement have a much stronger impact when parents were authoritative than it did when parents were not. In fact, within nonauthoritative families, parental encouragement and involvement are statistically unrelated to students' school performance. In other words, it is not just what parents do that matters but the emotional context in which they do it. Researchers interested in socialization need to study not only what parents do, but how they do it.
Now let me address the Judith Harris book. Harris claimed that much of what we attribute to parental influence is actually genetic, and that when adolescent development is influenced by the environment, it is peers, not parents, who are the most important influence agents. I agree with her basic argument that we have under-emphasized both the role of genes and the role of socialization agents other than parents in shaping youngsters' development. But it seems highly unlikely to me that parents have no or even little impact on their adolescents' values, attitudes, and personality. Indeed, the basic logic behind Harris's position makes no sense at all: How could it be that adolescents' development is influenced by the people with whom they interact - as Harris admits, by pointing to the importance of peer influence -- just not by the people who have lived with them, raised them, and tried to influence them since the moment they were born? Is it conceivable that evolution would have led to the development of a human organism that is influenced by everyone other than his or her parents? Given what we know about modeling, observational learning, and social influence, the proposition that children are influenced by everyone and everything except their parents is preposterous.
As for the argument that it is all genes, I can only say that Harris, like the behavior geneticists upon whose work she relies, overestimates the role of genes, underestimates the role of the environment, selectively attends to findings that support the view that genes always trump environment, and ignores the fact that the statistical models employed in this research conveniently ignore the fact that genetic and environmental influences are intercorrelated and interactive in their impact. Accordingly, it is not as simple as one might think to separate genetic and environmental influences, and to estimate which is stringer than the other. Genes and environment influence each other and work together to affect behavior and development. To pretend that we can estimate pure genetic or pure environmental effects is to engage in a fantasy.
The problem with Harris's argument that peers are more influential than parents is that she draws conclusions about development from a snapshot taken at the end of a long trajectory. The traits, values, and inclinations she attributes - or should I say, misattributes -- to peer influence are largely in place before the teenager's friendships have been established, if not as fully developed entities, then as strong predispositions. And they are in place not solely because of genes, but as a result of the interactive forces of genetic and familial influence, set in motion long before adolescence. Adolescents pick their friends because of these inclinations. Peers undoubtedly play a role in strengthening these pre-existing characteristics, which is precisely why peers are important. But it is unlikely that peer influence leads to the initial emergence of these traits.
One of the most important and controversial questions my collaborators and I have asked is whether the benefits of authoritative parenting transcend the boundaries of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and household composition. The brief answer is that, yes, they do. Studies of American samples show that, as a general rule, adolescents fare better when their parents are authoritative regardless of their racial or social background or their parents' marital status. And this finding has now been confirmed in samples from virtually all over the world, not just in the United States and Canada, but England, Italy, Germany, China, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, and Australia, from Iceland to Argentina. I'm not sure what more evidence one would want.
It is often asserted that certain groups of youngsters - African-American youngsters and Asian-American youngsters - fare better with authoritarian parents than with authoritative parents. I have gone back to the studies that have been cited as demonstrating this, and have found that, in general, they do not find what people think they do. What these studies, and some of our own work, show is that African-American and, to a lesser extent, Asian-American, youngsters are not as harmed by authoritarian parenting as are white youngsters, but this is not the same as saying that black and Asian adolescents benefit from authoritarianism. In fact, our data show that minority youngsters raised in authoritative homes fare better than their peers from nonauthoritative homes with respect to psychosocial development, symptoms of internalized distress, and problem behavior. We should not be encouraging authoritarian parenting among any group of parents.
So let me crawl out on what I believe is a very sturdy limb: I believe that we have enough evidence to conclude that adolescents benefit from having parents who are authoritative: warm, firm, and accepting of their needs for psychological autonomy. Moreover, the same constellation of traits has been shown to characterize effective teachers, school principals, coaches, work supervisors, and organizations. We can stop asking what sort of parenting most positively affects adolescent development. We know the answer to this question. The challenge ahead of us, instead, involves finding ways of educating adults in how to be authoritative and in helping those who are not to change. I think this research is enormously important to people in this audience, because it suggests that the very same style of parenting that works among affluent and well-functioning families also works among families at risk.
We may need different dissemination strategies to reach at risk parents, but the three-part message we disseminate to them should be the same. First, parents make a difference - what you do matters. Second, parents continue to make a difference when their children are teenagers - it's never too late to become a good parent and never time to stop being one. And, third, teenagers fare better when their parents are authoritative - responsive and demanding.
I know that there are some of you who believe that any attempt to define parental effectiveness according to some absolute standard -- ?either in the behavior of the parent or in the development of the child ??is arrogant and insensitive to issues of cultural diversity. Given the diversity in parental attitudes and values in today's society, is it possible to even talk about what is, and what is not, "good" parenting?
I think it is. I think it is possible to specify some broad parameters of effective parenting and desirable child outcomes that accommodate cultural diversity without being paralyzed by cultural relativism.
There is no question that authoritative parenting is associated with certain kinds of developmental outcomes, not all of which are adaptive in all contexts. But in present-day contemporary industrialized societies, the characteristics fostered by authoritative parenting - self-reliance, achievement motivation, prosocial behavior, self-control, cheerfulness, and social confidence - are highly desired and highly desirable. Unless these characteristics become maladaptive in our society - a highly unlikely possibility - parents who do not raise their children with these goals in mind are placing their children at a disadvantage. Frankly, I believe that oversensitivity to issues of diversity has impeded our ability to help parents be better at what they do. We have become so immobilized by political correctness that we have been unwilling to provide the sort of clear-cut direction that parents want and need. As professionals and practitioners with the foundation of a strong research base, we should be able and willing to take a stand as long as we have a firm research foundation for it.
This does not mean that we should abandon the study of parent-adolescent relationships. There are many unanswered questions that deserve our research attention. But we must move our research beyond the immediate family. Now that we have a firmer understanding of how parenting affects adolescent development, we should turn our attention to understanding how forces outside the family accentuate or undermine the impact of authoritative parenting on adolescent development. Authoritative parenting takes place within a broader context, and that context can strengthen or undermine processes of parental influence. Three examples from our work serve as nice illustrations of starting points for this sort of analysis.
Example one comes from my work concerns the power of the peer group. One exception to the general rule that authoritative parenting works was a curious finding from our research on parenting and academic achievement. As we reported in our book, Beyond the Classroom, we found that African-American teenagers who are raised authoritatively do not perform any better in school than their peers who are raised in nonauthoritative households. (The teenagers from nonauthoritative families don't do any better than the ones from authoritative homes; it's just that they do not do any worse.) Because so many studies have shown that authoritative parenting has such a strong and consistent positive effect on school performance among white adolescents, the absence of this effect among black youngsters is puzzling. How can this be? Why aren't Black students from authoritative homes achieving more than their peers from nonauthoritative homes?
The answer, we discovered, is that for many black adolescents, the influence of their peer group, against academic achievement, offsets the potential positive influence of parental authoritativeness. Parental authoritativeness is important, but these data show that it is possible for peers to undermine parental influence. We do not need more research on the benefits of authoritative parenting, but we do need more research on how parent and peer influence work together. One implication of our research for those of you who work with at risk families is that, while parents should be the focus of your work, we should not ignore the peer group.
Example two comes from our research on the social networks of adolescents. We studied whether adolescents benefit from having friends whose parents are authoritative, and we found that this in fact is the case - not surprising, perhaps, because these friends themselves had many of the characteristics that we associate with authoritative parenting, and, as Judith Harris pointed out, adolescents are influenced by the company they keep. A more interesting question is whether having authoritatively-reared friends compensates for having nonauthoritative parents, or whether it strengthens what is already taking place at home. The answer is that the efficacy of authoritative parents is amplified when their children have friends who report that they have been raised in a similar fashion. In other words, authoritative parents get "more bang for their buck" when their children hang around with other adolescents who have been raised in authoritative homes. So, while we don't need more research on the impact of authoritative parenting, we do need more research on why exposure to authoritatively-reared peers is more likely to make the psychologically rich richer than it is to compensate for less than optimal parenting at home. Helping parents understand that the peers their child spends time with matter is as an important component of parent education as is teaching parents about their own behavior at home.
The final example comes from some work we have done on communities and neighborhoods. We looked at a similar question as that in the study I just mentioned, of authoritativeness in adolescents' social networks, but we broadened the focus to look at the impact of the type of parenting practiced in the community - even among families that were not part of the adolescent's family's network of acquaintances. We asked whether the efforts of authoritative parents are strengthened by living in a neighborhood in which there are large numbers of other authoritative parents. The findings from this study were similar to what I reported a moment ago, about adolescents' social networks: Authoritative parenting works even better when other parents in the community are authoritative, too, probably because this fosters the development of a more positive peer culture. Parents' involvement in their children's schooling has nearly twice the effect on student performance in neighborhoods where other parents are also involved in school than it does in neighborhoods where they generally are not. This, it seems to me, is an enormously important finding for those of you who are developing programs for at risk families. One of the complaints I hear often is that when parent education programs are offered, the parents we most want to reach do not attend them. My reaction to this is, "don't worry." It would be great to get these parents to attend our programs, but the fact that they do not should not discourage us. Our research shows that their children will benefit by improving the parenting of other children's parents.
I'd like to conclude with what I think are some implications of the findings from these studies of the family at adolescence for policy and practice.
Over the past 25 years, our understanding of adolescent development and the family's role in promoting adolescent health and well-being has expanded at a rapid pace. Much is known about the normative changes of the period. Much is known about what parents need to do to facilitate healthy adolescent development. ?And much is known about the ways in which the family system changes during adolescence.
Unfortunately, this significant increase in our knowledge about adolescence has not, for the most part, benefited those who might most profit from it most - parents. Parents tell us that they want information on how to keep their teenagers healthy, but they often do not have access to the best and most scientifically grounded advice. Much of the information that parents receive about raising teenagers is conflicting and confusing. Misinformation and erroneous stereotypes about adolescence fill bookstores, flood the Internet, and dominate portrayals of teenagers and their parents in the news, on television, and in film. If we are to increase the capacity of parents and other caregivers to improve adolescent health, we must start by providing these adults with accurate and user-friendly information. Parents need to know what healthy adolescence is, how to assess whether their child is on a healthy trajectory, how to facilitate their adolescent's healthy development, and how to get help when problems arise.
My focus on the family in this talk is not intended to minimize the importance of influences outside the family, such as the peer group, school, neighborhood, or mass media. Nor do I believe that the influence of parents over their children's development is limitless. But it is this very exposure of our adolescents to the influences of so many individuals, institutions, and forces outside the family that makes parents more important today than ever before. We need to change the way parents of teenagers view themselves and their role in their adolescent's development and counter the misleading claims in the popular media that parents do not matter. Indeed, the most important message we can convey is that what parents do does matter, even after their children have entered adolescence.
It is not sufficient to tell parents just that they matter, however. We also need to identify a small number of basic messages about the parenting of adolescents on which there is widespread agreement among researchers and practitioners - the sorts of information I presented today - as well as examine the unintentional and erroneous messages about adolescence that are communicated through the mass media.
Parents and other primary caregivers need three types of information. First, they need basic information about the normative developmental changes of adolescence, so that they can better understand and respond to their children's behavior. Second, they need basic information on the principles of effective parenting during the adolescent years, so that they can adapt to the changing needs and characteristics of their teenager. And third, they need some understanding of how they and their family, in addition to their child, are changing during the adolescent period. Parents from different cultural and socioeconomic groups will incorporate this information into their family life in different ways, but the need for this information cuts across ethnic and economic lines.
What I am calling for, then, is a systematic, large-scale, multifaceted, and ongoing public health campaign to educate parents about adolescence that draws on the collective resources and expertise of health care professionals, scientists, governmental agencies, community organizations, schools, religious institutions, and the mass media. This is what we need to do to reach all families, including families at risk.
It is time for us to be as vigorous and serious in our efforts to educate parents of teenagers as we have been in past efforts to educate parents of infants. The wealth of knowledge generated over the past quarter-century has provided the scientific foundation to realize this important goal. It is now up to people like you to bridge the gap between research and practice.