Why do teens make the decisions they make? How do parents know when the time is right to step in, and when to let them be? Pennsylvania State University researchers are closer to figuring out which factors account for teen autonomy and dependence, and factors like parental educational level and income may contribute.
Predoctoral fellow in human development and family studies Laura Wray-Lake, M.S. http://laurawraylake.weebly.com , and her colleagues at Penn State annually surveyed about 200 White, European-American families, polling them about their teens and family decision-making practices. The eight areas about which the families were questioned included: chores, appearance, curfew and bedtime, health, schoolwork, social life, activities and money.
What inspired the researchers to examine autonomy and teen decision-making?
“Autonomy is a vital part of adolescents’ development,” Wray-Lake says. “Gaining independence and having input into decisions gives adolescents the skills and confidence to transition to adulthood.”
Excessive independence can lead to developmental problems, she warns.
“Too much autonomy can stifle positive development because adolescents need support,” Wray-Lake explains. “So, the idea of this study was to better understand the developmental progression of autonomy and shed light on how parents and adolescents negotiate decision-making autonomy across middle childhood and adolescence.”
Findings indicate that there are two periods during which children’s decision-making participation changes: between ages 9 and 14 autonomy gradually increases, and it surges between ages 15 and 20.
Why was the sample group exclusive White? As is often the case, the researchers were geographically limited.
“The homogeneity of the sample was primarily due to the location of the study,” Wray-Lake explains. “Data were collected in a relatively rural area and the sample was actually quite representative of the communities we were studying. So, in a way, this was a convenience sample of families in a certain area.”
Penn State does conduct research, along with Arizona State University, on teens of other cultures, she adds.
“The Penn State Family Relationships Project, led by Dean Nan Crouter and Dr. Susan McHale, has two other studies, one that examines Mexican-American families (in collaboration with Kim Updegraff at Arizona State University), and one that examines African American families,” Wray-Lake explains.
With Wray-Lake and her team’s study focusing on White European-American teens, another on Mexican-American families, and a third examining African-Americans, the body of research in this area continues to develop.
“The idea behind these three separate studies is to understand development within teens and families’ cultural contexts,” she maintains. “So, the goal is not to compare different ethnic groups but to consider development as happening uniquely within a cultural environment. In the future, we hope to have results that help us understand autonomy development in these ethnic groups to complement the findings that we currently have with white teens.”
Children in this study had more autonomy in the areas focusing on appearance, activities, schoolwork and social life, while other areas—chores, health and curfews—involved more parental input. Money and health were two areas in which autonomy tends to increase gradually; between the ages of 18 and 20, these late teens made decisions jointly with their parents rather than independently.
Girls, children who were described as easy to supervise, and children of well-educated parents were more likely to exercise more autonomy than their peers.
Why were children of well-educated parents more autonomous than other kids?
“We think this has to do with different parenting styles or what parents value for children,” Wray-Lake explains. “Our finding supports other research showing that parents with more education tend to balance warmth and love with communication of discipline.”
Other research supports these results, she adds.
“There are findings from other studies showing that more educated parents are more likely to value autonomy for children,” Wray-Lake says. “So, this kind of orientation would fit really well with negotiating decision-making input with adolescents and giving more autonomy. However, now that we have this association between parents’ education and adolescent autonomy, we need further research to understand it more fully.”
Did the researchers discover any unexpected findings?
“To me, the biggest surprise of the results was just how long some decisions were made jointly by parents and adolescents,” she says. “Namely, decisions made about money, health, and chores were still being made together by adolescents and parents, rather than by teens alone, at the ages of 18, 19, and 20.”
As young adults, Wray-Lake was surprised that they would still make joint decisions with their parents.
“At these ages, many adolescents are graduating from high school, going to college, starting to work, or gaining independence in other ways,” she notes. “So, it is fascinating that some decisions still entail equal input from parents and teens at these ages. This really shows that parenting doesn’t end at age 18, but rather young people need additional support and advice into the early adulthood years.”
Especially with the current economic climate, young adults may need their parents advice more than ever.
“In today’s time of financial strain and economic crisis, it is probably very important for parents to continue to offer guidance in regard to managing money, even when their children become young adults.” Wray-Lake states.
The main thing to keep in mind is that every family is different, she advises.
“The takeaway message is that these patterns differ across families based on the parents’ characteristics, the child’s characteristics, and the type of decision being made,” Wray-Lake concludes. “Each family is unique in the levels of decision-making input adolescents get and how they negotiate these levels as adolescents get older.”