I was fascinated to recently read recently read that whilst most parents assume that time spent with their children will dwindle in adolescence, private parent-child encounters may actually increase during these critical years. Spending time with parents increases a teenager’s self-esteem and social confidence, especially if it is time spent with their father.
Study co-author Susan McHale, a professor of human development at Penn State University and her colleagues have been studying how children spend their time since the early 1980s. In this particular research they wanted to know how time with parents affected teens’ self-esteem and sense of social competence with their peers.
They created a long-term (longitudinal) study in which they invited families in 16 school districts in central Pennsylvania to participate. In each family, a teenager, a younger sibling, their mother and their father were interviewed in the home and then queried about their activities and self-perceptions five times over a period of seven years.
“Talking to kids on the phone about what they did that day really gives you insight into the reality of everyday life for them. Rather than getting generalized or processed information, it’s right when things have been happening and in the children’s own words, and it’s harder for them to make mistakes or forget.”
During the interviews, the children’s sense of self-worth was measured using a multiple choice questionnaire to describe their feelings about themselves and how they got along socially with others in their age group.
The families participating in the study were a lot alike. They were white, all headed by a mother and a father, living middle- and working-class lifestyles in small cities, towns and rural communities. Most of the families had two to three children.
At the beginning of the study, the oldest children were about 11 and the closest sibling was about 8. The researchers compensated for the parents’ level of education and factors associated with their psychological status and marital satisfaction, just to be sure issues weren’t affecting their children or relationships within the family.
The study authors were surprised to discover that when fathers spent more time alone with their teenagers, the children reported they felt better about themselves. McHale said:
“Mothers weren’t unimportant, but they are kind of a given in most families. Mothers’ roles are very scripted: they’re caregivers, activity planners.”
Something about the father’s role in the family seemed to boost self-esteem among the teenagers in the study. What most differentiated some families from others was how much the dad was typically around and whether he devoted some of that time to be with his children. The study also found that parents tend to spend even more time with their second-born teenager than they do with the first. Why? Probably because the parents’ comfort level in dealing with an adolescent is higher the second time around, said McHale.
The study was an incredibly small study, that in many senses wasn’t representative of the real world we all live in, but it would be interesting to see if the research could ever be expanded.