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Great Expectations Create the Best Teen Scholars

There's a lot of ways parents can help their teenagers achieve, but research suggests the most effective way is expecting them to try their best.
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"Cut that cell phone umbilical cord, and push those kids out of the nest!" may be the zeitgeist message to parents of teenagers, but research shows the opposite: Kids do better when their parents stay involved with them during their teenage years and even throughout college.

In his book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-parenting, Carl Honoré skewers parents with chapter headings such as "It's the Adults, Stupid" and "Leave those Kids Alone."

"Leave them alone" is likewise Tom Hodgkinson's rallying cry in The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids.

Such advice reinforces a common but erroneous belief that parental influence has a negligible effect on teenagers. "Once kids hit age 13, parents think they can't make much of a difference — but, in fact, parents make some of their most vital contributions when kids are teenagers," says William Jeynes, a psychologist and professor at California State University, Long Beach.

Jeynes analyzed 52 studies of parents' involvement with their eighth- to 12th-graders to see what benefits teens most. Surprise: Checking up on their friends or setting household rules didn't top the chart.

The single most important factor affecting teenagers' academic achievement, Jeynes discovered, is their parents' expectations.

His previous research found expectations crucial for younger children too, but this study found they impact teenagers even more: by three-quarters of a grade point on a four-point scale, compared to a half-point for elementary school kids.

"It was unbelievable — my eyes widened," Jeynes says. He'd anticipated that tactics like checking up on homework or attending sports events might decline in impact, but not that more subtle forms like expectations would increase.

Preserving the subtlety of these expectations is crucial, Jeynes says. Blurting out, "You will go to Harvard or Yale" doesn't help so much as the implicit understanding that teenagers are going to put out their best effort. Parents can convey that expectation by example, and by talking about others who have also succeeded through hard work.

Contrary to media harping on helicoptering and over-involvement, communication with parents has the second-largest impact on teenagers. Talking with teens, Jeynes found, affects their grades by almost a third of a point.

Parental involvement also affects teens' behavior and self-esteem, adds Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick. (Grolnick and this writer co-authored Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child.)

In a study of families with children entering seventh grade, she asked parents whether they attended school events and teacher conferences, and if they talked to their children about current events or took them to the library. Grolnick also asked parents if they knew when report cards were coming out, what their kids were doing in school, and the names of their classmates.

Participating in school events and conferences didn't seem to prevent problems, the study found. But kids whose parents knew what was going on in their lives, and discussed ideas and events with them, not only did better academically but behaved better and maintained their self-esteem as they hit the teen years.

Since this transition to adolescence brings drastic developmental changes, researchers stress however that parents need to shift their involvement gears accordingly.

But that doesn't mean checking out or "letting go."

Instead, parents need to step up their communication and expectations in a particular way, says Harvard education professor Nancy E. Hill. Her own meta-analysis of 50 studies of parental involvement with their middle school children found that while parents participating in school activities helped a bit, "academic socialization" — guiding and grooming kids for academic success — influenced their academic achievement far more. This suggests that for homework, for example, explaining how it fits into their future can be more valuable than helping them do it.

Emphasizing the importance of education to teens' futures, especially how it will help them pursue their interests and exercise their talents, is critical, Hill says. Talk to teens "about their strengths, potential, and goals, and you'll see their faces light up," she says.

Parents should also express their expectations through "parental advocacy" — helping teens navigate the pathway to college, adds Hill, who co-edited the recently published Families, School, and the Adolescent.

As the Obama administration, in re-authorizing the federal No Child Left Behind law, proposes doubling funding to schools for parental involvement policies to approximately $270 million, policymakers might take heed of this recent research. (The administration also wants statewide competitions for the best local family involvement programs.)

Legislators might, for example, require middle schools and high schools to show parents how course selection opens or closes the doors to college. Full-fledged summer high school orientation programs for families could introduce parents to counselors, suggests Anne T. Henderson, senior consultant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and an adviser to the aptly named Parents would learn about the school structure and about college preparation, including how to get financial aid. "Parents need to understand the rules of the game," Hill says.

Such orientation programs could also dispel the common misunderstanding that high school graduation and college-entry requirements overlap, Henderson says. Workshops could also help parents link school learning to their teen's interests and their long-term goals.

But parental involvement shouldn't stop with high school graduation. It matters greatly during the college years, says Soka University psychologist Esther S. Chang, who recently asked 515 students about their parents' involvement in their lives. Did their parents support the way they managed their school activities and cheer them up when they had problems at school? Did the students seek support from their parents after making important educational decisions?

Chang found that the greater the parental support, the higher the student's GPA. And students' motivation and satisfaction with their educational progress tracked even more closely with their parents' involvement.

"The view out there is that parents don't really matter in college and youth don't want their parents involved in their lives," Chang says. "That's certainly not true."

At the same time, Chang found that students' feelings of autonomy played a decisive role. When parents encouraged their children's interests and choices rather than trying to micromanage their course selection and daily activities, students felt more satisfied with their learning. Such satisfaction translates into the students "finding themselves" — linking their interests to their strengths and their programs, explains Chang. That in turn helps them plan their careers.

"If you want to understand how to parent youth in college, you have to accommodate the child and what the child wants, let go of your own goals for your child and support the child willingly."