It’s hard to study parenting and be a mom.  When your children misbehave, you feel like both a personal and a professional failure.

It’s happened again.

“Put your homework in your backpack so you’re ready for school tomorrow.” 

Two minutes later, I look up from my laptop and the homework’s gone.  But I see the backpack peeking from beneath the pile of coats, snowpants, mittens and boots heaped on the hot air vent.

“Where’s your homework?”

“I put it in my folder.”

A folder isn’t a backpack.  And it’s one more thing that has to be found and whisked into a backpack in the morning.  I sigh, and we start the next round.

This is a new – and absolutely ubiquitous – behavior in my son.  It’s how I can tell he has moved from middle childhood to early adolescence.  And it creates a new challenge for me.  I have to pay attention.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that how much I pay attention now is going to have a huge effect on how much I know about my child’s life – and how much he obeys and stays out of trouble – four or five years down the line, when staying out of trouble means a lot more than how much we have to run around in the morning scooping up his things.

In my professional life, I’m in the middle of a study of parental monitoring, parental knowledge, obedience, and lying during adolescence.  Over the last ten years, my colleagues and I have collected data from almost 10,000 adolescents in the US, in Chile, in the Philippines, and in Italy.  We’ve looked at many of the obvious questions: How often do kids lie? About what?  Why do they do it?  What kinds of kids lie and to what kind of parents?  Why and when do kids obey? 

You probably know about parental monitoring.  If you’re old enough, you remember those commercials that start out “It’s 10:00.  Do you know where your children are?”.  One of the most robust findings in child development is that kids whose parents know more about their lives are much less likely to get in trouble, do better in school, and feel better about themselves.  Hence the ads trying to get parents to ask questions.  The newer ones are my favorite.  They show a punked out kid, dyed, pierced, and tattooed, walking out the back door and telling his mom where he’s heading.  Bottom line: it’s not what they look like, it’s what they do.

In 2000, researchers Stattin & Kerr turned the parenting world on its head by suggesting that maybe the way psychologists were thinking about this was wrong.  They argued that it’s not that just parents who ask after their children prevent kids from getting in trouble.  Instead, it’s that kids who have nothing to hide who tell their parents what they’re doing.  In other words, kids are in control of what information they share with their parents.  Because most of what parents need to know (are you drinking?, how is school going?) happens out of sight (though not out of mind), the only real way for parents to non-intrusively get that information is for kids to share it.

Kids who aren’t getting in trouble share information with their parents.  Kids who are getting in trouble, lie.

Our own research focuses on why kids choose to tell and why they choose to obey.  Both our own research and that of many others shows that parents get most of their information from voluntary disclosure by kids.  In other words, parents know what is going on in kids’ lives because kids talk to them.  Close questioning by parents can feel a lot like the grand inquisition.  Yes, it might be effective, but often, it does more to undermine trust than to cement a good relationship.  Short term, sometimes necessary.  Long term, bad. 

Kids obey, rather than ignore, sneak around, or defy, in a couple of basic circumstances.  They do what their parents ask them to when (a) they agree with their parents, (b) there’s a rule that says they have to, (c) their parents follow through and enforce the rules, and (d) they think their parents have a right to set the rule and that they’re obliged to obey.  In other words, getting kids to obey is a hearts and minds campaign with enforcement to back it up.

Kids do what their parents want when they know their parents are serious and they feel that they should. 

Although kids are less and less likely to feel that they should as they get older, the difference between kids at the beginning of adolescence is much bigger than the decline in each kid's feelings from 12 to 18.  You want your child to start their teen years feeling that they really should do what you ask. 

My youngest is 11.  It’s time to put down my laptop, get up from the couch, and help him find his backpack. 

Next time: What makes kids think they have to obey?

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


More reading . . .

  • Darling, N., Cumsille, P., & Martínez, M. L. (2007). Adolescents as active agents in the socialization process: Legitimacy of parental authority and obligation to obey as predictors of obedience. Journal of Adolescence, 30, 297-311.
  • Darling, N., Cumsille, P., & Martinez, M. L. (2008). Individual differences in adolescents' beliefs about the legitimacy of parental authority and their own obligation to obey: A longitudinal investigation. Child Development, 79(4), 1103-1118. 
  • Laird, R. D., Pettit, G. S., Dodge, K. A., & Bates, J. E. (2003). Change in parents' monitoring knowledge: Links with parenting, relationship quality, adolescent beliefs, and antisocial behavior. Social Development, 12(3), 401-419.
  • Smetana, J. G. (2008). “It’s 10 o’clock: Do you know where your children are?”:  Recent advances in understanding parental monitoring and adolescent disclosure. Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 19-25.
  • Stattin, H., & Kerr, M. (2000). Parental monitoring: A reinterpretation. Child Development, 71(4), 1072-1085.

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