Should You Stay at Home With Your Teen, Not Your Toddler?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 
teenager with autism
Patrick Heagney / iStock

Should we take maternity leave when our kids are teens rather than when they’re babies? asks Jennifer Senior. Yes, it sounds like a joke—but more parental involvement when kids are older may serve them better than when they’re small. Senior references a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family that found that more time with mothers, in and of itself, doesn’t have anything to do with how kids turn out. The study prompted sighs of relief from working moms—and a certain inevitable amount of debate about how to balance parental time and the exigencies of making a living.

But the study also revealed something interesting about time spent with teenagers. Says Senior:

“There was just one key exception involving one key variable at one key time in a child’s life: adolescence. Specifically: The researchers found that the more engaged time mothers spent with their teenagers, the less likely those teenagers were to engage in delinquent acts—defined as anything from lying about something important to getting arrested.”

Uber CFO Brent Callinicos recently made headlines when he announced that he was stepping down from his post in order to spend more time with his middle-school daughter. This prompted a certain amount of Internet derision—what if the daughter didn’t want her dad hanging around all the time? But psychologist Laurence Steinberg has written a book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, about a second wave of neuroplasticity that occurs in adolescence, which raises questions about parental involvement during the teen years. Adolescence is both a critical period for learning—this is the time when kids play the guitar obsessively or memorize the entire works of Shakespeare—and a time of huge emotional and cognitive change. Kids are more inclined to take risks, and the presence of parents might help kids learn to regulate themselves and focus on constructive projects.

Senior, discussing the study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, reports:

“[Researchers] found that engaged time with both parents made a positive difference during adolescence, including ‘fewer behavioral problems, better performance in math, less substance use, and less delinquent behavior.'”

In other words, more learning, less drinking, drugging, or reckless driving.

Of course, most jobs don’t recognize the importance of parental leave even for babies, much less older kids. And Senior points out that this timing is particularly lousy for working parents, who may just be hitting their peak earning years (and with college expenses looming, may not be able to scale back). Senior asks Steinberg what policy he might like to see implemented in a perfect world, and he replies: “I wonder what the work-family world would look like if employers either voluntarily or were mandated to allow working people a number of afternoons off per year to spend with their older children.”

Hey, playing afternoon hooky from work to hang with your kids? That’s my kind of teenage rebellion.

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