Across Cultures, Teens Thrive When Parents Let Them Have a Say
By Lila Sahija
A new study suggests a universality when it comes to how to handle teenagers and sheds light on whether parents should let teens make their own decisions: Across very different cultures, when parents acknowledge the perspectives of their adolescent children and encourage them to express themselves, the teenagers have a stronger sense of self-worth, intrinsic motivation, and engagement, and also have less depression. But giving adolescents the latitude to make decisions only had measurable benefits for kids in a Western context.
“This type of parenting is considered Western in its approach, and there have been questions about its benefit in non-Western, more hierarchical cultures that place greater emphasis on respect for and obedience to elders by children and youths,” said Kristine N. Marbell-Pierre, head of guidance and counseling at Ghana International School, who led the study as a graduate student at Clark University. “In our study, helping adolescents feel that their perspective mattered was helpful to youths — in both Ghana and the United States — while the role of decision-making and choice differed between the two cultures.”
The researchers examined responses to questionnaires filled out by 401 adolescents in seventh and eighth grades; 245 were from the United States and 156 were from Ghana. Teens answered questions about the extent to which their parents acknowledged their point of view and allowed them to make decisions, have choices, and express their opinions, whether they perceived their parents as controlling, as well as adolescents’ academic motivation, sense of self-worth, level of depression, and perception of themselves as independent from their parents or as a unit with their parents.
The study found that approaches to raising teenagers that encouraged teenagers to express themselves and acknowledged their points of view boosted self-motivation, engagement in school, and self-worth, and decreased their levels of depression in both countries.
However, allowing teenagers to have choices and make decisions was associated with positive outcomes only in the United States. This is likely due to differing cultural norms around family and teenage independence, the authors found: Teens who saw themselves as independent felt that being allowed to make decisions supported their autonomy, while teens who perceived themselves as more a part of the family unit, didn’t.
That doesn’t mean giving teens choices and allowing them to make decisions had negative outcomes in the Ghanaian context, or that parents in more family unit-oriented cultures should embrace an authoritarian parenting style. Rather, “it suggests that supporting adolescents’ sense of agency is universally beneficial, but how this support is given may not necessarily look the same across cultures,” said Wendy Grolnick, professor of psychology at Clark University, who coauthored the study.
The authors made one further point: Even within a culture, every family is different. The degree to which, or in what circumstances, parents should let teens make their own decisions may depend most on the teens themselves.