Forget the fight for a few months of maternity leave–if parents want to keep their kids on the right path, it might be best for them to take time off when their kids are teenagers, not babies. In a new essay in New York, Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, points out that adolescents, with their rapidly changing brains, are uniquely susceptible to parental influence.
Meanwhile, researchers are starting to question how much parenting even matters for younger kids. Senior points to a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which found no correlation between the amount of time parents spend with their children between the ages of 3 and 18 and the kids’ academic achievement and emotional well-being. The sociologists behind the report considered both “engaged time,” when parents are actively talking to or playing with their kids, and “accessible time,” when they’re present but otherwise occupied. Neither “quality” or “quantity” of time made any real difference. What does seem to matter: wealth and social status. (The results of this study have been disputed: in The New York Times’ “The Upshot,” economist Justin Wolfers pointed out that the study’s authors only looked at parental time on two single days, one weekday and one weekend day. That doesn’t necessarily give an accurate representation of how parents allot their time throughout the week.)
But there was one positive finding: In adolescence, parents’ time did make a difference. The more “engaged time” mothers spent with teens, the less likely those teens were to get arrested or take part in “delinquent acts” like lying. According to adolescence expert Laurence Steinberg, the riskiest times for teens are between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays—when no one’s at home to supervise them. Adolescent arrests and assaults spike around that time, too.
Adolescence is also the period in which we’re most vulnerable to developing an addiction that could plague us for years. Teens’ “brains are awash in dopamine and furiously making new synaptic connections,” writes Senior. “They also tend to overestimate the rewards they’ll get from taking risks.” It’s not clear whether lavishing attention on a 3-year-old will affect her college GPA, but it’s easy to believe that parents can be effective at reminding teens of the risks of their actions.