It can be very discouraging to watch your children veer away from the values you hold dear and embrace those of their peers. Most parents are surprised to see just how temporary those meanderings are. Informed parents can take hope and not get distracted by those short-term detours.
Several years ago a group of researchers were interested in measuring just how much teens were influenced by the respective values of parents and of friends. They found a fairly large group of high school students who were willing to be tracked over the course of about ten years. They filled out questionnaires about their values—what they considered right and wrong, important and unimportant. The teen’s parents then completed the same questionnaires, as did the students’ close friends.
It would probably come as no surprise that the teen subjects reported values very similar to those of their close friends. That is not to say that all the teens had matching values, but each subject’s values lined up pretty closely to the friends with whom she or he associated most. Though parental values seemed to have significant influence on the values of the teens, those teens’ values were more similar to their friends than to those values held by their parents.
The researchers kept in touch with those same teens and their friends as they entered adulthood. At age 25, ten years after the study began, those same subjects were asked to complete the same values questionnaire. What they found then was monumental.
The 25 year-old subjects’ values had changed quite considerably. Though they were more like their friends’ values as teens, most now aligned strongly with the values the parents had reported years earlier. In fact these young adults were remarkably similar to the parents who had reared them, despite the years in which this was not apparent.
This social science study should offer hope and encouragement for parents who worry that their teachings and example are being lost in a virtual ocean of peer influences. And we would be wise to keep several facets peer-parent influence in mind.
While it is true that teens are influenced by the words and behaviors of those around them, their choices of friends are also greatly influenced by the values they bring with them. A polite, considerate teen is not likely to choose obnoxious, irreverent friends. The values discussed and demonstrated at home are likely to have enormous influence on what a teen does.
But even when a child wanders for a time—and adolescence is certainly a time for exploratory side trips—it is very likely that the values she or he observed in parents will take hold as they begin to face adult challenges and opportunities.
So this should serve as both a promise and as a warning.
The conversations your children hear now are likely to run through their minds and right back out of their mouths in years to come. Who among us has not been startled to hear ourselves channeling our parents’ complaints from years past? Children and teens who hear encouraging words and expressions of appreciation are very likely to use them as well, even if they seem a bit surly and ungrateful during high school years. Those who hear criticism are very, very likely to offer it when the encounter the same challenges that harassed their parents years earlier.
Parents, you are much more powerful than you can possibly imagine right now. You are teaching your children and teens how to think, how to act, and how to view the world. You are much more powerful than school teachers, Scout and Young Women leaders, or even close friends.
Wise parents will see the both the warning and the invitation in this study about the enduring connections between parents’ values and the values of those they love.
Michael D. Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage & Family Therapist with over 25 years’ experience. Please offer your feedback or suggestions for future articles at his blog, MichaelWilliamsCounseling.com, or call him at 360-2365.