• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 31st March, 2009

Take the long view and parents still matter

The combination of an ailing economy, globalization, the speed of technological change and the long-term cost of an education means that young people are taking more time to grow up, delegates to a London conference about parenting have been told.As recently as fifty years ago children were routinely pitched into adult working life at the age of 14 or 15, event organizer John Bynner said. Not so now, at least in the West. In changing times a conference about the contemporary role of parents was long overdue.Bynner is director of Longview, a UK charity defending and promoting the value of longitudinal research. It was set up in 2004 – in a period when the Blair administration was repeatedly charged with short-termism in relation to its social policy research strategy.The background politics were shown in a better light last week. Researchers and policy makers acknowledged that their work had never been so well supported by the political establishment, Bynner argued. “The role of parents, especially the way in which they can influence adolescent behavior, has never been higher on the policy agenda.” As children matured, parents were still the major influence on outcomes, he said. Some children might take their bearings primarily from their friends in some areas of their lives, sex and relationships for example, but parents were still the primary influence where jobs and futures were concerned.”Part of Longview's advocacy of longitudinal research is to do with the value of life course studies such as the initiative led by Frank Furstenberg at the University of Pennsylvania.Furstenburg described the work of his Network on Transitions to Adulthood which was established in 2000 with MacArthur Foundation support to examine the changing nature of late adolescence. Amplifying the argument that because children were spending more time in education they needed substantial support from parents both financially and in making significant decisions, Furstenburg went on to describe the emergence of “early adulthood” as a new life stage.There was a consensus that early years, adolescence and young adulthood could not be viewed in isolation. Among the other presenters, Richard Tremblay from the University of Montreal spoke controversially about the gene-environment interaction in relation to adolescent violence. His findings suggest that poor parenting in the early years can hinder gene expression, suggesting that interventions in adolescence cannot succeed. He proposed that investments to help reduce adolescent violence could more usefully be made in the mothers of the next generation. The title of the conference, Parents Matter, left many wondering where fathers fitted in. Were they relevant to healthy child development? What did they contribute? Were the current set of prevention and intervention programs reaching them? But there was no dispute among the presenters that parents do matter. As Michael Lamb, head of the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at Cambridge put it, irrespective of gender, the more caring, responsive, responsible adults, operating in as many life contexts as possible children had contact with, the better for their development.

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