Teens More Helpful Than Parents Know

Teens might not be entirely self-centered and lazy at home.

Sure, parents might think as much, but a new study shows that teens not only feel obligated to help their parents, but they do this out of love and concern for their parents, even at the expense of social livelihood.

"There certainly are situations where kids say, 'I don't want to do that; it's my choice; it's up to me.' But I think we overestimate that," said study researcher Judith Smetana of the University of Rochester in New York. "We have a somewhat stereotypical view of teenagers. There's the good and the bad, and we tend to focus on the bad."

And Smetana isn't immune to such negative views of teens. Her research was partly spurred by her own teenagers.

"It was striking to me in my own life how my kids have been cited in their high school as natural helpers, the kind of kids who go out of their way to help other people," Smetana told LiveScience. "And yet at home my feeling was they don't always act that way with me. That sort of motivated the study. How could they be so oblivious to their parents' needs?"

She added, "That's not at all what we found in the study. They felt obligated to help even when parents' needs were low."

To help or not

Smetana and her colleagues surveyed nearly 120 teenagers (in 7th and 10th grades) from lower-middle to middle-class families, along with their parents (109 mothers and 9 fathers). Participants read vignettes in which either a parent asked a teen for help or a teen asked a parent for help.

The scenarios were considered low-need or high-need. For example, in a low-need scenario, parents ask their teenager if she or he will stay home to wait for a furniture delivery, but the teen has plans with friends to attend a new movie opening that night.

One of the high-need scenarios describes a father who is planning a big holiday party, but a wait-staff member bails, so the dad asks his teen daughter for help serving food. The party apparently will be a flop without more help, but the teenager already has plans to go sledding with friends.

Then, parents and teens had to decide whether or not the character in the story should help and whether it was okay for that character to say "no" due to conflicts with personal desires. Participants also rated the story character's selfishness in the scenario where he or she doesn't help on a scale from "not at all selfish" to "very selfish."

Perfect teens

In the low-need situations, teens were twice as likely as parents to say that teens should help. So whereas nearly 70 percent of the time teens said the adolescent character should help, parents said so just 31 percent of the time. For the high-need scenarios, both parents and teens said teens should help about 80 percent of the time.

Surprisingly, parents thought it was more acceptable for teens to abandon helping a parent to go out with friends than did teens themselves.

"Part of what [parents] are considering are the needs of the person in the situation, but they're also balancing adolescents' developmental needs," Smetana said. "So they seem pretty attuned to adolescents' needs for autonomy or to do their own thing."

Compared with parents of 7th-graders, more 10th-grader parents said it was selfish for teens to ditch helping others in order to hang out with friends. But those 10th-graders were less likely than their younger counterparts to say kids were selfish for not helping.

Smetana said one reason could be that as teens get older they appreciate more an adolescent's need to "do their own thing."

Parents, however, may place higher expectations on their older teens. "Parents view adolescents as increasingly competent to help, and so view them as selfish when they don't."

Smetana says she would like to follow up this study with one involving real-life situations to see if the same results hold.

The research is published in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.