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Usable Knowledge

Teenage Dreams

Parents can help their teens succeed in school — and beyond — by helping them pursue their goals and interests
Adolescence illustration

When children reach adolescence, everything that’s joyful, challenging, and surprising — or sanity-sapping — about being a parent seems suddenly to multiply. But hang in there. Just when it may feel like your kids are beginning to pull away, your involvement — and support — matters profoundly.

A body of research has already shown that parenting practices in early adolescence are predictive of later educational achievement. Now, some new findings by Professor Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education are showing the importance of one particular practice: helping teens set goals and explore interests.

In a paper published last month in Developmental Psychology Hill finds that helping young teens develop aspirations is essential to helping them engage with and succeed in school.

In the research — a longitudinal sample of 1,452 African American and European American adolescents and their parents — Hill and coauthor Ming-Te Wang, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’10, looked at the effects of three parenting practices that grow in importance during adolescence, as young people assume greater control over their own development: autonomy support (providing opportunities for young people to make choices, make decisions, and develop solutions to problems independently); monitoring (providing clear and consistent guidelines and knowing where kids are, what they’re doing, and who their friends are); and warmth (a supportive relationship between parent and child). These parenting practices, Hill and other researchers have found, are related to outcomes in adolescence and early adulthood, as well as more directly to school engagement and achievement.

In the new research, Hill and Wang found:

  • All three parenting practices, when measured at 7th grade, have both short term positive associations with aspiration, grade point average, and school engagement and long-term effects on college enrollment three years post–high school
  • All three practices were related to aspirations and behavioral engagement at 8th grade.
  • The pathways from 8th-grade aspirations to 11th-grade engagement and GPA were stronger than the reverse paths from 8th-grade GPA/engagement to 11th-grade aspirations.
  • Aspirations are key to engagement; when connected to aspirations, engagement in school becomes self-motivating.
  • The connection between aspiration and school engagement is also important for students who are already high achievers.
  • Parents remain a significant influence through adolescence and early adulthood by promoting aspirations, helping their kids find meaning and purpose in their schoolwork, and showing them how their current endeavors fit their longer-term goals and identities.
  • Parental warmth matters broadly. Warmth was directly related to aspirations, school engagement, and GPA, and through these factors was related to college enrollment.

“Parental warmth, including trust and connectedness, provides the emotional security and foundation young people need to explore their ideas and interests,” Hill says. “It enables parents to both affirm and shape who adolescents will become.”

In one of the study’s interesting findings, Hill observed that the effects of two of the three parenting practices were somewhat different in African Americans and European Americans. The practice of monitoring is more positively related to grade point average and behavioral engagement for African Americans than for European Americans, whereas the practice of autonomy support was more positively related to GPA for European Americans.

The benefits of firmer parenting and monitoring for African Americans are consistent with prior research, Hill says. But autonomy granting, which, research shows, is used much less by black parents, is significantly related to kids’ developing aspirations and planfulness. “There is a paradox for African American parents,” Hill says. “Firmer parenting strategies and monitoring are beneficial for their children, both with regard to grades and to teachers’ ratings of classroom behavior. Research has shown that African American teenagers are more likely to face disciplinary measures in school, so many parents naturally focus on following rules. But these strategies are not as beneficial for honing aspirations and don’t allow for youth to make and learn from their mistakes in ways that are essential for adolescent development. There is a delicate balance for black parents in figuring out how and when to closely monitor their youth and allow for autonomy.”

The study also notes one essential commonality: It found no difference in the importance of parental warmth. Across ethnicity, warmth was equally beneficial for supporting aspirations, engagement, and achievement.


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