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Parents Influence Children's Success, Duke Social Psychologist Says

Research shows that parents do matter, especially in adolescence, when children decide whether or not they want to go to college and what jobs they want as adults

Students whose parents are involved in their schooling have higher career and educational goals, according to a new Duke University study of middle- and high-schoolers.

And parents' influence on how their children think about the future and perform in school continues through adolescence, according to the study, which followed nearly 500 black and white children from seventh through 11th grades.

"Some previous research has indicated that parents' involvement isn't that significant as children move into adolescence," said Nancy E. Hill, associate professor of social psychology at Duke. "But our research shows that parents do matter, especially in adolescence, when children decide whether or not they want to go to college and begin thinking about what jobs they'd like to have as adults."

The study also found that the effect of parental involvement varied depending on the race and educational achievement of the parents.

The research was conducted by Hill and Duke colleagues Domini R. Catellino, Jennifer E. Lansford and Kenneth A. Dodge; Patrick Nowlin and John E. Bates at Indiana University: and Gregory S. Pettit at Auburn University. It will appear in the September/October issue of "Child Development," the flagship journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The researchers measured how often parents visited their children's schools and how comfortable teachers felt talking to the parents. They also asked students whether their parents helped them choose classes, kept tabs on their school performance and talked to them about school work.

Though higher levels of parental involvement correlated across the board with increased aspirations among their children, better-educated parents made a bigger difference in school performance than did less-educated parents.

One possible reason for this discrepancy is that parents who have not gone to college may not understand the long-term implications of decisions made as early as seventh grade, Hill said.

"Though they may want their children to attend college, they may not understand that students need to take advanced courses as early as middle school to achieve that goal, for example," she said. "Parents' knowledge about how to be involved is what matters."

The study also indicated that parental involvement makes more of a difference in school success for African-American students.

For many of these families, parents are needed to make a bigger difference in their children's success in school because their children may be growing up in circumstances that undermine academic success. For example, the African-American families studied were generally less affluent than the white families, she said.

For white families, the reverse is often the case: Parental involvement is less salient because many white children have more advantages, she said.

Whatever their background, parents should stay involved in their children's schooling through the high school years, the study indicates.

"In order for children to reach their potential, they need their parents as informed advocates," Hill said.