The Case for Taking Parental Leave When Your Kids Are Teenagers

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Photo: Maskot/Corbis

I’ve often made the observation — which sounds like a joke, but really isn’t at all — that maternity and paternity leave for newborns is great and all, but what parents really need is a maternity and paternity leave for the adolescent years. The stakes, after all, are tangibly high during this stage, and the need for supervision abundantly clear (as Laurence Steinberg, one of the country’s foremost experts on puberty, puts it: “You’re not going to find an 8-year-old doing drugs”). And this week, along comes a study that helped confirm my suspicions.

The new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family addresses an especially fraught question about parenting: Does the amount of time mothers spend with their children affect their behavior, academic performance, or emotional well-being? The study authors reached an equally fraught conclusion: no. The research, by a trio of sociologists, will surely not be the last word on the subject, nor was it entirely comprehensive; though it looked at kids at the ages of 3 to 11 and 12 to 18, it didn’t consider children between the ages of 0 and 3, a stage when maternal involvement might arguably be of far greater value than later on. But the paper did take the time to make some very nuanced distinctions. It distinguished between “engaged time” (when mothers are directly interacting with their kids) and “accessible time” (which is exactly what it sounds like: Mom’s around and available, but doing something else). It looked at fathers’ time, too, as well as time parents spent jointly with their kids. And what it found, surprisingly, is that there was zero correlation between how much time mothers spent with their kids — whether it was immersive or merely “accessible” — and emotional health or academic performance or even (in most cases) behaviors. The same was true for dads. There was just one key exception involving one key variable at one key time in a child’s life: adolescence. Specifically: The researchers found that the more engaged time mothers spent with their teenagers, the less likely those teenagers were to engage in delinquent acts — defined as anything from lying about something important to getting arrested. The effect was statistically small, but definitely there.

In fact, adolescents emerged as by far the most vulnerable group in this study — or at least the most amenable to parental interference. Though the researchers found no correlation between how much time fathers spent with their children and a wide variety of outcomes, they found that engaged time with both parents made a positive difference during adolescence, including “fewer behavioral problems, better performance in math, less substance use, and less delinquent behavior.”

For working parents, women especially, the trials of adolescence pose an especially cruel and ill-timed conundrum: At just the moment we’re hitting our professional stride, our own kids’ gaits have gone wobbly. (I keep thinking of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s extraordinary 2012 essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in which she mentions — in paragraph one — that while she was mingling with foreign dignitaries, her mind kept turning to her 14-year-old son, who’d been disrupting classes and tuning out “any adult who tried to reach him.” Would she have written this essay at all if her son had been, say, 7 or 8?) Vicki Shabo, vice-president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, points out that the problem is even worse for low-income women, who have less scheduling flexibility than white-collar professionals — “and their children are most likely to need the most attention.”

Until a couple of decades ago, developmental psychology didn’t pay nearly as much attention to adolescence as it did to newborns. There was an unspoken mantra in the field: The sacred years are from 0 to 3. As researchers learn more and more about the neurocircuitry of adolescent brains, however, it becomes more and more apparent that this period has been underappreciated, even though writers and filmmakers have long understood its destabilizing power (Romeo and Juliet, The Catcher in the Rye, any flick by Richard Linklater, etc., etc., etc.). Here’s what we now know: During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex, which is basically in charge of the brain’s executive function, isn’t yet finished developing, which means teenagers aren’t exactly stellar at decision-making and impulse control. They’re more prone to addiction at this time than any other, because their brains are awash in dopamine and furiously making new synaptic connections; they also tend to overestimate the rewards they’ll get from taking risks. Steinberg often likens adolescents to cars with powerful accelerators and weak brakes. Any owner of such a vehicle is probably going to want to monitor it.

Yet there’s really no mechanism American parents can make use of if they wish to better tend to their adolescent children. The United States, as any self-respecting liberal policy nerd can tell you, doesn’t even have its own paid maternity leave policy, a distinction it shares with just Papua New Guinea and Suriname. Yes, parents can take the Family Medical Leave Act to care for their adolescents, but only if they have a “serious” health condition requiring the ongoing care of a doctor. Shabo notes that Democratic members of both the House and Senate have proposed bills that would allow parents to use sick leave for parent-teacher conferences; they’ve also proposed bills that would give employees the right to request and receive certain scheduling adjustments. But neither of these initiatives has bipartisan support.

I wonder what the work-family world would look like if employers either voluntarily or were mandated to allow working people a number of afternoons off per year to spend with their older children,” asks Steinberg, when I ask what policy he’d love to see, in a blue-sky, if-I-were-king sort of way. He recently wrote Age of Opportunity, a primer for parents during this stage. “It’s unfathomable. Can you imagine? But if spending time with adolescents helps deter bad behavior, it’s going to save money in the long run,” he says.

And it’s not a bad idea: Most adolescents, Steinberg says, don’t misbehave in the backseats of cars on weekend evenings. They break the rules between 3 and 6 p.m. on school days, usually in their own homes or a friend’s, when no one else is around. Those are the peak hours for drug experimentation, smoking, sex. (Adolescent arrests also peak around this time, by the way — aggravated assaults in particular spike at 3 p.m.).

But it’s hard to imagine a universe with such a sane, humane policy. Which is a shame — not just because adolescents would benefit from the extra time with their families, but because they’d probably secretly enjoy it. It’s an article of faith in our culture that teenagers despise adult company. But Steinberg and his colleagues have not in fact found this to be the case. That’s the irony. “Kids like being with their parents at this age,” he says. “A lot of surveys say they wish their parents would talk to them more.”