The Secret Reason Our Kids are Complacent

Just when parents think they're doing a great job — here's evidence to the contrary

It seems like a no-brainer: Love your kids like crazy. Care for them, praise them, nurture their most compelling interests, and provide them with unending support, strong guidance, and great moral, ethical, psychological, and spiritual leadership — and you’re on your way to the Parenting Hall of Fame, as it were.

Not — or at least not in one important realm of raising responsible kids. Young people who experience a high level of parental warmth and support actually become less civically engaged in their young adulthood than their peers who received a lower dose of parental affection.

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Doesn’t equate, right? Guess again.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Jena (Germany) and the Universities of Jyväskylä and Helsinki (Finland) — which appears in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and in Science Daily — came up with this compelling conclusion. “The surprising finding challenges the widely held belief that positive parenting leads to positive outcomes for children and youth in virtually all life domains,” the publications noted.

Volunteering in crisis situations or on social projects, or participating in political debates and demonstrations — these activities help young people develop their civic-minded muscles, which can benefit both them and society for years to come. “Such activities are important for any democracy to function, although the specific content of civic engagement may differ across societies,” Dr. Maria K. Pavlova, a developmental psychologist from the University of Jena, told Science Daily.

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Parents who are warm and supportive can contribute to more caring, more trusting, and more socially responsible children. But it was always assumed these children also go on to become more civically engaged later in life. This is apparently not the case.

Dr. Maria K. Pavlova, together with her colleagues, Prof. Dr. Rainer K. Silbereisen (Jena), Dr. Mette Ranta, and Prof. Dr. Katariina Salmela-Aro (Jyväskylä and Helsinki), determined that parental warmth and support experienced in adolescence predicted significantly lower political activism up to 10 years later. “Additionally,” according to Science Daily, “perceived parental support in young adulthood predicted lower volunteering two years later.”

“A pitfall of staying close to one’s parents in young adulthood may be not caring for the world outside of one’s own circle,” said a researcher.

The researchers surveyed over 1,500 Finnish secondary school students (ages 16 to 18 years at the start of the survey, and 25 to 27 years at its end). “Similar effects have also emerged in a German sample, though,” Dr. Pavlova noted.

Several factors may be at work. “On the one hand, Finnish parents see civic engagement neither as something important to [job] success, nor as morally obligatory, as the state provides many social services in Finland,” Dr. Pavlova told Science Daily. “On the other hand, high parental support in adolescence and young adulthood may be no longer age-appropriate. A pitfall of staying close to one’s parents in young adulthood may be not caring for the world outside of one’s own circle.”

So, in essence, you can be a great parent in multiple ways. But if you don’t overtly, clearly, and consistently endorse the importance of strong civic values in your household and the expression of them — well, you might just kiss that solid citizen you thought you were raising goodbye.

Or at least go back to the drawing board and recalibrate a bit.

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