Popular wisdom holds that American teenagers are selfish, lacking in moral values, and in a state of moral decline, especially compared to adolescents from other cultures. A new study suggests that the view may be brighter than that.
The study, by researchers at the University of Rochester, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, examined how teenagers and their parents feel about young people's obligations to help each other in everyday situations when requests for help clash with personal desires. It is published in the January/February 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.
The researchers looked at almost 120 7th and 10th graders from lower-middle- to middle-class families and their parents. They asked them to react to stories in which either parents or teens asked for help, then judge what the protagonist should do and whether it was okay to say no due to personal desires.
The study found that teens don't always act out of personal desire or selfishness, but feel relatively obligated to help their parents, even when the requests are small.
Surprisingly, parents think it's more acceptable for teens to say no when personal desires conflict than do the teens themselves. Adolescents and parents appear to balance and coordinate family members' requests for help with conflicting personal desires, and to consider both the family role of the person asking for help and how much help is needed.
More parents of 10th graders said it was selfish to ignore requests for help and satisfy personal desires in situations when the needs were big than did parents of 7th graders. More middle adolescents said it was less selfish to meet personal desires in those situations than did young adolescents. According to the researchers, this suggests that parents' and teens' ratings of selfishness widen with age, perhaps mirroring the increasing conflicts between teens and parents that occur in middle adolescence.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 80, Issue 1, Adolescents' and Parents' Evaluations of Helping Versus Fulfilling Personal Desires in Family Situations by Smetana, J, Tasopoulos-Chan, M, Gettman, DC, Villalobos, M (University of Rochester), Campione-Barr, N (University of Missouri-Columbia), and Metzger, A (University of Illinois at Chicago). Copyright 2009 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.