Teenagers want more ... family time?

A majority of American teens today say they are not spending enough time with their parents.

Here's a surprise for today's parents: Their teenagers want to spend more time with them.

Evidence is growing that increasing numbers of young people feel they are not getting enough parental attention. Many teens now see it as their top concern.

The findings speak volumes about today's fast-paced society and the decline of the nuclear family. Teens, perhaps more isolated from adults than ever before, are saying they need their parents, yet parents - strapped for time by work or single-parenthood - are unable to respond to the degree their kids want.

"This is the surprise: Youth are [saying], 'I want to talk to an adult, but people are zipping by us.' What's interesting is that this research is coming out just as adults are not around," says Lynn McDonald, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin's School of Education.

The benefits of something as simple as regular family mealtimes are significant. Teens who eat dinner with a parent five days a week or more, are less likely to smoke, use alcohol or marijuana, or have sex, according to a study by the president's Council of Economic Advisors, released yesterday at a White House conference on teens.

And kids who say they feel close to at least one parent are far less likely to consider suicide or engage in antisocial behavior such as fighting at school, the study shows.

A YMCA poll of parents and their children, also released at yesterday's conference, highlights the pivotal role parents play in their kids' lives. Twenty-one percent of teens aged 12 to 15 listed spending more time with family as their biggest concern - the top response, along with education.

Similarly, in a recent poll by Newsweek, 73 percent of teens aged 13 to 19 said parents don't spend enough time with their children.

Turning to mom for advice

Perhaps as another surprise to parents, kids put parents highest on their list of people they turn to for advice, according to the YMCA poll, though friends are still a major influence (78 percent said they turn to parents; and 58 percent to friends). In both cases, younger teens are more interested in mom and dad than older teens are.

While the popular perception is that parents don't spend much time with their kids, that isn't necessarily true. Although 10 percent of parents say they eat just one meal a week or less with their teens, kids and parents are still finding time for each other - on average about 80 minutes a day.

But it isn't the quantity, it's the quality of the time that may be lacking. Polls continue to show a major disconnect in the way parents communicate with their kids.

For instance, although many parents say they talk frequently to their kids about important issues like sex, dating, drugs, alcohol, and future plans, their kids don't agree. The same goes for parents' monitoring of their kids' TV and Internet use. Parents think they do this frequently, but kids say they don't.

"The good news is that families are still spending time together," says Kenneth Gladish, national director of the YMCA. "The bad news is that children may not be hearing what we parents think we're saying."

Surprisingly, another sign of the disconnect between teens and adults is that many parents don't even consider spending more time with their kids a top concern. In fact, the YMCA poll showed that most adults are far more concerned about outside threats such as drugs and alcohol.

But those threats could greatly diminish if parents put in more time parenting. "The two things kids say that help steer them clear [of trouble] are a good relationship with parents and a good relationship with their school," says Ms. McDonald.

Of course, the question is, how can today's already overloaded parents do this?

Changing the rules

Some experts argue that it's partly society's responsibility to change the rules so that parents can spend more time at home.

That's certainly Hillary Rodham Clinton's view. In a recent Newsweek column about raising Chelsea, the first lady urged lawmakers and business leaders to establish more flexible hours in the workplace.

The societal response is spreading at the community level, as well.

The Dallas YMCAs, for instance, are about to institute a program where parents can pick up their kids from the Y - along with their groceries, dry cleaning, and prescription drugs.

Parents have to agree that the time saved on these after-work errands will be used for family mealtime at home. Inside their grocery bags are talking points to help generate dinner-table discussion - and those points are discussed at the Y the next day.

McDonald, at the University of Wisconsin, is working with schools to hold regularly scheduled dinners with parents and their kids so they have time to talk. It's a program that's spreading quickly.

Parental practices

But other experts say it's not just institutions that need to change, but also parental practices and attitudes. Volunteer to be the teen driver as often as you can, turn off the radio in your car when you're driving with your kid, ask your teens open-ended questions, schedule retreats with your children - these are the ways to get to know your children, says Eric Chester, president and founder of Generation Why, a speaking and consulting firm on teens.

Kids have a lot of "stuff," says Mr. Chester, what they need more of is parental attention. "A lot of kids really want more family time. They've heard of the family unit. Here's a generation that wants family, and for all intents and purposes, they've been deprived of it," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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