Smart Friends, Dumb Parents? Who do teens look to?

In his acceptance speech for the 1997 Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. (Fred) Rogers challenged the audience to think of the most influential people in their lives saying, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. 10 seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.

Who would you list as having “loved you into being”?  Who do you think your teen might list? This Parenthetical repost, from September 2013, talks about who has the greatest influence on teens. Do parents make the cut?

As friends and the social world outside the family become more important to your teen, it may feel as if your name would be absent from your teen’s list of influential people.  In fact, during the teen years, friends can and do serve as a strong influence on your son or daughter’s interests, choices, and opinions.

But what do the teens themselves say about the influence of parents versus peers?  To find out, we surveyed approximately seventy 7th and 8th grade students from a rural Wisconsin school district on a variety of topics.  (You might remember that this group already shared their perspectives on appropriate rules and freedoms for teens.)

We asked our 7th and 8th graders the question “Who are you most likely to listen to about_____? Friends or parents?”  On the left hand side of the chart below you’ll see the list of issues that we asked them about. They were to respond with one of two choices: “your friends” or “your parents.” We tallied the number of responses for each issue and the results are in the right hand column of the table below. Here’s what they had to say.

The responses of the youth we surveyed were very clear. So when we say the majority of students responded that they were most influenced by friends (or by parents), we mean the overwhelming majority responded this way.

What do these responses tell us?

In a nutshell, the teens we surveyed confirmed what research has already demonstrated. Teens choose who’s advice they will take based on the specific topic.  When they have questions they see as being in the “peer” domain such as clothing or music, they report listening most closely to their friends’ advice.  However, when it comes to big-ticket items such as values, academics, religion and morality, they are more likely to follow the guidance of their parents.

  • The bottom line: in the eyes of teens, parents are still very influential!! While there may be times when you don’t feel this way, you remain very important to your emerging adolescent and your teen still looks to you when it comes to the issues that really matter.
  • Although friends are becoming increasingly influential in the lives of teens, teens look to their parents for guidance in the domains that have the most long term importance, such as moral values, planning for the future, drinking and school.

With that in mind, maybe it is OK to pass some influence over to friends and peers.  Continue to do your best to “love your teen into being” and you will likely be among the first ones thanked in your teen’s lifetime achievement acceptance speech!


Article by Anne

Anne-Headshot-useAnne is an interim Extension Specialist with Cooperative Extension Family Living Programs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is also a doctoral student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and has a masters degree in Public Health. She is the oldest of three children.