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Because I Said So…At Least Until You Say So: Parental Authority Over College-Aged Kids

Parents of college students regularly find themselves in quite a bind – they have to figure out that delicate balance between being an authority figure while simultaneously respecting their kids’ increasing independence. This is because typical college students, as well as other individuals between the ages of 18 and 25, are commonly referred to as emerging adults -- those in this age range do not entirely view themselves as adults nor do they view themselves as kids. As a result, parents of college students have to somehow be a parent to someone who may no longer live under the same roof, but is typically not living entirely independently and grappling with all of the complications that a full-fledged adult life entails either (not to take anything away from the huge responsibilities that many college students deal with every day). Simply put: When is it appropriate for parents of college students to put their foot (or feet) down and provide direction vs. hold back and let their kids make their own mistakes? Balance this conundrum with the knowledge that parents’ aging children actually like their parents more when they maintain appropriate boundaries, and you have a recipe for quite the pickle.

In a recent study, researchers took a close look at the “who’s the boss” dynamic between parents and their college-attending children. Specifically, the researchers assessed the degree to which parents and their college-attending children (representing four universities) agree that parents have legitimate authority over kids’ lives in four different domains:

  1. Personal: (i.e., choice over friends, clothes, activities, etc.; “What major I/my child chooses”)
  2. Social-conventional: (i.e., choice over public behaviors and manners, such as waiting one’s turn in line, etc.; “Whether or not I/my child attends class”)
  3. Prudential: (i.e., choice over safety or well-being issues, such as wearing a seat belt; “Whether I/my child smokes or drinks”)
  4. Moral: (i.e., choice over issues that are presumed to be shared by all, such as honesty; “Whether I am/my child is kind to others”)

For each domain, parents and their kids responded on a 1 (inappropriate, this should be completely up to me/my child) to 5 (appropriate, my parent is/I am justified in controlling this) scale. Additionally, kids reported on the degree of control they perceived their parents as having (“My parent tries to set rules about what I do with my free time”), and all kids reported on the quality of the relationship with their parent(s) (e.g., level of disclosure, emotional support, etc.).

Perhaps not surprisingly, both kids and parents perceived the most parental authority in the moral and prudential domains. But, across all domains, parents rated their authority as higher than did kids. In other words, whereas all were in agreement that parents have the most legitimate authority over big picture-type issues, parents still felt they had more legitimate authority across all domains than kids felt parents should have.

The researchers then did something interesting – they divided the sample as a function of how much the parents and kids agreed on their authority ratings. This analysis led to three ‘groups’ of different parent-child relationships:

  1. Parental control kids (11% of sample) viewed their parents as having authority in all four domains. These kids reported their parents as exercising a large amount of control (i.e., meddling).
  2. Shared control kids (66%) viewed their parents as having authority in all but the personal domain. These kids reported significantly higher quality relationships with their parents. The researchers suggested that this type of relationship may be effective because there are very clear boundaries that respect the children’s right to privacy but also involve reasonable oversight.
  3. Personal control (24%) didn’t believe their parents had authority in any domain. These kids reported the lowest levels of financial support from parents as well as low relationship quality. The kids reported feeling more like adults than did those in the other groups and didn’t perceive much control from their parents. Interestingly, this group was slightly older than the other groups, so movement into the personal control group may represent a natural shift as children age.

The take-home message of this work is fairly clear: As kids age, they should naturally be granted more control over their own lives, but parents should continue to serve as a model for what makes a good member of society and continue to enforce those norms. Being too intrusive and controlling will only create resentment or overly-dependent kids. Rather, parents ought to respect the natural boundaries that promote individuality, and hope they did things decently enough on the front end (i.e., before their kids leave the house) so they don’t have to sweat the day-to-day decisions their kids make.

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Padilla-Walker, L. M., Nelson, L. J., & Knapp, D. J. (2014). “Because I’m still the parent, that’s why!” Parental legitimate authority during emerging adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 293-313.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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