2005 University of Michigan Poverty Research Grants

Funded research

Jennifer Barber, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology; and Research Assistant Professor, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan

Jennifer Eckerman, Doctoral precandidate, Department of Sociology and School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

Parentification and Adolescents' Attitudes towards Early Family Formation


Adolescent childbearing concerns researchers and policymakers, as adolescent mothers and their children tend to be at greater risk of poor socioeconomic outcomes. A long standing body of theory argues that individuals' beliefs, attitudes, and intentions are an essential determinant of their behavioral choices. However, efforts to reduce adolescent childbearing have tended to focus on changing adolescent behaviors, particularly sexual activity and contraceptive use, while devoting less attention to adolescents' attitudes towards early family formation. Despite common perceptions of adolescent childbearing as unplanned or unwanted, many adolescents express ambivalence towards childbearing or even a clear desire to become pregnant. A more lucid understanding of attitudes is essential for designing programs and policies to reduce adolescent childbearing.

This study will examine one likely influence on adolescents' attitudes towards family formation, which is the role they fill in their families. Parentification is a term used to refer to when children adopt the roles and responsibilities of parents within their families. Parentified children tend to hold a high degree of responsibility for household and caregiving duties, to have greater access to information normally restricted to adults, and to provide counsel to their parents on mature subjects. We hypothesize that adolescents already fulfilling the parental role in their families may hold more positive attitudes towards early family formation.

In exploring the relationship between parentification and early formation, this study will provide empirical answers to two sets of specific questions: 1) How does parentification affect adolescents' expectations regarding childbearing? Are parentified children more likely to expect to have children? How does parentification impact the age at which adolescents would like to have their first child? How does parentification impact the number of children they think they will have? 2) How does parentification affect adolescents' expectations regarding marriage? Are parentified adolescents more likely to expect to marry in the future? Do they expect to marry earlier than non-parentified adolescents?

To examine these questions, we will analyze data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), Child Development Supplement (CDS). Through face-to-face interviews the CDS collected extensive data on numerous aspects of children's lives, including their expectations regarding marriage, childbearing, and the specific timing of each. The survey design also includes time diaries, which document the type, number, and duration of children's activities during the day. Thus, we plan to operationalize parentification using the amount of time adolescents spent on household and caregiving activities typically associated with the parental role. Capitalizing on the longitudinal nature of the CDS data, we will use multivariate semi-difference and difference regression models to assess the relationship between parentification and attitudes towards early family formation.


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