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Bruce Simons-Morton, Ph.D., of NICHD's Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research, surveyed 1,081 students in four middle schools at the beginning and again at the end of sixth grade. The students completed a questionnaire that measured a variety of factors, including their friends' behavior and expectations; their own ability to resist dares, resolve conflicts and retain self-control; and how well they follow rules, complete school work on time and get along with classmates and teachers. The questionnaire also asked children about their parents' involvement in their lives, their parents' expectations for them and whether their parents check to see if the children have done what they've been asked to do.
The researchers found that teens with friends engaging in problem behavior -- those who smoked, drank, cheated on tests, lied to parents, bullied others or damaged property -- were more likely to smoke if their parents were relatively less involved than if their parents were relatively more involved. This finding pertained to all of the children studied -- boys, girls, African-Americans, whites, children living with one parent and children with mothers who had not attended college. Parents' expectations about smoking and whether an adult at home smokes did not significantly influence children's decision to start smoking.
"Parents' involvement may be particularly important during early adolescence," said Dr. Simons-Morton. "It is a time when many young people first begin asserting their independence from their parents, but before peer influences reach their full strength. It's also a time when young people are still sensitive to their parents' values and concerns, and may be reluctant to try smoking, because they know their parents would disapprove."