A Time to Come Home

Some Parents Quit Working to Be Around More -- When Their Kids Are Teens, Not Toddlers. That May Be Good Timing, Experts Say

By Lynn Crawford Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page HE01

Architect and stay-at-home dad Scott Davis, center, jams with son Jacob and daughter Lisa under the eaves of their house. (Susan Biddle-the Washington Post)


When Pat Kloehn, 49, a Silver Spring mother of two, quit a job she enjoyed at CNN to stay at home with her children, the lifestyle change had a certain familiarity. It was the second time Kloehn had stepped off the career path to become an at-home mom.

Kloehn, whose children are 13 and 17, says, "The first time, I did it because I felt I wasn't having any quality time with my daughter. I didn't spend enough time with her to even know her likes and dislikes. I wanted to have another child, but I wanted to be the one to raise them, not a virtual stranger."

Architect and stay-at-home dad Scott Davis, center, jams with son Jacob and daughter Lisa under the eaves of their house. (Susan Biddle-the Washington Post)

After several contented years at home, Kloehn returned to work when the kids reached school age. But a year ago, she decided it was time to come home again.

"With two wars, September 11, a sniper and a hurricane, my husband [also a CNN employee] and I were working 24-7," Kloehn says. "My son came home to an empty house every day."

Though it is generally regarded as acceptable to leave children home alone at age 12, Kloehn's son felt lost. "He was lonesome all the time," Kloehn said. "When he talks about that period of his life, he calls it, the 'deep blue' days."

"With teenage children, missing out on quality time seemed much scarier" than when they were younger, Kloehn said. "Without direction, I felt my kids were at risk for some really dangerous behaviors that could affect their adult lives."

Takoma Park mom Diane Mac-Eachern, 52, worked when her children were young, building a 35-employee communications and advocacy firm. After 14 years, she said, she was drained from the constant demands on her time and feeling that she was never giving her best to her clients, her employees or her family. Three years ago, MacEachern sold her share of the business and is now an at-home mom to her children, ages 14 and 16.

"I think that the middle school and high school years are much more challenging for a child than preschool or elementary school," she said. "And it's harder for parents to stay in touch with their children during the teenage years. As I looked at the challenges, I really felt like this was the time to be there for them."

Kloehn and MacEachern have discovered what many parents of older children (including Bush campaign adviser Karen Hughes and Judith Steinberg Dean, wife of former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean) have found: that being available for their children when they are older may be just as important as when they are very young.

According to the U.S. Census, workforce participation by mothers fell from a record high of 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2000. This was the first significant decline since the Census Bureau began monitoring such data in 1976. The figure remained unchanged in 2002. The four-percentage-point decline was mostly attributable to women with infants, but it also included moms who dropped out of the workforce when their kids were older.

Numerous studies have shown that the hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are when kids are most likely to use drugs, engage in sex and get caught up in violence. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America encourages parents to monitor their children's activities during these hours, because "the rewards of monitoring are proven. Kids who are not regularly monitored are four times more likely to use drugs."

The federally funded National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health found that parental involvement helped protect teens against almost every risky behavior.

According to Neil Bernstein, a clinical psychologist in the District and author of "How to Keep Your Teenagers Out of Trouble: And What to Do If You Don't" (Workman Publishing, 2001), a close relationship between parent and child results in more well-adjusted children.

"Increased parental involvement early in adolescence pays great dividends later on," he said. "If we have not succeeded in instilling values of independence, trustworthiness and responsibility in early adolescence, we're going to pay dearly later on when they will resent our intrusion into their lives."

Second Wave of Development

Early adolescence is not unlike early childhood in terms of learning new skills, separating from parents and becoming an independent person, according to Jay Giedd, chief of brain development at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Teenagers are going through a "second wave" of rapid brain development that rivals the toddler years in terms of sheer activity, Giedd said. But this time, the brain isn't producing as many new connections as it is getting rid of unused ones.

"Teenagers have way more [brain] connections than they can possibly use," said Giedd, so they have to "prune" these connections as one would trim a bush that becomes overgrown. "The connections that are used will flourish. The ones that aren't used will wither and die."

The pruning takes place through modeling -- observing the behavior of successful people and trying it out. "By being around, [parents] are modeling the behaviors that we want teenagers to imitate," said Giedd. And perhaps more importantly, "Having parents around gives kids a sense of well-being. It sends a message that 'you are important to me.' "

Parents of teenagers have a unique opportunity to help their children develop lifelong emotional health, according to Giedd.

"What happens to teens during this time leaves lasting patterns of thinking and behavior. Teens actually want their parents to be involved in their lives," said Giedd, "but they resist it. And they're supposed to. It's their job to separate from their parents. But parents should realize that they've got to hang in there. If you're there to share those day-to-day moments, then more [positive] things will happen."

Having more parental involvement also helps teens avoid an increasingly common phenomenon -- major depressive disorders and suicide. According to NIMH child psychiatrist Daniel Pine, the rates of depression in adolescents are "clearly established at over 10 to 15 percent." And for children who suffer from depression, the risk of committing suicide increases dramatically.

What's more, according to an NIMH report on adolescent depression, there is some evidence that experiencing depression in adolescence leaves "scars" that may increase teens' vulnerability to depression throughout their early life. The report cautions, "Low levels of communication between parents and children may act as a significant risk factor for adolescent depression."

Reordering Priorities

Acknowledging that most parents can't afford to just quit their jobs and stay at home with their kids, psychologist Bernstein said, "Having working parents isn't necessarily bad for kids. If your kids are happy, if they're well-adjusted socially, if they're doing well in school, then it's working.

"But if you feel your kids need more of your time, and you're staying in a job just so you can pay your six-thousand-dollar-a-month mortgage, then I'd say people need to reorder their priorities."

Priorities are what it came down to for Scott Davis. When Davis, 52, left his job at a prominent architecture firm, the father of four decided he'd had enough of putting in 60-plus hours per week away from home. Despite the calls from headhunters and the lure of a six-figure income, Davis decided to become the general contractor of his home renovation -- and to be more available for his kids, who were ages 6 through 13.

Two years later, Davis and his wife, Kathleen Schalch, a reporter for National Public Radio, look back ruefully on the years when they were both working full time. There were, Schalch said, "so many moments ignored, so many chances for interaction that didn't take place."

One of Davis's children requires especially close attention to calibrate his medication and to monitor his behavioral issues. Another child was in trouble with math. Davis was able to work with him after school, analyze what was going wrong and enable him to get a 97 percent grade on a final exam. "You can't buy that for any price. No babysitter, no teacher, no other person has the commitment that you have to your child," Davis said.

Many parents, said Bernstein, try to compensate for not being around by over-scheduling their kids in sports, lessons and other activities. "Some kids can handle it, but some are neurotic messes," he said.

According to Bernstein, teenagers often make veiled pleas for help by acting out or getting into some kind of trouble, when what they really need is more and better communication with their parents.

"Keeping the communication channels open is arguably the most important thing parents can do to help their children," said Bernstein. It's difficult when both parents are working, he admits. "Look for the propitious moment to communicate," he recommends, "like at dinner, while riding in the car or while having a snack late at night."

Said Davis, "If you want to have a serious discussion with a teenager, you can't just sit them down and say, 'Okay, we're going to have a rich interaction now.' It has to bubble up spontaneously. You have to put in your time and be there when it does." Financial issues aside, said Bernstein, some people need to keep working to meet their own emotional, intellectual or social needs.

"People have to look at their own psychological makeup," he said. "It's hard to totally give up [working.] It would be even worse to quit, and then to lay all this guilt upon the kid."

"You have to really do some soul-searching," Bernstein said. "Search your heart. Be honest with yourself about how the child is doing and how you're doing. It's not crystal-clear. I know parents who stay at home and their kids are in all sorts of trouble. It's not a cure by itself."

And sometimes staying home is actually part of the problem.

"Parents who have an excessive need to control can convince themselves that it is in the child's best interest to stay at home," Bernstein said, "when in fact, having so much parental supervision just fuels the teenager's rebellion."

As with everything else related to raising kids, the decision to stay at home isn't clear-cut. But parents who have done it report that it is both enjoyable and rewarding.

Being at home doesn't "eliminate all bad moods and short tempers," said at-home dad Davis. "But things overall are healthier and calmer."

MacEachern, the Takoma Park mom, agreed. "My children are happier people as teenagers because I'm home more," she said. "There will always be time for work when my kids are in college. Right now, we have time for each other."

Lynn Crawford Cook is a freelance writer in Silver Spring. This is her first story for the Health section.