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The parents of your kid's BFF may influence drinking more than you

When it comes to drinking and drug use, most parents assume that it’s their own behavior that most influences their child. But a new study suggests there might be someone more influential than you are: the parents of your kid’s friends.For binge drinking and marijuana use, researchers found the influence of a friend’s mother is "stronger" that that of a child’s own mother, says Holly Shak

When it comes to drinking and drug use, most parents assume that it’s their own behavior that most influences their child. But a new study suggests there might be someone more influential than you are: the parents of your kid’s friends.

For binge drinking and marijuana use, researchers found the influence of a friend’s mother is "stronger" that that of a child’s own mother, says Holly Shakya, a post-doctoral research fellow with UCSD/Harvard University Social Networks Project. When it came to  smoking, mom and friends' parents had about the same influence over teen behavior, the study found.

The researchers studied 7th through 12th graders and found that those least likely to engage in substance abuse were influenced by “authoritative” parents — whether their own or those of their friends. This style is defined as warm and communicative, while exerting an appropriate level of control over the child’s life.

“They are willing to explain why they make certain decisions,” Shakya says. “These are the kinds of parents that will sit down with their adolescent and discuss the implications of certain actions, and will be willing to listen to their child.”

These authoritative parents, as opposed to those who failed to balance control and kindness, influenced not only their own kids, but their kids’ friends, too.

It takes a village—of authoritative parents

According to Shakya, there are three theories to explain why children might benefit from the good parenting their friends enjoy. First, adolescents watch interactions between friends and their authoritative parents and take in the positive messages. Second, authoritative parents may act as mentors to their children’s friends. And third, good parenting produces happier, healthier kids who in turn positively influence their friends.

“Children who have friends with authoritative parents may very well benefit from the overall psycho-social strengths of those friends, and in that context making risky decisions may not seem that appealing,” says Shakya.

But what if you’re the “just right parent,” loving and strict, but all your child’s friends’ parents are permissive? Is your kid doomed? Or will your superior parenting outweigh other parents’ potential negative influence? Will it all balance out in the end? It’s enough to make this authoritative mom want to go on a drinking binge. Instead, I came up with a plan. Here’s my interpretation of how the science can help us size up other parents:

  • If your child’s friend wears ankle length skirts in summer, is not allowed to cut her hair, and addresses her mother as “Mommie Dearest,” you might be dealing with authoritarian parents. These parents are controlling and lack warmth. Alert code: Orange. You knew preacher’s kids in school, right? This is the time for strict but loving control. And reading every text message you can find.
  • If the friend calls his or her parents by their first names, and they all got tattoos together on the winter solstice, you’re probably facing permissive parenting. Cool Mom is loving, but doesn’t believe in controlling another person’s life, even if that person has the rational thinking skills of a gerbil. Proceed with caution. Expressing anything in opposition to Cool Mom will brand you as antiquated and oppressive—maybe even authoritative. But express you must. 
  • If your child’s friend is unkempt, angry, depressed or desperate for attention, he or she is probably the victim of neglectful parents. These parents are neither controlling nor warm, and their child really, really needs a friend. Instead of steering your fortunate offspring away from this friend, just make damn sure there are no sleepovers at their house. In any case, take a second look at those parents.  And lock up your liquor, just in case.

How does this new evidence affect the way you think about other parents, and your kids’ interactions with them? Share your thoughts on the TODAY Moms Facebook page.

Lela Davidson is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA. Her writing is featured regularly in family and parenting magazines throughout the United States and Canada. She blogs about marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 at After the Bubbly.