When parents are too hands-on
The most common back-to-school message from educators
and parenting experts is: Get involved with your children, their school,
their activities. Then there's the small caveat: But not too much.
"The major problem nationally is underinvolved
parents," said psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of "The
Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life."
"But in affluent suburban neighborhoods, you get a lot of parents who
are way overinvolved. Call them controlling, pushy, enmeshed or hyper:
Parents who've become too invested in their child's success (or
failure), be it in academics, sports, appearance or social life. This
includes parents who: Write their high-schoolers' college essays or
insist on a particular university. Take over a homework project because
the child isn't doing it right. Ignore a child's own interests and
insist on certain activities to build a "résumé" for the best schools,
from preschool to college. Yell and criticize their child , coach or
referee at games. Consistently step in to solve every issue with
friends, teachers or youth leaders. Expect perfection from children.
Overinvolvement "reflects some emotional need on the
parent's part, not the best interests of the child," said Dan Neuharth,
author of "If You Had Controlling Parents." "Parents' hopes and fears
for themselves are transferred onto the child." While there have always been hard-to-please parents,
some experts say parental micromanagement has gone mainstream.
Everything from books (recent example: "Raising Your Child to Be a
Champion in Athletics, Arts and Academics") to Baby Einstein videos to
the specialization of youth sports encourages the idea that it's up to
parents to ensure their kids are the brightest and most athletic. Not
taking advantage of every learning opportunity, one author notes, is
practically considered middle-class child neglect.
"Overinvolved parents and overscheduled children are
the recommended ways to raise children these days," said Dr. Alvin
Rosenfeld, co-author of "The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the
Hyper-Parenting Trap." "And it's really not to anyone's good. "Parents have to ask themselves, 'Do my kids feel
they're the authors of their own lives, or do they feel they're living a
life someone else scripted for them?" It starts early and hard, beginning with new parents,
says Muffy Mead-Ferro, who wrote a backlash memoir, "Confessions of a
Slacker Mom." When she was pregnant, "I started to feel intense pressure
to perform as a mom and make my baby to perform too," she said. "I was
already expected to be molding and shaping her even while she was in the
womb." She decided that giving her kids, now ages 4 and 6, the
opportunity to solve their own problems — and save herself a lot of
hassle — would contribute more to their success than piping in Mozart.
"We have to examine our own motivation for
overparticipating in our children's lives and driving them to accomplish
and achieve at a very young age," she said. "It hurts when your
3-year-old says 'Get out of my way' because you want to be a part of
everything they do. But we have to be willing to let them do things
themselves, and do it imperfectly."
No one's suggesting parents shouldn't be supportive, encouraging and
active in their child's lives; numerous studies show kids who are
emotionally connected to their parents do better in school and make good
life choices, such as avoiding drugs.
But overinvolved parents — even with the best intentions — often fail to
consider the long-term effects of always intruding in a child's life,
Children struggling in school performed better when parents took
hands-off, positive approach rather than a critical, controlling one,
according to a study by Eva Pomerantz, a psychology professor at the
University of Illinois. Her research was reported in a spring issue of
"For low achievers with moms who had controlling
responses, kids' grades went down over six months," she said. When
parents offered encouragement and supported the child's problem-solving
skills, kids had better grades in the same time period.
High achievers did well regardless of parents' response, Pomerantz said.
That could be because these children already get positive feedback in
school and don't need parents to reinforce their competence, she noted.
"Low achievers need that extra boost from parents."
Parents shouldn't help unless a child asks for
assistance, Pomerantz said. If a child is having difficulty, parents can
sit next to children as they work and ask guiding questions. "If you
simply give the answer, you're not helping your child in the long run,"
she said. "The more you step in, the more your child becomes dependent
on you for the next time," agreed Michael Murphy, head of Seattle
Country Day School, an independent private school with kindergarten
through eighth grade. "Parents can't constantly rescue children from
every mistake. Kids have to slip and stumble sometimes for their
Young kids will attempt to please their parents, then
burn out and "just throw you over" when they're old enough to assert
their independence, Thompson said.
Neuharth agrees: "If you make decisions for your
child, like making him try out for the school play because you always
wanted to, the probable effect is alienating your child as he grows
older." Parents might get their A pluses, but aren't teaching kids life
lessons. "If you push too hard, kids respond to you, instead of the
material," Thompson said. "They're dutiful students instead of inspired
The consequences can also stretch into relationships
and future workplaces. Controlling parents often refuse to let children
disagree, or negate their anger, said Neuharth, a marriage and family
therapist in California. If children feel they have to act a certain way
to gain their parents' love or respect, "one possible legacy as an adult
is that it's hard to be oneself. It's hard to have a full emotional
range." Also, when children grow up, they either rebel against authority
or always want someone else to make a decision, Neuharth said. Neither
attitude wins points with bosses.
Of all the areas where parents overcontrol, academics may be the most
common. Some parents feel their child's grades reflect their parenting
"One thing I'm getting now is a lot of parents who are frantic that kids
aren't reading by the end of kindergarten," said Thompson, a school
consultant and co-author of "Raising Cain." "It used to be, kids learned
to read in first grade. Parents can't stand that now."
Being ahead early doesn't mean a child will be gifted or a high achiever
later in school, Thompson said. "But there's a hyperfocus on it."
The result, declares Rosenfeld, is that "today, every kid is either
gifted or learning disabled. 'Normal' has been abolished."
That view can be difficult on teachers, who are left breaking it to
parents that, sadly, their children are not superstars.
"One of the things that bugs teachers the most is when
parents have a completely unrealistic idea of their child's ability,"
said Thompson. One dad told a private-school administrator, "I didn't
send my son to your school to get Bs."
"It's good kids know education is important, but it's amazing how much
parents pick at both kids and teachers with constant fault- finding,"
Parents who rush into situations often justify it with
love and the desire to protect a child. But the underlying messages to
the child are: Educators are not trustworthy. Other children are
dangerous. We don't believe you can work out problems on your own. More
than half of teachers said districts that back down from assertive
parents contribute to schools' discipline problems, according to a
spring survey of middle and high-school teachers by Public Agenda, a
nonprofit research organization.
In March, a university professor posted this rant on
an Internet education forum about students demanding better grades: "I
recalled their demeanor: some arrogant ('Well, I think I deserve an A'),
some polite, some bewildered, some desperate, telling me how they have
to get all As, they have to get into law school, they have to keep their
scholarships, a B will ruin their lives forever, or — most upsettingly —
their parents will be furious if they get a B-plus.
"And then I thought, 'So that's where they come from.'
They've grown up with their parents storming down to their schools and
pitching hissy fits over every low grade. Or they've grown up with the
threat of 'Make straight As or else' hanging over their heads. Or
"What is with these parents who yell at the school
board? ... Do they not pause to think about the example they're setting
for their offspring? 'OK, Junior, you're not allowed to make a mistake
and learn from it. Not ever. Remember, your having a 4.0 GPA is more
important than your actually learning anything.' "
Message to parents: Back off!
Experts offer these tips for balanced involvement with children.
Admit fallibility. Children who grew up with controlling parents
"almost to a T, had never heard their father or mother say 'I don't
know' or 'I was wrong,' " said family therapist Dan Neuharth.
"Parents who exert an unhealthy control are afraid that admitting
they're wrong will erode their authority. But it's a healthy lesson
for children to hear parents say, 'I don't know.' "
Get a life. "Some parents are so focused on their
child's development that they forget to pay attention to their own
development," Neuharth said. "Have your own hobbies and friendships.
It's important to make that a priority."
Don't push development by pressuring kids. "It
doesn't work," said psychologist Michael Thompson. Plus, kids pick
up on parents' anxiety or disappointment. "Unless there are clear
signs a child is significantly behind, I want parents to trust a
Make family time a priority. It should be as
important as education, athletics, social activities and other
outside commitments, advises Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld on his Web site,
Don't overschedule. "Childhood needn't be an
endless treadmill of productivity and self-improvement," Rosenfeld
notes. "Kids deserve to have fun, down time, and empty spaces in
their lives to fill any way they choose to."
Follow children's lead. "If children consistently
don't want to do an activity, it's best to leave it alone," Neuharth
Focus on your child, not your dream of what your
child should be.
Don't expect perfection. "If you use the same
standards you have for adults, kids will always feel inadequate,"
Give more space as children grow older. "Parents
have to take a step back at each (developmental) step along the
way," said Michael Murphy, head of Seattle Country Day School. "At
each grade level, children should have more ownership."
Work with teachers first. Sometimes if parents
have a problem, they go right to the principal. "Teachers should be
the first line of communication," said Jo Ann Yockey, head of
Westside School, an independent school with preschool through fifth
Take a deep breath. See if kids can work out
problems before stepping in, or wait a day until everyone has calmed
down before addressing an issue.
4 September 2004