August 27, 2008
You can’t be too involved in supporting your child
A while back, the president of my alma mater penned a scathing denunciation of pushy parents. Barnard College's Judith R. Shapiro cited egregious examples -- a mother who met with a dean to discuss her daughter's research project and parents who don't let their children get a word in edgewise on campus visits. Her op-ed joined in the media sport of haranguing "helicopter parents."
While I saw Shapiro's point, as a mother, I resented that she didn't at the same time empathize with parents' strong loving and protective feelings and our separation pangs as our fledglings go off to school. I wished she had addressed the well-meaning parent's ever-present dilemma: How do you draw the line between supporting your child and inappropriately taking over?
Fortunately, there's a huge body of psychological research to answer just this question, as I found when co-authoring, "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child" (Prometheus, 2008).
Thirty years of research, much of it conducted by my co-author, Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick, has found that the more parents are involved with their children -- be they toddlers or teens -- the better it is for their kids. In fact, you can't be too involved with your child. A multitude of studies has found that the more support we give our children, the happier they are and the more they achieve. High parental involvement gives kids high self-esteem and helps them feel secure and solidly connected to us.
When Grolnick studied parents of elementary school children, for example, she found that the more involved mothers were with their children -- that is, the more time they spent with their kids and the more they knew about what their children did, as well as their likes and dislikes -- the better their children did on report cards and standardized achievement tests, and the fewer learning and behavior problems they had in school. The highly involved parents weren't necessarily at home more than other parents, but when they were, they made sure to spend time with their children. They asked about their children's school day, knew which subjects they enjoyed or didn't and who their friends were.
There's only one caveat to involvement: It's wise to make sure you're respecting your child's autonomy at the same time.
But just how do you do that?
Let's first define autonomy: Autonomy is the feeling of initiating an action. We want to solve our own problems whenever possible. That doesn't mean doing whatever you want. Autonomy is simply a willingness to do something -- the opposite of feeling controlled by someone else.
When children -- in fact, all human beings -- feel that what they do is self-initiated, they're happier. And they perform better, because the enjoyment motivates them to study or practice more, building up their skills.
Think about your own experience. You might have to learn Excel for work, for example, but if you choose to learn it for tracking your family's budget, you're much more likely to enjoy it.
How can you make sure that your involvement isn't intrusive or controlling?
Take your child's point of view and acknowledge her feelings.
Say your 10-year-old isn't doing his homework. You are thinking that studying will get him into a good college and a good job, but he's reasoning, "It's going to get dark soon. I want to have some fun now. I can do my homework later."
You could take his point of view by trying to imagine, "If I were his age, what might I prefer doing right now -- riding my bike outside or reading a chapter on coal production?" Then you can say, "I understand that it's going to get dark soon. But tonight we're going to Aunt Karen's for dinner, so unfortunately, this is the only time to do your science homework." What counts is acknowledging your child's feelings. You want to convey "I'm with you."
Support your child's independent problem solving.
One of the best ways to support your child's independent problem solving is to ask questions, as I did when my son, Zach, was making a pinhole camera for the middle school science fair. Instead of simply taking him to a store to get the cardboard box he needed, I asked him, "Where do you think we could find a big box?"
He looked befuddled. But after a minute he said, "I know -- behind the store on Pico Boulevard where they sell refrigerators!"
"How could we make the pinhole?" I asked next -- and so on.
Give your child choices.
Even a tiny degree of choice boosts a child's feelings of autonomy. Sometimes it's simply a question of your language. Studies have shown that words like have to, must, don't and I want you to have a significant chilling effect on kids' feelings of autonomy. Instead, you might try giving limits as information, including the reasoning behind the rule. So if your child is painting, you might say, "The materials need to be kept clean so you can keep using them for a long time," or "To keep the paint clean, the brush needs to be washed before switching colors." (I know this wording sounds awkward. But using the third person avoids phrases like, "I want you to" or "you must," which can lead to a power struggle.)
As my own children have gotten older, I've found that phrases like "have you considered....?" or "do you think you might want to ... ?" also do the trick.
Encouraging your child's feelings of autonomy will help you stay involved without controlling him. That way you can stay close to your child without becoming one of those dreaded helicopter parents.
I wish my alma mater's president had given at least a nod to the normal, strong and essentially healthy impulses to help our children when they fly from the nest, whether to preschool or to college. After all, the urge to protect is in our genes: Those hunter-gatherer kids whose parents watched over them best were the ones who survived. They became our ancestors, and we're the modern recipients of their genes, hardwired to want our children to win whatever battles they may face.
Since our kids face an increasingly competitive world, it's no wonder we get anxious and want to do all we can to support them.
Kathy Shenkin Seale, a writer living in Santa Monica, will discuss her book, "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child," at Village Books in Pacific Palisades on Sept. 4, 7:30 p.m.