Successful Parenting vs. Over-Parenting
In a recent New York Times Op-ed essay (August 4th 2012), Madeline Levine wrote a thoughtful piece titled "Raising successful children". It’s well worth reading.
She re-visits the recent debate on key aspects of successful parenting circa 2012. The terms "tiger moms" and "helicopter parents" have found their way into our daily conversation. Much of this debate centers on the parenting issues of today--how involved should parents be in their child's life? What helps children become successful adults? It’s a discussion that began in the 19th century when the first psychologists realized that kids weren't "small adults". This dialogue is going to continue into the next century and beyond.
Just visit a playground. You will see this debate played out in the sand box. Some parents rush in to pick up their toddler when she falls down. Others sit on the sideline and watch patiently as Sarah cries, looks around, and picks herself up. One parent charges in to settle an argument between two kids that want to sit on the same swing. Dad tells Tim how great he is on the jungle gym, even though he can barely hold himself up.
Homework is another battleground for Tigers and Helicopters. In my day, it never occurred to me to ask my parents for help with homework. After all, it was my responsibility to do it--whether or not I got an A, B, or C on it. But when my kids were growing up, parents were expected to "participate" in their children's homework! Personally, I resented it. But I did what the teachers wanted me to do. Today, it is a given. Homework has become a joint project between parent and kid! How much help is too much? How little is too little? One more thing to think about---and one more thing for busy parents to do.
Another parent and I like to discuss the current rage of giving kids praise, just for participating. Forget about whether they excelled! Jill gets a B- on a test and her Dad goes on and on about what a great job she did! I taught a graduate course in psychology some years ago and all the students expected A's on their papers no matter how much work they put in. There are numerous debates among educators on the phenomenon of grade inflation.
Does over-parenting help or hurt? What is the right balance of control (Tiger Dad) and permissiveness (under-parenting)? When is praise positive and when is it negative? Most parents suffer over these considerations that are the stuff of day to day parental life. How much “parental elbow grease" will foster a self-assured competent youngster?
In Ms. Levine's essay, she describes Dr. Carol Dweck's research at Stanford. Young children are given an easy puzzle to solve. After solving the puzzle, some children are told how smart and capable they are, and some are not. Interestingly, as more difficult puzzles are presented, the children who are not praised do better than those that were! Why?
The "praised" children become fearful that they might lose their status as "smart" as the puzzles become more difficult (even young children know that what goes up will eventually come down). They lose the joy of tackling a challenge as they focus on seeking approval--score one for Tiger Moms.
What we do want, according to Levine, is a child with an autonomous sense of self (not focused on seeking approval in order to feel good about themselves) and confidence that is in accord with reality. It is not necessarily helpful for parents to tell an uncoordinated kid that he is a star on the baseball field. Take it from a guy who spent many afternoons counting blades of grass in right field.
It is difficult for us to have a clear vision of how to parent. We are overly influenced by our own experiences as children. If we felt that our parent's approach had a negative impact on us, we want to do the opposite with our own children. For some parents, they are overly impacted by their emotional reaction to their youngster's experience of failure or unhappiness. They can't tolerate their children's unhappiness, even if it is momentary. And, of course, most of us are plagued by generous doses of parental self doubt!
So what to do?
Let your child struggle, fail, and get back up again...sometimes. Phew! Take your time before you jump in and rescue your child. Trust that she can find her own imperfect solution. See what happens. Inhibit your impulse to intervene. And then, sometimes you just know it’s time to take over. Trust your parental wisdom mind.
Don't go overboard on praise. Keep it honest. Praise what is truly good, but don't overdo it. Acknowledge real effort, real competence, real performance, and realistic appraisal. So parents, weigh in on this debate. Let us know what you have learned!