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David Baxter PhD

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When parents are too hands-on
September 4, 2004
By Stephanie Dunnewind, Seattle Times

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 "r?sum?" 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."

Life intrusion

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, experts say.

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 Child Development.

"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 longterm growth."

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 ones."

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.

Grade control

Of all the areas where parents overcontrol, academics may be the most common. Some parents feel their child's grades reflect their parenting skills.

"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," Thompson said.

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 possibly both.

"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 child's development."

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, Hyper-Parenting.

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 said.

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," Rosenfeld said.

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 grade.

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.
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Oh yeh- good stuff...
all I hope is for my kids to be average, academically... then anything above that is a bonus and may come from natural ability, like my 14 yr old son's natural love for maths/numbers... which has got nothing to do with me or his dad (I think)...and my daughter's love for art and singing and dance...

What I am more concerned about...far far above academics, is their characters, and their social skills... I think this is much more important in the long term for their happiness and well-being in life...

(as I found in my life... my parents helped to give my character good shape by their good examples... but my social skillls weren't too good till my 20's :( )


I think that it's natural for a parent to want their child to be their very best. It is true, though, that you can't expect perfection and it's key to let them lead their own lives in that respect. Great article, David.
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