Parents who want to give their kids every advantage are spending more and more time and money on kids, but science is finding that it’s better to step back and find balance.
Helicopter parents, lawnmower parents, and snowplow parents — these are largely pejorative labels for mothers and fathers over-involved with their kids. The terms are meant to describe parents — perhaps most American parents at this point — who feel that in order to raise a successful child, they need to be as tireless and as purposeful as machines. According to a recent study by Cornell University, a majority of parents see world-consuming hyper-engagement as the best method of child-rearing. Going all in on kids has become a cultural best practice, begging this simple question: Does it work? Ask a scientist and they’ll likely tell you no.
While helicopter parents and snowplow parents often rev their engines during their children’s late adolescence and early adulthood, intensive parenting can start in a child’s babyhood. Parents who really want a kid to get a head start will often push their child to hit developmental milestones early. The problem is that hitting a developmental milestone early does nothing to improve a kid’s outcomes. Also, pushing them to develop early might actually be detrimental, according to a recently published study by infant attachment expert Dr. Susan Woodhouse of the Leigh University CARE lab.
“We were trying to understand what parents are doing that really matters for children to become securely attached by 12 months,” Woodhouse says. In other words, she was looking into parental behaviors that help babies orient to their parent in a developmentally appropriate and secure way. “What our data showed is that when a baby really needs you and is crying, if you responded at least half the time, the baby would be securely attached.”
Woodhouse calls this the “secure base provision” which simply means parents are responding correctly to a baby’s cues enough times that attachment can form. Importantly, in order to reach the secure base provision, parents don’t need to respond to their child’s cues correctly 100 percent of the time, or even 80 or 70 percent of the time. They simply need to respond correctly 50 percent of the time, which Woodhouse likes to call “good enough” parenting. The clear virtue of this approach is that it allows parents to behave less mechanically, lowering levels of stress, and shielding kids from the potentially deleterious second-hand effects of anxiety and parental busyness.
But that’s not the whole story. Responding to a child is one thing, but so is letting them explore independently. “When the baby is not in distress, learning about the way the world works and exploring, parents get the job done by not interrupting the baby and making them cry,” Woodhouse explains. “When a cry shuts down the exploratory system and gets the attachment system activated. The exploration stops. The baby isn’t doing their job anymore and that creates insecurity.”
Woodhouse notes that the whole point of secure attachment is that when babies need a caregiver a caregiver is there, but that the rest of the time they are allowed to learn how the world works.
“Sometimes we’d see babies who turned out to be insecure because parents were really anxious about trying to provide the very best possible parenting and would do stuff like trying to get the baby to roll over repeatedly until they cried,” Woodhouse notes. And insecure attachment can result in a child who grows to be emotionally detached and distrustful, or who may have trouble building relationships.
But insecure attachment in babies isn’t the only risk of being over-involved. According to a 2012 study, published in the journal PLOS One, kindergarten-age children’s risk for anxiety disorders later in life might be correlated to maternal anxiety or excessive maternal involvement. After tracking 200 children into their elementary years, researchers found that children were more likely to have diagnosable anxiety if mothers had responded positively to survey questions like “I determine who my child will play with” or “I dress my child even if he/she can do it alone.”
“The results for over-involvement supported this hypothesis; over-involvement was a significant predictor of child anxiety at age 9, even when baseline anxiety was controlled for,” the researchers concluded, adding that their findings were “in keeping with the results of a meta-analysis showing larger effect sizes for over-involved or intrusive parenting than negative parenting.”
More recent research suggests that over-parenting continues to affect children even when they are out of high school and on to college. This is the time when, traditionally, children separated from their parents and found some semblance of autonomy. But researchers are finding that parents are remaining involved even as kids enter higher education.
“When I was in college there was no parental involvement unless there was some kind of crisis,” says Dr. Holly Schiffrin, professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington. “It’s just a really different level of involvement now. Parents are giving kids feedback on their papers, or emailing or calling me and other faculty members. It’s not every student, but it’s shocking that it happens at all.”
“Intensive parenting really stresses the parent out,” Schiffrin says. “The research is looking like it’s not beneficial for kids to do everything for them because they don’t become self-sufficient and that is correlated with higher rates of depression and anxiety at the college level.”
Schiffrin became the leading international expert on the subject after pursuing her curiosity in the family lives of her heavily parented students. That brought her to the parents, who she discovered were suffering in service of providing overwhelming, shock and awe-levels of support.
The fact is that parenting is stressful enough. But when parents take burdens, either social or educational, off their children’s shoulders, kids do not learn the crucial coping and organizational skills necessary to become functional adults.
Schiffrin’s most-cited study looked into a child’s self-determination — essentially the ability to make decisions for oneself, feelings of autonomy and having relationships. A child who has strong feelings of self-determination generally also has a sense of well-being and happiness. Schiffrin wondered if helicopter parenting, defined as a developmentally inappropriate level of involvement, affected a child’s self-determination. And … yes. Very much so.
But Schiffrin’s findings came with a caveat. Schiffrin notes that the relationship between helicopter parenting and a decreased sense of well-being is correlational and not causal. She also notes that changes in well-being hinge on a child’s perception of a parent’s action. Further studies have found some kids to be unbothered by helicopter parenting because parental involvement facilitated different kinds of experiences and successes. Still, there’s little reason to believe intensive parenting is ever good for the parent.
And parents are, it turns out, not machines. They need to be considered in the parental equation as they constitute the bulk of it. Parenting that hurts parents is not sustainable even if it has become a norm.
That said, children do need support. Countless studies (and all the anecdotal evidence of history) have demonstrated that unreliable parents raise kids with worse outcomes. So the normalizing response to intensive parenting is not a backlash — it’s a strategic mellowing or, if parents prefer to think about it in these terms, a more tactical approach. Kids need a chance to develop their own skills and sense of self-worth. Providing that is the right the to do. The fact that it might allow you to grab some extra sleep or alone time is merely an added bonus.
“Finding balance is key,” says Dr. Woodhouse. “The more relaxed you are, the better. If you’re anxious, that’s anxiety-provoking. The less worried you are about being an exceptional parent the more exceptional you can be.”
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