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High Energy, High Cost Parenting Isn’t What Kids Need

A vast majority of parents see intensive parenting as the best for children. But a lot is lost when lives are over-scheduled.

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A full 75 percent of parents believe the ideal form of parenting is hands-on, high-energy, and high-cost, according to a new study from Cornell University. The study, which queried parents from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, found that a large majority of parents believe the best parenting tactics are those in which the parent is very, very involved with their child. That involvement includes facilitating extracurricular activities, playing with children at home and discussing, rather than punishing, misbehavior. But as good as that sounds, this shift towards a norm of intensive parenting may actually have a harmful effect on families and the development of children. Because high-effort parenting leaves little time for play, imagination, and self-directed exploration, all qualities crucial to raising healthy productive adults.

In order to find how parents viewed two distinct styles of parenting, researchers brought in a diverse range of parents from a wide variety of backgrounds. These parents were exposed to various scenarios depicting one of two types of parenting. The hands-on, high-energy and high-cost form of parenting was represented through scenarios such as a parent responding to a child’s boredom by offering to sign them up for a class. The less-intensive version of parenting, called the “Natural Growth Approach,” showed a parent responding to a child’s boredom by suggesting the child go outside to play with friends. Parents were then asked to rate which scenario showed the best type of parenting.

An overwhelming amount of parents rated the more intensive approaches to parenting as excellent or very good. Those responses came regardless of education level or socio-economic status. Which is to say that a more intensive style of parenting has become the modern norm. That has not, historically, been the case. Data on the amount of time parents spend on child-care shows a marked increase of several hours a week compared to the 1960s.

On the surface, this might seem like a great thing for kids and parents. It would suggest that parents are spending far more time with their children and their children are spending far more time learning skills outside of school. But there are a couple of wrinkles. Namely: This intensive parting takes a great deal of time and money.

There are a couple of problems linked to the investment of time and money. Socially, the parenting expectations can place undue stress on disadvantaged parents unable to meet the new norm. And that increased stress can lead to larger problems at home. But also, parents who are meeting norm often find themselves and their child over-scheduled and exhausted. And while kids and parents might be physically closer, that does not mean the quality of their time together has improved.

Yes, experts agree it’s important for parents to be involved with their children. Of course it is. But the type of involvement is just as important. The new parenting norms misunderstand a crucial point of child development: they need time for exploratory, self-directed play. Yes, it is essential for a parent to be involved in that play, but not all the time and they certainly shouldn’t be leading it.

The over-commitment that intensive parenting brings can also find parents skipping out on important moments that don’t necessarily fit the new norm, such as family dinners. In the grand calculus of family time, it might seem more important that a child goes to their martial arts lesson than sitting down with the family for a meal. But the problem is that the family meal will have far more positive consequences in a child’s life. It just doesn’t necessarily feel like the high reward investment of a martial arts class or piano practice.

There’s an easy explanation for why parents prefer to keep a firm grasp on their kid’s life. For one thing, there’s a sense that if parents aren’t heavily involved, their kid will be less likely to compete in the economy. How else can they get that good school and good job and good life and so on and so forth? Being deeply invested in your kid’s life these days is meant to increase their opportunities.

But the fact is that the way kids build resilience, creativity and pro-social skills is through open-ended, imaginative play and self-directed exploration. That was, in fact, the crux of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics last year when they encouraged pediatricians to write prescriptions for play.

“Research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain,” concluded study authors for the AAP report, The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. They added, “Furthermore, play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with all caregivers that children need to thrive.”

The qualities built by play are the exact qualities that will help children become leaders and workers in the workforce of the future. The problem is that the current norm of intensive parenting leaves little room for that kind of quality play. If we want children to thrive, we must give them some space. We don’t need to go back to the 60s, but we can start by deciding maybe it’s okay to tell a kid to go outside and play with friends.