This essay was first published in Newsday. Remember the expert advice that parental involvement is the key to kids' school success? Apparently, involvement can go too far.
A new survey of 128 guidance counselors, school psychologists and teachers asserts that many parents are overly engaged in their kids' schooling and, generally, in their lives - and it's hurting the children's maturity and courage. Many parents today are guilty of "overparenting," according to the study out of the Queensland (Australia) University of Technology, which was highlighted in The Atlantic magazine.
It's not a big study, but it raises intriguing questions about how "excessive" parenting affects children. The authors, who are psychology and education experts, find that "an extreme attentiveness to children and their imagined needs and issues" results in kids failing to learn independence, confidence or the skills to bounce back after a defeat.
This will not come as news to many educators, especially those who deal with families at upper socioeconomic levels, where the Queensland study says overparenting is most prevalent. Among the parental coddling cited is cutting up a 10-year-old's food, forbidding a 17-year-old to ride a train alone and rushing to school to deliver a forgotten lunch, assignment or gym clothes.
Survey respondents also listed these sins: taking the child's word against the teacher's, demanding better grades and doing the child's homework.
This list is probably sounding uncomfortably familiar to many parents, but surely it's a matter of degree. Are you dropping off a forgotten lunch a couple of times during the school year or delivering takeout to the child's class on demand? Is the child 6 or 16?
Helicopter parents who hover, and lawn-mower parents who remove any barrier or discomfort for their kids, are in danger of robbing their children of learning how to solve their own problems and deal with not getting what they want. According to the study's authors, they risk bestowing their offspring with "poor resilience, a sense of entitlement, high anxiety levels, poor life skills, and an inadequate sense of responsibility."
Most parents, I think, hew to a commonsense middle ground. We let our kids fall down on the playground. We let them drive, even though it's dangerous. But it's not hard to see how we ended up "overparenting" - or, as my parents would have said, being overprotective.
One factor is the still-wrenching cultural divide over whether parents should stay home to raise children. Stay-home parents feel they must do more for kids, perhaps to justify their choice. Some working parents do more, too, when they are anxious to prove they care about their kids. Half a century of expert advice on how to be a better parent, along with mass media that magnify danger, also contribute to overparenting.
Also, it's hard to simply follow our parents' example because the world has changed so much. The study's results are another reflection of parents' trying to cope with the dizzying changes. Most of us do find our center.
However, the ones who are still cutting up their kids' meat are easy to mock. And the researchers indulge in a little educator-on-parent hostility.
"A campaign to the school to make sure their child is in a specific class the following year" was cited as one example of overparenting - a characterization that could rankle parents here who want access to teacher evaluation data so they can do that very thing - as was arranging meetings with school officials "when most issues are normal developmental sequences."
Both sides, parents and educators, would probably do well to generate a little more compassion for each other. After all, our goal - kids' success - is the same.