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Over-parenting deprives children of important learning opportunities

Hover Parenting

It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from pain, disappointment or mistakes, but some parents are guilty of swooping in to “fix” whatever situation the child is in — which ultimately is detrimental to the child, experts in the field of child development say.

Such intervention robs children of valuable learning opportunities, stunts their ability to make decisions and undermines self-confidence, they say.

“There’s really a fine line, in my mind, between being that protective parent and giving kids freedom to figure out things,” said Dawnita Nilles, doctoral graduate student in the UND Department of Teaching and Learning.

With her own children, Nilles is focused on “giving age-appropriate freedom along with protection against anything that’s going to be life-long” in consequence, she said.   

“It’s like a 4-year-old learning to ride a bike. We certainly want to protect them; we have them wear a helmet.

“But they’re going to skin their knee. We can’t protect them from every skinned knee.”

The tendency to “over-parent” may be rooted, to some degree, in fear, said Brandy Randall, associate professor of human development and family science at NDSU.

“I see parents who are afraid to let their kids explore life,” she said. “They always hover over them.”

“As parents we may feel like we’re protecting kids from things, but the long-term consequences of that are pretty negative.”  

When parents step in to finish their kids’ school projects or do their homework, “the primary effect is that the kids are not going to learn responsibility,” Nilles said.

“They won’t have that personal satisfaction of doing things themselves — the sense of accomplishment that ‘I can do it.’ ”

Over-parenting or “hyper-parenting,” however, should not be confused with being supportive, she said.

“There’s a fine line between showing them how to do that math problem and doing the problem for them. It should always be the child’s work on the paper.”

When the parent intercedes, “the child thinks, ‘I’m not good enough to do this. I have to let someone who is older, smarter and more creative than me do it,’ ” Nilles said. “And then, why should they even try?”

“I’ve heard of teachers who are not sending homework home (with kids) because they know the parent is doing it,” she said. “Wow, that’s scary.”

Becoming ‘autonomous’ 

Authorities in child development emphasize the need for children to learn to become increasingly independent, or “autonomous,” Randall said.

“When children come into the world, they’re completely dependent on their parents. By the time they’re 30, we don’t want to be doing their laundry and paying their bills and making their doctor appointments.

“They have to learn skills they need to become successful, autonomous adults,” she said. “They need to increasingly take responsibility for more of their world.” 

When children are very young, they need to learn to deal with small disappointments so they can better handle bigger ones later, she said. “We call it ‘stress inoculation.’ ”   

Parents who are overly involved in their children’s activities “inhibit kids’ ability to develop stress and coping skills,” she said. 

Research has shown that children who are over-parented “are afraid to take chances and afraid to fail,” Randall said.

“Parents need to be OK with kids failing and not being good at things.” 

Learning skills for life

In school, each year builds on the last one, Nilles said. “If parents are doing projects, there’s going to be a point when the child doesn’t have the skills.” 

Starting at a young age, kids need “to learn how to organize a project to get it to completion,” she said. “They need to learn time management.

“In the real world, the boss isn’t going to do the project for them.”

The trend toward over-parenting is “concerning,” she said. “Is it going to be the employer who has to teach these skills because parents have not?”   

Children learn work-related and other skills as they are given “age-appropriate responsibility” at each stage of their development, Nilles said.

“We give them responsibility and privileges because they’re gaining those skills.”

Parenting is hard work, Nilles said. “The hardest thing for parents to learn is that every child is so unique. One child might be ready (for a new responsibility); another might not be ready at the same age.”  

As a society, Randall said, “we think of childhood as a time of joy and wonderment. I think we also need to think of childhood as a time of training for adulthood. What skills do we want adults to have?

“People without skills are not going to be successful in work situations or, I think, in romantic situations either.” 

Randall said she sees the act of shielding kids from consequences of their behavior “as a big problem — and a growing problem.” 

“If you don’t study, you’ll get a bad grade. If you don’t show up to work, and you don’t call your employer, there will be negative consequences.”

Randall knows of a couple whose teenage daughter was prone to driving carelessly.

“Every time she wrecked her car, they would buy her another one,” she said. “This happened three or four times over as many years.

“I would say maybe they should have had her rely on public transportation for a period of time to learn the privilege of owning a car.”

Instances like this present opportunities for learning, she said. 

“If a negative consequence occurs, the parent should say to the child, ‘Look for what lesson you might learn,’ rather than rush in to fix it.”

Long-term effects 

How over-parenting affects children as they move into adulthood is a matter of speculation, but it is worrisome, child development experts say.

“That’s one of the concerns,” Nilles said. “We’re not exactly sure.

“When they go to college, who’s going to do their homework if parents have been doing it?”

The effects of over-parenting are also being noticed at the college level and in the workplace, education specialists say.

In her work as a teacher at UND, Nilles said, “I would receive two or three calls a semester from parents” who would ask her to relax requirements for their children.

“They’d say, ‘my daughter has had a rough semester…,’ ” she said.  

Calls like these prompt Nilles to ask, “At what point do we allow our kids to become adults?”  

She has heard employers complain that some young people “need more hand-holding and more direction,” she said. “And that they don’t know how to handle failure.”

“They must be able to say, ‘I screwed up’ and take ownership of that, and move forward.” 

Why do parents ‘over-parent’?

 “As parents, we often feel judged by what my child does,” said Dawnita Nilles, doctoral graduate student in the UND Department of Teaching and Learning.

“Talk to any parent whose child is having a temper tantrum in the store. They’ll say people look at them, not the child — like, can’t you fix your child?”

Parents should recognize that if their children make mistakes, “it’s not a failure on our part,” she said.  

“My sense is that everyone is very concerned about what other people think,” Nilles said. “The parent thinks, ‘I can’t let my child hand in (schoolwork) that’s not perfect because it somehow reflects on me.’”

Parents sometimes put pressure on other parents, said Dr. Brandy Randall, associate professor of human development and family science at NDSU. “A parent may say, ‘My child has started doing this. Has yours?’ If not, he’s behind.”

The idea of having the “perfect” family — as defined by the media and society — in which nothing ever goes wrong also puts pressure on parents, Randall said.

“The way we define a ‘perfect mother’ in our society is that you are sacrificing all for your child, always being there for your child.”

As a mother, Randall “bought into the myth of the ‘perfect mother’ ” for a time, she said. But she found that there are different ways of “being there” for her children.

To guard against over-parenting, Randall recommends reading about “what is developmentally appropriate and what kids are progressively able to do” at different ages, she said. “There are lots of online sources for this information.”   

 She also thinks that having chores to do is good, she said. “You’re sitting down and deciding who’s responsible for what in the household …

“My kids, when they were young, had to take the laundry to the basement and sort it into categories. Those skills are precursors to doing the laundry.

“They learned that sometimes you’re going to mess up. And it’s OK to mess up. As a parent, you say, ‘Here’s the right way to do it.’

“They learn that they are responsible to the household they live in, rather than having parents as servants.”