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Too Much Parental Help

How come parenting advice sometimes seems contradictory?

For example, parents of young babies are advised to talk non-stop to the little guys in order to foster language and cognitive development. Parents are also told to be closely involved with the child’s teacher and school so that nothing about the child’s progress falls through the cracks. And parents are advised to let children take responsibility for homework: bringing it home, getting it done, and turning it in. I have made all such statements in my own writings. And I believe all of them to be true depending on the age of the child.

But it is apparent that parents are first told to hover over the child and then told not to hover. How can parents best sort this out? Know the person who is giving the advice as well as that person’s credentials. Determine what age child the advice refers to. Figure out what your own child needs based on temperament, personality, likes and dislikes.

“When Helping Hurts” by Eli M. Finkel and Grainne M. Fitzsimons, published in the New York Times on May 10, 2013, dealt with the downside of parental help. Noting that many American parents today are over-involved in their children’s lives, they cite two studies that suggest this may actually harm the children that they are trying to help.

The first study showed that the more money parents provide for their children’s college, the worse grades the children get. Findings of the second study? The more parents are involved in their child’s schoolwork and selection of majors, the less life satisfaction students report.

Some parents are truly over-involved with their children’s schoolwork. Such parents constantly remind their children to do their homework or frequently ask, “Is your homework done?” Many literally hover over the child to make sure each task is done right. Hence the term “helicopter parent.” Yes, we remind first and second graders to do their homework. But as the child progresses in school we should back off.

In my experience there are two kinds of helicopter parents. Professional class parents may convince themselves that their child must get into a highly selective college in order to succeed in life. They meet the children at the door every day, sit them down and supervise all their homework and school projects.

Other parents have been told their child is not progressing in school, or has a learning problem. These parents are rightfully concerned but may take the wrong path. If they hover over the child’s work and ask anxiously each day about the child’s work, they give a message that is harmful to the child: I don’t trust you to do your own work or bring up your grades. How does the kid feel? My mom thinks it’s hopeless, so why should I even try.

Finkel and Fitzsimons wisely point out that helping others reach their goal can confer benefits to both the giver and the recipient. So help is a good thing. But how should we help? “The answer, research suggests, is that our help has to be responsive to the recipient’s circumstances: it must balance their need for support with their need for competence.” In order for children to feel good about themselves they must feel that they are both loved and competent. Hovering parents may demonstrate lots of love and concern for the child. But their actions and anxiety may give a negative message. Not being able to do something by yourself is the very antithesis of competence.

The authors conclude, “So, yes, by all means, parents, help your children. But don’t let your action replace their action. Support, don’t substitute.”

What does this mean in a practical sense? Facilitate by making sure the child has a quiet place to work and the necessary tools. Tell the child you are confident in his or her ability. Be available if the kid gets stuck. Remind children it is important to check all work. Making a mistake, catching it, and correcting it by yourself is an important pathway to competence.