Parents must learn to stop meddling, author urges
Published Monday, May 28, 2012 8:47AM EDT
Parents, it doesn't need to be this hard.
Remember when parenting didn't mean constant nagging, cajoling, bribing and begging? When you could stand back and watch your kids from the sidelines, doing their thing without your help?
It's time for parents to return to those days, and to stop micromanaging every aspect of their children's lives, says clinical psychologist Alex Russell, the author of "Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement."
Russell argues in his book that parents have become entirely too wrapped up in their children's lives, worried that if their children aren't successes in the classroom, on the hockey rink, or in the playground, it reflects badly on them.
"More and more parents over-identify with their children's outcomes. How well our kids do feels much more than ever to be a reflection of ourselves," Russell says in a phone interview.
But all this overmeddling is breeding a generation of kids who can't cope without someone telling them what to do and who expect that everything they want to be handed to them.
Many of us already know this, and love to snicker at so-called "holicopter parents." The problem is that oftentimes, those parents who say they are sick of "hoverers" are the very same ones who will chauffeur their children to school, finish their kids' science projects, or chew out their kids' hockey coaches when their child gets cut from the team.
The solution, says Russell, requires not just parents vowing to stop the madness. It also requires a complete cultural shift. And one of the first things that needs to change, he says, is the education system.
"The school-parent-student triangle is way out of whack," he says. "We've got a school system that recruits parents into their children's academic lives from Day 1 and keeps them there."
In his book, Russell and co-author Tim Falconer point to the "agenda books" that are handed out in Toronto schools so that parents can check their children's homework every day and then sign off on it.
The school board's intentions with these books are good, says Russell. Research does show that when parents take an active interest in their children's schoolwork, the kids do better. But the agendas send the message that parents need to be homework police for their children, and that's absurd, says Russell.
That might work in a child's early school years, so that parents can help set the foundation for good study habits, he says. But at some point, they need to let kids figure it out for themselves.
"We want our children to develop their own relationship with school and achievement. And that means that all of us -- educators and the kids themselves too -- want to get parents out of the equation as soon as possible. We need to wean kids off of their parents. But instead we have policies that do just the opposite."
The good news is that after years of an education system that was focused on boosting children's self-esteem and avoiding failure, the pendulum has begun to swing back -- even in the last five years or so, Russell says.
Parents know they need to back off and allow their kids the chance to make their own mistakes. The problem is they often don't know how to begin. Russell says the key to let go of the worry ball and hand it over to our children so that they can take over their own lives.
A hands–off parenting style doesn't mean sitting back and doing nothing at all, though. It means taking a new approach.
"It's less of the active parenting: the directing, cajoling reminding, threatening, bribing, and instead getting back to the simple ‘minding' of your child. That means paying attention, being interested, but not meddling and overreacting," Russell says.
Allowing kids more independence is not easy in a world where children rarely ever stray outside their parents' gaze. And it can be hard to engage in what he calls "benign neglect" in a world that looks down on any parent who would allow their kids to fail an exam if they chose not to study.
Much of that pressure and shame comes from fellow parents -- ironically, often the very same ones who say they can't stand helicopter parents, Russell says. That parental peer pressure can be a powerful force to push against, he says. So, it's likely many of us will feel like bad parents if we let our kids begin to fend more for themselves.
"We have a huge sense of moral obligation to not let our children fail. Some of this is good. It's good that we're more sensitive parents, and that we know more about childhood development and their emotional health. But this level of moral obligation drives us to excessive length, and makes it hard to sit back."
Becoming a hands-off-but-always-there parent is not an easy switch to make. But it's crucial if we want to raise children who become resilient, self-sufficient adults.
"If you're going to step back and let your children take control of something that you've been organizing for him his whole life, it's almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. You need to be ready for that," he says.
That means following through. When our children do fail, we need to check our response, because the temptation will be to say something like, "See what happens when you…?" or "What you really should have done was…"
Kids, like anyone else, tune out of that kind of talk.
"It takes kids' attention off the mistake itself and the solution, and puts it on their nagging parent, who they can then resent," says Russell.
The better approach, he says, is to say something like, "Gosh I'm really sorry to hear about that," then leave it at that and let the child figure out for themselves where they went wrong.
And we should celebrate when our children fail, because it's the key to growth, he says.
"We don't want catastrophic failure, but we should be cheering for some painful, non-catastrophic failure."