Opinion: Daily Journal

When parental involvement is too much of a good thing

There’s a new twist to an ongoing debate  this one about parents and the students they create. This fall a “We Are Teachers” blog post, lamenting an upsurge in over-involved parents, went viral, eliciting coverage from myriad media outlets and the national teachers’ union. Written anonymously by a middle school teacher, the post described “lawnmower parents,” so named because of attempts to “mow obstacles down so kids won’t experience them in the first place.” When parents request project extensions or deliver insulated (BPA-free!) water bottles to school, this teacher wondered: How will kids rebound after bombing their first test in college?    

Then there were revelations in mid-March of extreme (and felonious) lawnmower parenting. To guarantee spots at elite colleges, wealthy parents paid bribes to have children identified falsely as athletic recruits, or to arrange for cheating on admissions exams. Reeking of parental entitlement, this scandal elicited justifiable outrage. But what about everyday, well-intentioned instances of parental over-involvement? Where to draw the line on those? 

First, clarification: Benefits of healthy parental involvement are buttressed by abundant research. Kids need parental involvement, loads of it, to do school and life. But when involvement becomes interference, casualties accrue. Among them: long-term learning, autonomy, and self-esteem. 

Lawnmower parenting often springs from a loving desire to shield kids from pain. “I don’t think any of it comes from a bad place,” says Rita Platt, a principal in Wisconsin’s St. Croix Falls School District. I sought out Platt’s input after reading her excellent parenting post on Middle Web’s blog.  

Problems arise when “parents do too much for kids and they don’t let them learn how to fail or how to experience hardship,” says Platt. “There used to be natural consequences. If kids forgot their gloves at recess, then their hands were cold. If they forgot their lunch, then they had to share a lunch with a friend or go a little hungry. It’s not going to hurt them.” 

Safeguarding against short-term pain seems kinder. Think: warm hands, full tummy  today. But it deprives kids of experiences that shape tomorrow and beyond. “That’s what learning is,” says Platt. “It’s a whole bunch of failures and productive struggle.”  

Powerfully effective parents, longstanding research shows, are those whose style is warm, firm  and democratic. They mirror the authoritative parenting style outlined by psychologist Diana Baumrind decades ago. Research links authoritative parenting with educational achievementattainment, and healthy attitudes about work. 

How to do this practically? “Letting kids speak for themselves is really important,” says Platt. Chores build self-esteem, giving kids “a sense of what it means to contribute.” Stepping away from online grade portals also helps. Platt, who employs this strategy with her own middle school-age children, says that might mean a heart-to-heart with mom when report cards come out. But kids learn responsibility. 

The road to self-esteem, says Platt, is through “supported failure” and learning to do things yourself. Parents are there, offering kids hugs and saying, “’Get back out there’ … It’s a better way for kids to build self-esteem than to guard them, pamper them, and coddle them through.”   

 Funny thing: I bombed my first test in college. My mother, who believed in productive struggle, had prepared me. I sought help and doubled down on effort. That bad grade was a powerful teacher, fueling academic accolades. I’ve shared that experience with my own children, almost grown, after their school setbacks.  

Parenting is hard, imperfect work. It’s normal to rev up that lawnmower occasionally. I have. But it’s wise to throttle back. Ultimately, kids are the better for it.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.