Q:In a recent column, you said that parents should not be involved with their children. This isn’t what we parents are being encouraged, from every direction, to do. Can you elaborate?
A:I will begin by saying, please observe my definition of “involved” in the rest of this column before you write me off.
Like most post-1960s parenting mantras, “Get involved with your kids” is accepted, not because it is common sense or has proven to be advantageous (because it hasn’t), but because it has a warm and fuzzy feel to it.
For example, schools keep pushing for parental involvement in homework, claiming it results in higher achievement, yet the rise in parental participation in homework has coincided with declines in student achievement. There’s a thin line between being involved and being interested, supportive, and encouraging. I believe it is more functional for all concerned that parents stay, for the most part, on the interested and supportive side of the line.
Responsible parents used to keep tabs on their kids but were not involved with them. They knew the where, what, and with whom of their children’s lives, but they maintained a respectful distance, letting their kids learn the hard way, by trial and error.
In this context, the child’s primary challenge was to keep his parents from getting involved. He eventually figured out that the way to bring about minimal “government” intrusion into his life was to act responsibly. His parents got involved when he failed to act responsibly, the consequence of which was less freedom. It didn’t take many such episodes of parental involvement for him to “get it.”
Parenting is a form of leadership. In order for a leader to be effective, he or she must command, as opposed to demand, the respect of the people being led. This requires a boundary between the leader and the led. Getting involved with your kids puts relationship before leadership, the cart before the horse. It often results in the distinction between parents and children being blurred, turning the parents into quasi-peers, and making it difficult for the children to accept the parents’ authority. Whining, petulance, and problems with discipline are the likely outcome.
High involvement transitions all too easily into micromanagement, in which case the child quickly learns that if he drops the proverbial ball, his parents will not just pick it up, but probably also clean it up. They may even begin carrying it for him. As he becomes more dependent on his parents’ rescuing, he begins acting less and less capable. In turn, his parents become ever more convinced that he requires their constant vigilance—their involvement—in order to succeed. The parents end up working harder and harder to ensure the success of a child who is working hardly at all, which is why highly involved parents are likely to be highly stressed parents as well.
In addition, parents who are highly involved in things like their children’s homework begin to take their children’s successes and failures personally. They end up preventing most of the error in the trial and error process and cleaning up those errors that do slip by them. The result being that the child fails to learn important life lessons.
That’s why I think parental involvement, as I define it, is bad for both parents and children.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.