Overparenting: How Not to Get Kids Ready for School

Last school year, I saw a young mother and father in the Decatur Public Library leaning forward over a small table overparenting their three-year-old daughter as she tried to put together the puzzle of an alligator with 26 green pieces A to Z. The A-piece belonged at the nose and Z at the tip of the tail. Their intensity was disturbing. They talked at her constantly as if their willpower could get their daughter to put the alphabet in order.

“Everyone knows” that the problem with “kids these days” is “parents these days.” If a child isn’t performing in school, his parents didn’t give him a good enough head start. Anxious that their children may fall short academically, one parent actually defended her daily academic work with her four-year-old with these words: “These days if your child isn’t reading by kindergarten, he won’t succeed in school.” This notion is false, and merely holding it in mind is a net negative for the child.

In some environments—most notoriously metropolitan areas like New York, where this anxiety has grown to epidemic proportions, we can see the results of panic. In “Raising Successful Children” (New York Times, August 4) Madeline Levine’s writes:

“Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends’ children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting….”

Naturally a parent might be anxious in this climate, but this anxiety is a bad educator and can cause parents to be both bad teachers and bad parents. When parents try to engineer their children’s success they, paradoxically, undermine their chances for success.

The self-determination of the child is key. If it is good for a child to put that alligator puzzle together, its value is wasted with the parents hovering. The child needs to concentrate on the challenges of the puzzle (sharping their visual acuity, looking at things from different points of view, seeing the relationships between the positive and negative spaces, building their motoric competence, coordinating what they see with what they want to do, and so on.) She needs to make decisions about what she wants to do and how to do it. She needs to earn the satisfaction of mastery and completion on her own–otherwise the victory goes to the parent, not the child.

Parental over-involvement can interfere with brain development by:

1)    Distracting the child from the task.

2)    Reducing the complex decision-making that flows from the child’s own inclinations to a simple decision: “Hmmmm, Do what my parents want or do what I want?”

3)    Preempting her sense of mastery and competence.

4)    Making the project an adult project.

These four points apply to all direct parental involvement in children’s enterprises. If we want our children to feel a sense of their own competence, they have to experience that competence under their own steam. Internal motivation is essential to maximizing learning.

The best thing parents can do for kids is to trust that their children can rise to challenges.

Levine’s article ends with: “…But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering….

“A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety.”

The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children, second edition of my first book will be released this week. I am not foolish enough to think it will make much of a dent in the craziness that is possessing those responsible for education these days, but I do hope that it will help some parents put their children’s education into perspective.

As I say in the introduction: “If I could be granted one wish for our children it would be that their parents and their teachers would shift their focus from short term issues to long term interests (from test scores to enthusiasm, from measuring up to making something of yourself, from staying out of trouble to learning from mistakes, from getting into high school & college to getting the most out of it when they get there, from independence to interdependence, from goodness to having integrity, from fear to love.”) Let the kids use the short-term issues for their own character development.

How should parents get their kids ready for school? Remember that if they are going to kindergarten, they have been practicing being human in this world for 43,000 hours already, believe in them, and remember who’s going to school this week. Enjoy your children.




18 thoughts on “Overparenting: How Not to Get Kids Ready for School

  1. There is a book review in the New Yorker from July 2 that supports Levine’s new book. It includes other researchers and makes a great case for just what you are saying.

  2. I know. Thank you. Maybe, we can help get this craziness to subside. Attempts at engineering our children’s success make success more difficult for them. Luckily, kids are very resilient.

  3. I just learned a lesson this week in trusting that my child can rise to challenges. I thought my son was going to spend a week crying at camp being miserable and invested a huge amount of time and energy into trying to control making the experience as easy as possible for him. As it turned out he had just one miserable first day and four okay days. He is definitely more resilient than I often give him credit for! I hope I don’t forget that he can handle the challenges life throws his way…

  4. Yes. Misty, you are in good company. I think we are built to keep them from crying. But as you discovered they are built to be able to tough things out on their own (unless we teach them that they shouldn’t have to.)

  5. I agree, Rick. Parents need to trust and believe in their child ability to grow and learn at their own pace. Hovering parents, who overprotect and are overly involved with their children are handicapping them.

  6. All well said, and I agree wholeheartedly. I am thoroughly enjoying your first edition, by the way. I will be adding resources to my blogsite and The Genius of Children will be on it.

  7. Interesting, true, but will it work? If someone else does it but I dont, am I dooming my child to failure? When s/he grows up, will they feel that I dont love them enough because I’m not involved enough?

    Another parent said to me- if you dont let him/her watch movie/play video games/etc etc, s/he wont have any friends in school. Should I extrapolate this to – if s/he does not know how to play 18 hole golf by the time s/he’s 7 years old, no social life is possible?

  8. Akanksha. It is not about under or over-involvment, it is about being involved in such a way that your children feel they can experience themselves as decision-makers pursuing the calling of their genius. There are lots of good ways to be involved that support their self-determination.
    “Other parents?”
    a) what someone else does with their kids has nothing to do with your child’s success. You child’s sense that they can rise to challenges is the secret to their success
    b) won’t have any friends? 18 hole golf? baloney.–completely irrelevent.

  9. I think what Akanksha might be trying to say here is that we live in a society and the only way parents can evolve is if they do 2 things properly.
    1) Know their children the best. Their strengths, their interests, their weakness and assist them in every way possible.

    2) Talk to other parents, teachers and educational outlets about what is the latest trend out there

    Based on the above 2, the involved parent makes a more evolved decision.

    I have seen underparenting to be more harmful than overparenting. Parents who let their kids run amok in the name of letting them “be kids” has brought out violence, lack of consequence and unproductive stream of new youth in the society.
    While an overparenting person can be reigned and has the tools to know when they are going overboard, on the other hand a parent who is not bothered by their children’s goals, plans and possibilities has lesser chances of knowing what is actually happening in the universe that is their child’s life.

  10. To P and A, There are not only two choices over or under. It’s about the quality of the involvement. For instance, the person who needs to know the child’s strengths, interests, weaknesses is the child. It is not necessary for the parent to be the authority on that–it’s best if the child is the authority on himself. A parent needs to be present, to care, to watch, notice, give feedback (when necessary or invited) and especially enforce boundaries–require the requirements of the environment. This takes involvement, but in a way that empowers. As I say in “genius” if a parent cares more about it (say homework) than the child, that absolves the child of responsibility. It takes parent involvement to support a child’s self-determination.

  11. Though I completely endorse your views and ways Rick, its very different here in India. The school places a great deal of importance on rote learning with very little stress on concept building ,relation ships or relevance of what is being taught to them;result: disinterest in the whole learning methodology,disrespect for the educators .Well, most,most of them schools are like that.My child is in one such school because I don’t have a choice.Its a helpless situation.The child spends 6 straight hours in school and then very little time left for anything else.Neither does the parent want to overburden the child with more of schoolwork. Nevertheless the parents are pressured as well as the child to go by the school’s way because finally what matters is an A in the Report Card. Learning in the real sense of the word keeps happening as much as time and circumstances permit for a mother of two.But really its pathetic out here!

  12. Rick, and who decides that quality? Is a mother in Asia who has to work, commute, cook, help with homework and be the lady of the house involved or is the mother in a western country who spends time taking her child out to farmer’s market every weekend because there is no homework to teach the joys of life more involved?
    Remember we also know that some western countries are lagging behind in math, science and social studies way worse than one can ever imagine.
    Where are the polls on quality of life for growing children and where are the polls on which country has kids better prepared for the stresses of economy?
    A parent is present, cares and watches but cannot let the child be authority because a parent is preparing the child for things that he/she has to grow up into.
    And to consider your point and mine, I bring back my point that a parent who is involved can risk overparenting but a parent who is shunning their responsibilities in the first place has the potential to under parent or let the kid figure it out on his own.
    I personally feel that every parent and teacher should chart out a plan best suited for their child because a parent knows their child the best and the teacher has the best tools to bring out the qualities in the child with a fresh pair of eyes. However an educator cannot judge the parent’s quality of parenting not knowing what happens in their life. No school has time to study their every student’s socio-econ-psy background and then make a perfect graph plan, because the “genuis” would be in that. But until that can happen we all can only do our best. Parents will parent and Teachers will teach.

  13. Because I was a teach, and a Special Ed teach, at that, I was obsessive about teaching and preparing my son from the time he could sit up. When he was in 2nd grade, I talked to Rick (whose school he was in) about my concern that Jory was resistant to reading. I feared that the son of a teacher would never learn and I would be humiliated, a failure. What I had to continually hear was that everything happens in due time. Now Jory reads for pleasure. The pressure I now feel is that in order to get into “good” colleges, he needs to be taking AP classes, which I find totally ridiculous, yet the competition appears intense. It seems that now as high schoolers, these kids are being robbed of just being kids academically, and are expected to be college students. So I keep telling myself to just trust that it will all work out according to what’s best for my son. I don’t want him to resent me for putting pressure on his to perform. I want him to enjoy learning, which he does. One thing I’ve encouraged him to do this summer (in between his self-chosen summer school, job and volunteer work) is to just chill out. I want his brain to have a break and drift off to daydream like we used to do. I’ve decided to reduce some of the stress on myself by letting some of these demands go. It was making me crazy.

  14. Rick, I dont understand how an example of kinds of good parenting can help this conversation.

    We are trying to compare over vs under parenting arent we?
    However the last Para in my comment prior to this should help you there.

    Also Marla’s example, where she is involved enough to know when to back off and be able to separate her issues to focus on what her child needs. But you wont be able to ask a parent to dial it up if the interest level is less. – Should be able to work as example 2.
    Parenting is an inborn trait, it comes with a wish to be involved and do our best for our child. Teachers are experts in teaching and they can take the stress out of parents lives by being the other involved adult however they cannot be authority on judging other parents as they dont know the entire makeup of what makes a family in case to case of every student.

  15. Bingo,
    My wish would be for parents to just be their loving selves, delight in their child, do what seems like a good idea at the time, learn from making mistakes and getting into conflict and try again later.
    I advocate acting as if each child HAS a genius rather than wondering whether or not yours IS a genius, or could become one, or what to do if they’re not.
    Focus on maximizing the child’s self-determination is what I am advocating rather worrying whether you are over or under-parenting.
    It can be very involving sometimes. It can mean sitting on the sidelines or even just getting your own work to do.

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