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Do We Parents Get Too Involved?

Janine Murphy-Neilson's picture

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There was a recent article in the New York Times called Parental Involvement is Overrated which has caused quite a stir in recent weeks.  What this article says to me, and the reaction it seems to have provoked, is that this is another example of the difficulty we Americans seem to have with finding middle ground. We seem to be a country that reacts in very black and white terms sometimes. My favorite example of this is how we go from focusing on indulging ourselves all of November and December but on January 2nd the focus is all on dieting, exercising and cleaning as if we have to do penance for enjoying ourselves.  The same kind of extremes seem to also occur with regards to parenting. Of course being involved in your child’s life is important. The article highlights the positive impact of reading to children, of setting the expectation early for going to college and for talking with children about their activities and experiences. The article also questions the benefits of helping children with homework, of observing the classroom and contacting teachers about a child’s behavior.

Based on what I see as a therapist who has worked with families in Fairfax County this makes a lot of sense to me. What causes most problems I see? Extremes. Some families are so busy they don’t ever share a meal, parents never have a date, and there is no time for books. There is a lack of connection, fun, and just laughing together. I see parents starting with flash cards, tutoring, and workbooks–all in an effort to maximize ‘learning potential’. My son was actually teased in elementary school for not knowing what TJ high school was and for not knowing what college he wanted to go to. Why is this level of detail on children’s minds before the age of 10?

I see parents who know way too much about their child’s every homework assignment. I have had clients who routinely sit down with middle school and high school children every night to supervise homework and are constantly communicating with teachers. I have watched in dismay for years at what I will call the foolishness at my neighborhood bus stops. Parents who drive their middle and high school children every morning to bus stops that are a two minute walk from home and then sit there with them until the bus comes. What is this? Does junior not want to walk? Does junior not want to have to stand awkwardly with other teens and maybe feel left out or cold? Why do teens want their parents driving them and staying with them in cars? In my day this would have been mortifying–my peers would have declared that they were not babies and didn’t need nor want this level of parental involvement.

My fear about all of this involvement is that we are infantilizing children. Are they getting the message that school and their lives are for them to be invested in and advocate for? Are we giving them the skills to be independent and resilient or are we doing it all for them? I hear this a lot from teachers I know. Teachers who get multiple emails from outraged parents whose children are getting Cs but protest that ‘my child doesn’t get Cs’ but these same children don’t turn in homework or do their work in class.

I think it is useful for children to know that their parents have lives, that they can’t drive you down the street and wait for your bus because they have things they need to do. That they may come to some school functions but not every holiday party your class has.

The results from this kind of intense focus on children? Well, I see a lot of kids hating school and the pressure they feel to be successful, to get into the ‘right’ college, to play on the best travel soccer team. I see depressed parents who are so burned out feeling that they need to be constantly available for their children that they don’t take care of themselves or their friendships or their marriages. I see people who have no hobbies or passions of their own outside of their children. Kids need to have healthy role models and to recognize they are not always the center of the universe–that sometimes visiting grandma is more important than a soccer game, that if you are having a problem in class that you need to learn how to speak up (though these days kids just need to learn how to email teachers!)

Of course there are times when we parents have to step in and help, when a child is over their head or needs additional support. But this shouldn’t be the standard reaction. We need to teach children. They don’t wake up one day mature and un-entitled and self-sufficient. We have to help them learn how to be these things and they can’t do that if we do it all for them.

A real upside of this is that children like feeling independent. It can be a great source of pride for them to solve their own problems and feel their own successes. One of my daughter’s first words was ‘self’ and she said it constantly. She wanted to do things herself and feel like a big kid. We have to be wise enough to nurture this tendency and not extinguish it in our children and maybe part of that is learning to step back a little.

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