Are Parents Too Involved With Their Kids?

In a word: no. But nurturing your kids’ autonomy will help them in the long run

Despite media fondness for reports of hyper- and helicopter parenting, the short answer to this headline is a resounding no. While some kinds of parental involvement with kids are better than others, say researchers, any kind of involvement is better than none at all.

Psychologist William H. Jeynes found that—regardless of race or gender—the more parents were involved in their kids’ lives, the better their children’s grades and test scores. The California State University, Long Beach, professor analyzed more than 140 other studies of elementary and secondary school students, and found that kids with involved parents also have fewer behavioral problems and are less likely to be bullied than kids with uninvolved parents.

Of course, much hinges on your definition of “involvement.” Does it mean going to parent-teacher conferences? Watching kids play soccer? Checking their homework? Helping with school fundraising? There are infinite ways to take part in a child’s life.

Which ways Jeynes found most influential should interest policymakers especially now as the Obama administration contemplates overhauling the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires all school districts to establish parent involvement policies.

When Jeynes launched his meta-analyses, he thought that the usual parent involvement suspects—such as helping with homework and attending school meetings—would have the greatest impact on school success. Not so.

“The numbers came out very differently than I thought they would,” said Jeynes, whose book Parental Involvement and Academic Achievement was published this year by Routledge. Instead, he found that the most subtle forms of involvement have the most impact. Kids thrive when parents provide a “loving, supportive environment with high expectations,” he said. Open, positive family communication and structure are likewise crucial.

Among these subtler forms of involvement, high expectations, such as expecting children to do their homework and go to college, have the greatest effect on school achievement—about one-half a grade point on a four-point scale—for kids of all ages.

Those expectations also surface through parental advocacy, which means making sure kids get aid if they’re struggling and helping them get into good programs and to plan for the future, said Anne T. Henderson, senior consultant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The quality of parental style, which at its best combines love and support with discipline and structure, produced an effect in Jeynes’ study of about a quarter of a grade point.

Parental style that in particular fosters a child’s autonomy is better than involvement that controls or pressures. So expectations conveyed subtly—as for example, when kids see their parents sacrificing to save money for their eventual college tuition—exert more power than goals pushed on kids, Jeynes said.

A large body of research underscores the importance of nurturing a child’s autonomy.

When psychologists Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan interviewed mothers of third-graders, for example, they found as Jeynes did that the more involved the parents, the better the kids’ academic achievement and behavior. In other words, any kind of involvement is better than none at all. Neglect is the worst problem.

But how the parents were involved had an even greater effect. Some parents of these third-graders pushed their kids, solved problems for them and tried to control them with rewards and punishments. Other parents encouraged their kids’ autonomy, which psychologists define as the feeling of acting “because you want to,” not “because you have to.”

These autonomy-supporting parents coached their kids through solving dilemmas, encouraged them with positive feedback, empathized with their feelings and allowed them lots of choice. (“Do you want me to talk to the teacher about this problem, or do you want to handle it yourself?”)

Kids of this second group of parents fared much better in school than the children of the more controlling parents.

What led this second group of parents to encourage their children’s autonomy rather than taking over and pressuring them? Are some parents “enlightened” and others ignorant? Are poor parents less pushy than wealthy ones? Perhaps some parents are simply less narcissistic than others.

Yes, some parents believe in encouraging their kids’ autonomy, even if they don’t use that word. But, surprisingly, research also shows that a key determinant of parents’ behavior is how much pressure they’re under. If you give a group of parents a task to do with their children and tell half of them, as Grolnick and her colleagues did, that their child will be tested or judged afterward, those parents are more likely to control and intrude than the other parents.

For example, when kids had an “about me” questionnaire to fill out, some of the parents were told that other children would use their answers to say whether they liked their child or not. While the other parents relaxed, the parents whose children faced a social judgment tended to take over.

“No, video games aren’t your favorite activity,” one mother told her son. “Put down baseball.” In other words, outside pressure made these parents trample on their children’s autonomy.

Today’s outside pressures on parents, including the economy and the ever-increasing competition in kids’ lives, are often fierce. Often they make parents worry that their children may fall behind, lose out and not “make it” in the world. The natural reaction to such anxiety is to pressure kids: “Sit down and get that essay done now.” Realizing, however, that more subtle forms of involvement, including the encouragement of autonomy, produce superior achievement may help parents resist this pressure to push and control their children.

So while schools now often focus on bringing parents in to meetings, policymakers revising NCLB might now want to ensure that those meetings encourage the subtler forms of nvolvement pinpointed by the latest research, said Henderson, co-author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships (New Press, 2007).

For example, parents will pick up on high expectations conveyed by teachers. “If elementary school teachers tell parents, ‘We want to make sure when your kids leave elementary school they’re ready for the middle-level work that will lead them to college prep courses in high school,’” she says, “then parents will go home and say to their children, ‘You’re going to go to college.’”



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