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Q&A: How to raise successful children

Q&A: How to raise successful children

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Experts warn that the era of over-parenting might be creating generations that are insecure and lacking autonomy. SmartPlanet speaks with one such expert, Madeline Levine.

For decades developmental psychologists held that there are three kinds of parenting styles: Authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. The latter, authoritative, has been seen to produce some of the best results. In recent years, perhaps first appearing in the 80s, a new type of parenting has gained huge momentum: Over-parenting. This is the style attributed to the so-called "tiger moms" and "helicopter parents" who hover over their child’s every move making sure all classes, sports, activities are geared towards enrichment and providing the best advantages for successful futures. It seems like this ought to be a good thing, right?

Well researchers are finding that in fact over-parenting can lead to detrimental character traits. One such risk is that over-parenting erodes a sense of autonomy within the child, where they become ever-more dependent on external achievement and status to provide a sense of confidence and a secure self.

SmartPlanet spoke about the nature of over-parenting with a leading expert on parenting, Madeline Levine. Levine is a practicing psychologist in California and author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.

SmartPlanet: Just for some context what is the difference between authoritative parents and over-parenting?

Madeline Levine:  Well Diana Baumrind, a well-known parenting researcher at Berkeley, found was that there were three—actually there are four now when we include over-parenting—basic types of parenting [eg., authoritative, authoritarian, permissive.]

Authoritative is the sweet spot. It’s essentially a parent who can be loving and supporting and still enforce controls and limits, as opposed to the “authoritarian” parents who are all about control and limits. There’s a lot of negative outcomes associated with authoritarian parenting, like bullying and violence.

Another type is permissive parenting, which also doesn’t have a great outcome. Permissive parenting provides tons of love and support, but very little limit setting. Children of permissive parents tend to do less well academically and have higher rates of substance abuse.

The fourth style of parenting—over-parenting—tends to put the needs of the child first, allots a disproportionate amount of resources to the child, and often struggles with issues of control.

Is this the so-called helicopter parent?

Yes, the kind of parent where if the child forgets their homework assignment on the dining table is likely to run that homework up to the school because they don’t want their child to be unhappy, or they don’t want their grades to fall. It is being supportive but not about control. Children should remember their own homework. And if they don’t, there are consequences to it.

How has the trend of over-parenting evolved? And do you think it’s been steadily increasing over the last decades?

I think there’s a wide range of vector forces that have led to this. One thing is that we’ve got more kids applying for what parents tend to see as scarce resources.

But in reality the resources are not all that scarce. There is a seat in college for every child who wants to go. It’s true that they haven’t built any more Harvards, but they certainly have built more state schools. I think this notion of scarcity coincided with a huge bump in materialism in this country.

You think this was started with the materialism of the 80s?

During the 80s we had the "greed is good" period of American history and I think simultaneously there was a lot of physical movement around the country because of all the divorces that spiked during the 70s. We had dislocated people and the lessening of participation in social and community functions and institutions.

So you have people on their own and you have a tremendous emphasis on metrics. Salaries become obscenely high. And while where you went to school always mattered for a certain class of people in this country, it didn’t matter for most people.

So all of a sudden the culture became all about money and the definition of success became incredibly narrow. And with that tremendous anxiety about whether or not your kid would measure up. So you have to go to the right preschool or boarding school, or high school, or college. And then you went to the right graduate school and then you got out and got a job with Morgan Stanley and life was a bowl of cherries.

Today parents are really convinced that they need to give their kids every advantage.

Is that not a good thing?

Well the notion of what advantages are is inaccurate. I spend a lot of time with the young Turks of Silicon Valley, and over and over I hear the same story which is:  We have jobs, we just don’t have kids to fill them because they keep recruiting from the same schools...from Stanford, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. I could spend two hours with stories of kids who on paper look terrific but are lacking the social skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, and creative skills that are absolutely mandatory in this flat world where nobody has a clue what will be required five years from now.

But is that one of the negative results of over-parenting? The fact that the social skills have deteriorated?

If your kid grows up thinking what matters most is how they perform, it becomes a tremendous sense of narcissism and performance anxiety.

And it does not foster collaboration. The problems that are facing the world now are not going to be solved by one man being struck by a bolt of lighting in his office with a brilliant idea. It’s going to be the collaboration of people across cultures.

And would authoritative parents be more in a position to cultivate those traits of communication, creativity and collaboration?

Yes I think so. When we look at the various types of parenting:  In the authoritarian household you get punished if you forget to set the table, which just pisses you off and doesn’t teach you very much.

In the permissive household every American kid knows how to get out of loading the dishwasher and that’s just by saying, “I’ve got my chemistry test tomorrow and I’ve got to go study.” And mom says, “OK don’t worry about it, I’ll load the dishwasher you go study.

But the authoritative parent would say, “Yes I’m sure you have to study, but as part of this family we all have jobs and your job is to load the dishwasher, so go do it.” And so the answer is not on individual performance all the time.

Regarding over-parenting, you’ve described Carol Dweck's study of why praising talents in children leads them to not be as successful as those who are not praised. I would have assumed that over-parents would actually be more strict and actually be more inclined to push the child to do better.

Over-parents err on both sides. They tell their kids that they are geniuses and how smart and special they are. And they feel the teacher’s an idiot for giving them an A- instead of an A.

That kind of praise is really useless. We know what kind of praise helps kids, and that is limited praise and making it more about effort and improvement.

Over-parenting parents do not focus on improvement. They’re focused on the end result. And they can be very critical also. They’re more like CEOs in a way.

What is the research on over-parenting finding?

Well reliability, availability, consistency, and non-interference is what the researchers are saying is optimal. I think the non-interference is critical. I think we interfere in lots of the wrong ways and not enough in the right ways.

What is non-interference?

Well, for example, kids go out and a lot of parents would say oh my child’s sixteen I have to let them go out and learn from their mistakes. And learning from mistakes is a good idea.

But I spoke with a mother yesterday. Her teenager got a grade that the kid didn’t think was fair. So mom goes up to school to discuss it. That teaches kids that the outside world solves problems for you.

There’s a great story told to me by the dean of freshmen at Stanford about this girl who got lost on campus early on in the first semester, and instead of pulling out her schedule she calls her mother sixteen time zones away in Asia to find out where her next class is.

Oh dear.

Kids then don’t have the internal coping skills to handle challenges. When they are uncertain they don’t bother developing their own set of likes, and preferences, and values. They look outside themselves for such things. The child is not autonomous.

You've mentioned before that taking daily risks is where the growth takes places. I imagine that is where confidence begins: Children gain confidence as they take risks and either succeed or don’t. Do you have any advice on how to handle the incredible amount of anxiety parents feel when they let children make their own mistakes or take risks?

Try maybe spending one Saturday morning having a cup of coffee with a friend instead of attending your 400th soccer game. It’s important to be able to carve out time and support for your own interests so you aren’t so profoundly dependent on your children for gratification and status. The obvious answer to overcoming the anxiety is parents must turn attention away from this child-centric life.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure