Are You Over-parenting?

Persistent, prying, panic or pandemonium — how are you overdoing your role as a parent?

While culturally and ethically there is an underlying and unwritten consensus about appropriate and inappropriate parenting, many are confused about what is the right amount and type required to ensure their children become confident, socialised, talented and productive for their future life. With this in mind, is over-parenting really a fair term or concept?

Parental involvement has been studied for many years. Optimal parenting, referred to as a parent who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects their child’s autonomy, was a word used by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California in the ‘50s and ‘60s. What is important here is having boundaries while also listening to your child.

As Madeline Levine, clinician, consultant and author asserted in the New York Times in August, such parents are seen to have a perfect balance of involvement and independence. Plus, they generally raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially, compared to those whose parents are permissive and less involved, or controlling and more involved.

So, what makes this balancing act so successful and what can we learn from it? It is clear that these parents work on cultivating motivation. The term “authoritative parenting”, seen by many as the optimum mentoring style, is referred to as democratic, involving a child-centric approach in which parents hold high expectations for  their children.

Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford University, conducted a research that indicated that such parents raise more motivated, and in turn, more successful children. Her experiments involve, for example, young children solving simple puzzles.

Most did these tasks with little difficulty. The next part of the experiment involved Dr Dweck telling some of the children how clever, bright or capable they were. The result was that those children who were not told they’re smart were more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibited higher levels of confidence and showed greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to throw their confidence. Attempting more tricky puzzles carries the risk of losing their status as “amazing” and it deprives them from the thrill of choosing to work simply for its own sake, regardless of end result. The consequence is that reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy, and limiting interference, leads to better academic and emotional outcomes. In short, don’t over-praise.

Let them grow up
At a very practical level, this means that parents must not do things for children that they are capable or almost able of doing themselves. It should always be about the child’s needs. Some parents help their children or do tasks for them to satisfy their own needs, consciously or inadvertently. The main goal during ‘growing up’ is to develop a sense of self that is independent, confident and generally in accord with reality.

If a baby is always carried even though it can actually walk, a carer diminishes their confidence and distorts reality. This is also the case when a child may, for example, be working on a creative project for their homework and a parent steps in to ‘help’ which involves re-writing or even re-designing the whole thing.   Remember, it’s good to congratulate yourself when your child does something for themselves. You have done your job well. At times, the final result may not be quite what you wanted or expected. Yet, pointless intervention diminishes your child’s self-esteem and they can also feel angry at your prying.

Finding the limit
Isn’t it a parent’s job to help with those things that are just beyond your child’s reach? What defines over-parenting?

In the early 1900s, following research and observation, Lev Vygotsky, an educational theorist, developed the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) defined as the most difficult task a child can do independently and the most difficult task the child can do with help.   In short, interaction with a teacher, more able classmate, parent or helper can benefit a child on the edge of learning a new concept. They provide a standing ground in the same way that a scaffold enables a decorator to reach the highest parts of a room that would otherwise be out of reach.

To help understand what a child needs help with, it’s important to observe them and to tap into how they are feeling. Are they confused, inquisitive or frustrated? Asking open-ended questions are useful here. The difficult part is to know when you can step in with questions and ideas and when to leave your child to figure things out for themselves.

Fall to rise
The theory also involves accepting that it is fine to get things wrong and learn from mistakes. To get messy and to spill things in practical activities and to know that mistakes are normal, even for adults, is common sense after all. Standing back and allowing your child to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges.

It’s easier when they’re young — tolerating a stumbling toddler, reaching out your hand to ensure their safety, is far different from dealing with an upset pre-teen that made a wrong decision about, for example, trusting a friend. Of course, part of being a parent is minimising risk for your child emotionally and physically.

Many say that they cannot “be with” seeing their child unhappy. Think back to sleepless nights when you refrained from running at their first whimpering. It’s hard and yet to rush in too quickly is detrimental all around. They need to develop coping strategies so that they can handle the inevitable challenging circumstances of life.

Drawing the line
There is a vital distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do their homework. There are some things that just have to be done and they need to understand that they just have to conform on occasions.

Good parents insist on compliance when necessary, not because they need their child to be a perfect student, but because it is important to learn the fundamentals of life which include developing a good work ethic, in this case.

Ask yourself on occasions where you use scaffolding and when you do their homework for them. Are you happy for your child to turn in their work with some errors or is it about you and how you feel about having mistakes on the page that the teacher will see? Remember what the theories above say. Children thrive with reliable, consistent and non-interfering help.

To conclude, be clear about your own values while making sure their own life is fulfilling. Studies show that parents are more vulnerable to the excesses of over-parenting if they are unhappy themselves. It is important for children to be presented with a version of adult life that is attractive and worth striving for.

As a parent, you must know your child well enough to make the distinction — can they manage a situation alone or do they need help? You also need to be brave enough to step back and let them make mistakes.

How to be an authoritative parent:

  • Express warmth and nurturance
  • Listen to your children
  •  Encourage independence
  •  Place limits, consequences and expectations on their behaviour
  •  Allow them to express opinions
  •  Administer fair and consistent discipline
  •  Encourage them to discuss options


Watch-dogged kids:
Unless your child is a spy of sorts, there is no reason to be tracking his/her every move. Excessive monitoring can cause feelings of hostility.
Extra extra-curricular activities:
If you’re child looks like he/she could use a personal assistant to manage weekly schedules, there is a good chance there is a hovering “helicopter” parent to blame.
Piling on the praise:
Continually claiming they’re smart makes kids avoid activities they don’t excel at in the fear of failure. Don’t cultivate narcissism. Parental temper tantrums:
Intra-parental competition is highly embarrassing for yourself and your children. Avoid ranting about their teachers and classmates on social media. Let them resolve their own conflicts.
Stubborn children:
Nothing beats pampering that boomerangs. If you’re in your 50s and supporting your child, it’s time to cut the cord.

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