We live in confusing times. Kids have never been so depressed, averse to failure, and incapable of doing their laundry. Parents respond, understandably, by trying to help: assisting with homework, attending every imaginable activity, and giving detailed guidance on life skills, only to be reprimanded for over-parenting, helicoptering, and generally rendering their children helpless.
And that’s the positive spin.
The negative one is that parents are locked in a zero-sum arms race, which will inevitably force them to go a little cuckoo. Even if they don’t pay six-figure bribes to secure their child a spot at a top-tier university, as almost 50 people were charged with doing in a scandal that erupted this week, parents who meddle too much, we are warned, will ultimately do damage to their kids.
But before you swear off the whole idea of involved childrearing, know this: Recent research suggests that some forms of helicopter parenting are effective.
In the new book Love, Money and Parenting, economists Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University and Fabrizio Zilibotti of Yale University put parents in three categories: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. Permissive parents value imagination, independence, and freedom; authoritarian parents value obedience and demand control; and authoritative parents aim to influence kids’ choices by shaping values and reasoning with them.
Looking at one large US data set, and controlling for the mothers’ level of education, kids of authoritative moms had a higher probability of getting a college degree (34%) than kids of permissive ones (30%) or authoritarian (24%) ones. Children with “intensive” parents also scored higher on standardized tests versus peers exposed to other parenting styles.
So what’s a loving (but not coddling), supportive (but not psychotic), and well-intentioned (non-tiger) parent to do?
If you want your kids to be epic test takers, by all means, tuck into the homework and splurge on test prep. But Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure, cautions against placing too much importance on this. Most parents want their kids to grow up to be happy, but they tend to think this path relies on professional and financial success. Since the future is uncertain, they focus on grades and test scores, the data closest at hand. This is logical.
But financial and professional success are not really correlated with adult wellbeing, according to Damour. She cites research from psychologist Daniel Kanheman showing that adult wellbeing is driven by high-quality relationships, thinking one’s work has meaning, and feeling one is becoming more skilled in their work. This implies that pushing kids to get good grades is, in addition to being fraught, not really borne out by the data. So if you want to push, push on what matters: relationships, cultivating interests, and discipline.
“How do they treat the people around them?” she asks. “Do they conduct relationships in ways that they feel good about? And do they get into relationships that seem to be positive for them? Are they able to discover what they can do with their talents that feels important and meaningful to them? Do they have the discipline they need to become increasingly skilled at those things?”
Kids need to push themselves. But if they are subject to unrealistic standards they cannot meet despite their best efforts, many are bound to feel anxious. “What I like about these [relationship-based] levers,” Damour says, “is that they takes some of the heat off of traditional academic achievement or visions of future financial success.”
Parents often ask high school teacher Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure and a high-school teacher in Vermont, how hard to push. Her answer is clear: If you want them to learn, stop helping so much. “The moments we don’t step in can be incredible learning opportunities for our kids, and every time we steal one of those moments, we deprive them of learning,” she says.
Help with homework? This is stopping kids from developing skills they need to master, like executive function, planning, and execution. Interfere with teachers and advocate for higher grades? Impinging their autonomy and self-efficacy. Take over their science-fair projects? Effectively telling kids they can’t do it, all but guaranteeing they won’t be able to next time.
By not always stepping in, we show that we care about the life lesson—taking responsibility for one’s work—and not just the grade. Where parents should push their kids is toward greater independence. Lahey describes her advice to parents this way:
I say, “Pretend there’s a line delineating what you believe your kid can handle and what he or she can’t. Now, put your toe over it, just a little.” Let your kids try to do things that are just beyond what you think they can handle. In education we call it the “expectancy effect.” If we believe kids can do more, they often can, and our role is to support them in their efforts to succeed.
She also cites the work of Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescence, who said, “Protect when you must, but permit when you can.” This encourages parents to err on the side of letting kids try and mess up, and then being there to support them when they do.
Another, more radical idea is to move out of hyper-competitive, expensive cities, into places which are designed for a normal-paced life. In Under Pressure, Damour cites research showing that some of the highest levels of wellbeing are measured in families who elect to live below their means in middle-class neighborhoods. Specifically, research by Terese Lund and Eric Dearing found that girls raised in the wealthiest neighborhoods were two to three times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than girls in middle-class neighborhoods, while boys in richer areas were two to three times more likely to get in trouble.
“More is not always more,” Damour says. “You might reduce stress if they are not accustomed to a very comfortable lifestyle.”
Indeed, she says kids who come into her clinical practice from modest circumstances tend to have more expansive views about their future: they believe they can live and work in any number of places. Kids who come from means tend to see a narrower future—and profess less ability to navigate it when things go wrong.
“What’s been lost in the last decade is some sense that you can have an off day and your future isn’t ruined,” Damour says. “That may be amplified where competition is part of life, and where there is a sense of diminished resources.”
Psychologist Suniya Luthar has shown that teenagers from wealthy families are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than kids from parents in lower tax brackets. Possible reasons include the pressure to achieve in more competitive environments (kids are not built to behave like investment bankers, managing packed diaries), and that living in pricier neighborhoods usually requires that parents work more, and see their kids less.
Doepke, the Northwestern economist, made the decision to move from Los Angeles to Chicago due to the pressure and segregation of LA. “We were worried what it would do to our kids to be in this competitive environment,” he says. Indeed, the key thesis of his book is that parents aren’t crazy to push their kids harder than the generation before them—they’re just responding to their environment. Doepke and his co-author found that when countries becomes more unequal, parents become pushier. Higher stakes equals crazier parents.
A huge amount of stress, for parents and children, comes from increasingly competitive college admissions. But just as you can move to Cleveland, you can also choose to not put Stanford or Princeton on a pedestal. Lahey suggests parents cast a wider net when they consider college options, considering finances as well as what might make their kids happy (specifically, she recommends consulting the Colleges that Change Lives program). She challenges parents “to find the college that’s right for their child rather than the sticker they want to display on the back window of their car.”
Parents (and kids) also might want to remember that building grit and learning lessons from failure is all well and good, but flunking one math test is not the same as getting rejected from college.
Most of us don’t want to raise confrontation-fearing, anxiety-ridden sheep for children. We know that helicopter parenting might backfire. But we struggle with the day to day. Even Lahey admits she’s not 100% hands-off. “When my son forgot a test-prep review homework, I scanned it and sent it into the teacher via email, so she could have the information she needed to evaluate whether my son was ready for the test,” she says.
But she didn’t let her son off the hook: “I also asked her to not give him credit for that homework, and please hold him to consequences for having forgotten it.”
We’re probably not going to put away the keys to the helicopter permanently. But we can do less and be with kids more. We can let them fall on their faces once in a while, and make sure we’re there when they need help getting up. It’s a tricky balance and yes, the stakes are high, but maybe we are obsessing over the wrong stakes.
“I speak with thousands of middle- and high-school kids each year and I’m hearing about the stress they feel from everywhere—schools, peers, teachers, and parents,” says Lahey. “So wouldn’t it be nice if the one place kids can breathe, get respite from the constant pressure to be perfect, and speak about their fears, hopes, and goals is at home?”
Indeed, it would.