The Brilliant Forum: How Intense Should Our Parenting Be?

Are today’s parents over-involved and over-invested in their children’s learning and development? Or is this intense engagement is simply what it takes to prepare young people for a complex and fast-changing world? Read commentaries on this subject from writer Brink Lindsey, psychologist Alison Gopnik, and writer Hara Estroff Marano, and then share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Brink Lindsey (from “The Real Problem With Helicopter Parents: There Aren’t Enough Of Them,” in TheAtlantic.com):

“The advantages of having well-educated parents are varied. Smart parents who naturally do well in school pass on their genes. They also tend to make more money, which can buy a safer neighborhood and a higher-quality education. But a less appreciated advantage is that college-educated parents are more likely to dote obsessively—even, yes, comically—on their children. And there is evidence that the very nature of their parenting style is good for grooming productive workers.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Outliers, many of us are now familiar with the ’10,000 hour rule’: in almost any field you can think of, you can’t perform at the very highest level without logging the requisite hours of diligent, focused practice. The move in well-educated homes toward ‘concerted cultivation’—or helicopter parenting, if we want to be snarky about its sometimes absurd excesses —can be seen as an effort to inject a lot more deliberate practice into childhood. Practice, in particular, at developing the skills needed to excel in school, and later in the workplace.

Most obviously, the children of well-educated parents receive much more intellectual stimulation in the home than do other kids. For example, child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley estimate that by the time they reach age three, children of professional parents have heard some 45 million words addressed to them – as opposed to only 26 million words for working-class kids, and a mere 13 million words in the case of kids on welfare. By the time kids start school, kids of well-educated parents are much better prepared than their classmates. Consequently, they’re much more likely to receive praise and encouragement from their teachers, which means their attitudes about being in school are much more likely to be positive. Even relatively small advantages conferred early in life can thus snowball over time.

The deliberate practice that is going on constantly in well-educated homes extends beyond purely intellectual pursuits. As they march their kids through the weekly gauntlet of organized activities, the practitioners of concerted cultivation are drilling their kids in a host of skills critical to academic and economic success. Skills like managing one’s time by making and keeping schedules, getting along with other people from different backgrounds on the basis of common interests, and deferring gratification in order to maximize rewards down the road. All of these, as well as fluency in the three Rs, are vital components of ‘human capital’— economist-speak for economically valuable skills.” (Read more here.)

Alison Gopnik (from “Worrying About Children,” in Edge.org):

“Much modern middle-class worry stems from a fundamentally misguided picture of how children develop. It’s the picture implicit in the peculiar but now ubiquitous concept of ‘parenting.’ As long as there have been homo sapiens there have been parents—human mothers and fathers, and others as well, have taken special care of children. But the word ‘parenting’ first emerged in America in the twentieth century, and only became common in the 1970s.

This particular word comes with a picture, a vision of how we should understand the relations between grown-ups and children. ‘To parent’ is a goal-directed verb. It describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to shape your child into a particular kind of adult—smarter or happier or more successful than others. And the idea is that there is some set of strategies or techniques that will accomplish this. So contemporary parents worry endlessly about whether they are using the right techniques and spend millions of dollars on books or programs that are supposed to provide them.

This picture is empirically misguided. ‘Parenting’ worries focus on relatively small variations in what parents and children do —co-sleeping or crying it out, playing with one kind of toy rather than another, more homework or less. There is very little evidence that any of this make much difference to the way that children turn out in the long run. There is even less evidence that there is any magic formula for making one well-loved and financially supported child any smarter or happier or more successful as an adult than another.

The picture is even more profoundly misguided from an evolutionary perspective. Childhood itself is one of the most distinctive evolutionary features of human beings—we have a much longer childhood than any other primate. This extended childhood seems, at least in part, to be an adaptation to the radically increased variability and unpredictability of human environments. The period of protected immaturity we call childhood gives humans a chance to learn, explore, and innovate without having to plan, act and take care of themselves at the same time. And empirically, we’ve discovered that even the youngest children have truly extraordinary abilities to learn and imagine, quite independent of any conscious parental shaping. Our long protected childhood, arguably, allows our distinctive human cognitive achievements.

The evolutionary emergence of our extended childhood went hand in hand with changes in the depth and breadth of human care for children. Humans developed a ‘triple threat’ when it comes to care. Unlike our closest primate relatives, human fathers began to invest substantially in their children’s care, women lived on past menopause to take care of their grand-children, and unrelated adults—’alloparents’—kicked in care, too. In turn, children could learn a variety of skills, attitudes, knowledge and cultural traditions from all those caregivers. This seems to have given human children a varied and multifaceted cognitive tool-kit that they could combine, revise, and refine to face the variable and unpredictable challenges of the next generation.

So the evolutionary picture is that a community of caregivers provide children with two essential ingredients that allow them to thrive. First, adults provide an unconditionally nurturing and stable context, a guarantee that children will be safe and cared for as children. That secure base allows children to venture out to play, explore, and learn, and to shape their own futures. Second, adults provide children with a wide range of models of acting in the world, even mutually contradictory models of acting. Children can exploit this repertoire to create effective ways of acting in often unpredictable and variable environments, and eventually to create new environments. This is very different from the ‘parenting’ picture, where particular parental actions are supposed to shape children’s adult characteristics.” (Read more here.)

Hara Estroff Marano (from “A Nation of Wimps,” in Psychology Today):

“No one doubts that there are significant economic forces pushing parents to invest so heavily in their children’s outcome from an early age. But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps.

Parents need to abandon the idea of perfection and give up some of the invasive control they’ve maintained over their children. The goal of parenting is to raise an independent human being. Sooner or later, most kids will be forced to confront their own mediocrity. Parents may find it easier to give up some control if they recognize they have exaggerated many of the dangers of childhood—although they have steadfastly ignored others, namely the removal of recess from schools and the ubiquity of video games that encourage aggression.

The childhood we’ve introduced to our children is very different from that in past eras. Children no longer work at young ages. They stay in school for longer periods of time and spend more time exclusively in the company of peers. Children are far less integrated into adult society than they used to be at every step of the way. We’ve introduced laws that give children many rights and protections—although we have allowed media and marketers to have free access.

In changing the nature of childhood, we’ve introduced a tendency to assume that children can’t handle difficult situations. ‘Middle-class parents especially assume that if kids start getting into difficulty they need to rush in and do it for them, rather than let them flounder a bit and learn from it,’ says social historian Peter Stearns of George Mason University, author of Anxious Parenting: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. ‘I don’t mean we should abandon them, but give them more credit for figuring things out.’ And recognize that parents themselves have created many of the stresses and anxieties children are suffering from, without giving them tools to manage them.” (Read more here.)

Now it’s your turn: Do you think today’s parents are overdoing it—and perhaps harming their children in the process—or are they simply preparing their children for the challenges of today’s world?

2 Responses to “The Brilliant Forum: How Intense Should Our Parenting Be?”

  1. Ian H says:

    I think parenting is a very delicate matter. No two child cases are alike, even in the same household. I am of the opinion that, because each child is so different, each parenting choice should be handled uniquely as well. Some children are not very good at self-motivating, so they need parents to hover some to get them started. Other children are fiercely independent and will thrive much better if you just give them the space to grow and adapt (all the while keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t swim out too much past the deep end).

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Based on my obserevations every child is different, an individual who will take from their experiences what they will. Some will start in the bowels of society and be highly successful while their counterparts will end up staying where they started.
    On the other hand, children born with the silver spoon in their mouth may follow in their parents footsteps, many times simply because they had the opportunities. They may also end up just not performing up to expectations. In the end, those that started in a better situation will much more likely end up in a better situation and those that didn’t won’t.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for The Brilliant Report, a monthly newsletter full of the latest findings on how to learn smarter:

Close