Madeline Levine Ph. D.

The Twenty-Year Parenting Plan

Is Your Parenting Style Based On Faulty Thinking?

Why your good intentions can actually end up harming your kids.

Posted Aug 20, 2012

Most of us love our kids madly. We would do anything to see them happy and successful. So how maddening, that in our quest to give our kids the best of everything, we too often end up creating conditions that are precisely the opposite of what we intended.

This is one of the great ironies of parenthood: that decisions born of good intentions—decisions that on the surface seem to make perfect sense, have face validity as psychologists say, and that are in fact deeply culturally sanctioned—can actually end up harming our children.

I find that the vast majority of parents buy into a predictable set of “myths.” Yet, if you study the science behind some common parenting decisions you’ll find that there’s plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction. Here are a few examples you might recognize:

What You THINK You’re Doing: “By sending my child to an academic preschool, I’m giving her a valuable head start on her education.”

What You’re ACTUALLY Doing: You’re force-feeding her knowledge before she is developmentally ready to grasp it. This will hurt her in the long run.

Studies find that youngsters who are enrolled in academic-based preschools actually fall academically behind their peers who attend play-based preschools within a few years. Two-, three-, and four-year-olds are programmed to learn through play. What we adults see as ‘games’ actually help children develop essential social skills that will help them to problem-solve, collaborate, and connect throughout life. When we force preschoolers to focus on learning numbers, colors, shapes, and letters, we’re doing them a disservice by taking them away from focusing on learning the social and emotional skills that are the foundation of healthy development.

What You THINK You’re Doing: “By encouraging my kid to pursue a “passion”—say, a sport or a musical instrument—I’m reinforcing his love for learning and helping her stand out from the crowd. (It won’t hurt his college application, either!)”

What You’re ACTUALLY Doing: You’re robbing him of the chance to find other interests that might be more rewarding. Plus, you’re eating up all her free time.

It’s developmentally appropriate for children to try out lots of different interests rather than fixating on a single activity. The 8-year-old who plays on a traveling soccer team and goes to a specialized soccer camp during the summer will never know if baseball was really his thing.

I don’t know when this became an accepted notion about children, but don’t passions take time and energy to develop? Mothers of seven-year-olds come to me worried because their children don’t have ‘passions’ yet. For kids this age, life is their passion!

Here’s another problem: kids who pursue “passions” are typically overscheduled. If yours doesn’t have plenty of time for unstructured play—climbing trees, riding bikes with the neighborhood kids or just daydreaming in his room—she’s missing out on the real “work” of childhood. Play is how kids learn about the world, relationships and themselves. It’s their vehicle for developing the kind of creativity and ability to innovate they’ll need to thrive in a global workforce.

What You THINK You’re Doing: “By always being there for my child—helping her, protecting her, cheering her on—I’m boosting her self-esteem and giving her every possible advantage so she’ll thrive in the future.”

What You’re ACTUALLY Doing: You’re creating too much dependence on you. You’re squashing her motivation. You’re promoting an ugly sense of entitlement. Oh, and by the way, you’re confusing your needs with your child’s needs.

Yes, it sounds harsh, but for your child’s sake and for your own: back off! Over parenting, while surely born of love and good intentions, doesn’t “help” kids in any way. It harms them. Kids thrive when they’re challenged, not micromanaged. We can’t graft self-esteem onto our children by telling them how terrific they are. They earn self-esteem by working hard enough at something to become competent and confident at the task. Ask yourself these questions:

When you do for kids what they can do for themselves—as well as what they can almost do for themselves—how can they strengthen their wings enough to ever fly from the nest, let alone soar? 

When kids rule the roost, eating up all the family’s time, energy and resources, why wouldn’t they come to believe that the universe revolves around them?

If you spend every free hour sitting in the bleachers, cheering them on, why would they ever want to grow up? Wouldn’t it be better to teach them from an early age that life is a collaborate effort—and that everyone, including parents, gets to play? 


Remember, your ultimate goal as a parent is not to ensure your child’s future prosperity, push her to excel in every measurable area our society prizes, or protect her from any type of failure. It’s to prepare your child to live a meaningful and satisfying life as a self-confident, engaged, resilient, and motivated human being.

This won’t happen overnight. It can’t. So focus on parenting on the 20-year plan, looking at success  far down the road. You will have less anxiety and a bit more free time. And your children will be better able to craft a meaningful life, one that reflects their unique gifts, talents and interests. After all, developing a robust sense of self is always an inside job!