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Why Parents Should Do Less for Their Kids

Children want to be self-sufficient. Parents should let them.

Pexels CC, Meruyert Gonullu
Source: Pexels CC, Meruyert Gonullu

For decades, parents have been implored, by various “experts” to do more for their kids. Parents are urged to speak regularly to their children (at least 21,000 words per day to preschoolers, even apparently if there is nothing useful to say), play regularly with them, drive them to places they need or want to go, serve as their alarm clock and calendar, choose extracurricular activities for them, watch them essentially all the time to be sure they aren’t harmed physically or psychologically, make sure they do their schoolwork, and on and on. No wonder so many think of parenting as a chore.

It wasn’t always this way.

Advantages of Doing Less for Your Children

In the not-too-distant past, parents expected children to do a lot of taking care of themselves (see here). They played independently of adults, traveled by themselves or with friends (usually by biking or walking), did their homework or not and learned to deal with the consequences, learned to look out for their own safety, and developed strategies to rebound from psychological hurts. The result was they generally grew up more self-reliant, resilient, and emotionally healthy than young people do today (see here and here).

Contrary to all the messages urging parents to do more for their kids, a growing number of research studies point to the advantages of doing less. Much of that research comes under the rubric of autonomy-supportive parenting, which essentially means allowing and encouraging kids to take greater charge of their own lives and do more for themselves. Such research, including longitudinal studies as well as cross-sectional ones, indicates that autonomy support results in children and teens becoming happier, more self-reliant, more self-directed, and better adjusted socially and emotionally (e.g. Duineveld et al, 2017; Joussemet et al., 2005; Obradovic et al., 2021). Doing too much for children results in learned helplessness.

So, doing less for your child is, paradoxically, doing more for your child. It is also doing more for yourself. For example, one research study in Germany, conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown, revealed that when parents encouraged their children to manage themselves during large portions of the day the children were more content and so were the parents (Neubauer et al, 2021). This was true not only across families but also from day to day within families.

How to Make Children Less Dependent

If your children have become dependent on your doing a great deal for them, you may have to move gradually. Maybe start by asking them what they would like to do for themselves, or for the family. Maybe you are doing things for them that they would rather do for themselves. Then move on, gradually, to things they really should be doing as part of growing up, but so far are not—maybe just one at a time. Depending on age, these might be such things as making their own bed, cleaning their own room, doing their own laundry, setting their own alarm and getting up on time for scheduled events, walking or bicycling to school and elsewhere, managing their own schoolwork, and helping out with family chores such as meal preparation and washing dishes. You may have to reduce your own standards, as your kids, at least at first, won’t do it quite the way you would and probably not as well, but that's a small price to pay for the competence and pride your kids will develop and the increased time you will have for yourself.

Children innately want to become increasingly self-sufficient and helpful (e.g. here and here), but we can drive that out of them if we persist in doing everything for them. As children grow older, we should expect them to contribute in ever more ways to the well-being of the family. That is good for everyone in the family, but especially for the children themselves.

And now, I urge you to watch and listen to this amazing, short video, encouraging you—to the tune of "I Will Survive" and with lyrics by Lenore Skenazy—to do yourself and your kids a favor by sending them outside!

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Duineveld, J. J., Parker, P. D., Ryan, R. M., Ciarrochi, J., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2017). The link between perceived maternal and paternal autonomy support and adoles- cent well-being across three major educational transitions. Developmental Psychology, 53, 1978–1994.

Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., & Landry, R. (2005). A longitudinal study of the relationship of maternal autonomy support to children’s adjustment and achievement in school. Journal of Personality, 73, 1215–1236.

Neubauer, A. B., Schmidt, A., Kramer, A. C., & Schmiedek, F. (2021). A little autonomy support goes a long way: daily autonomy-supportive parenting, child well-being, parental need fulfillment, and change in child, family, and parent adjustment across the adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Child Development 92, 1679-1697.

Obradovic, J., Sulik, M., & haffer, A. (2021). Learning to let go: parental over-engagement predicts poorer self-regulation in kindergartners. Journal of Family Psychology, 35, 1160–1170.

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