Steve Baskin

S'mores and More

In Parenting, Less Can Be More

Parents wanting to prime their children for success should consider doing less.

Posted Apr 18, 2014

In a recent New York Times article, Keith Robinson and Angel Harris share research that supports a conclusion that is surprising and will beI suspecta topic of controversy with parents: parental involvement in education is overrated. Specifically, the conventional ways that parents become involved (helping with homework, volunteering in the classroom, reading to school-aged children) do not correlate with improved academic performance. Instead, the authors conclude with a somewhat cryptic bit of advice: “What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it.”

The details of the article are interesting and worth examining. Some activities, like reading to a student, are helpful for certain ethnicities and not for others. Results also differ with ages.  Perhaps the biggest surprise is the realization that helping children with homework never has a positive correlation with their test scores and rarely with their grades. 

As I read this article, I began to think of the parents that I work with on a regular basis at our summer camp.

For years, our staff has had long and involved conversations with parents about a myriad of issues. 

  • “What is the best session for my child?” 
  • “What activities should she take?” 
  • “Should he come with a friend?” 
  • And the most common “Can she be with her friends in the cabin?”

While these questions reflect legitimate concerns, their importance is consistently overestimated.

Take cabin assignments:  every camp director I know understands the sensitive nature of cabin assignments. Parents often have very strong opinions about cabinmates. Some even want to micromanage the entire process, attempting to include certain cabinmates and exclude others.  To deal with this, virtually all camps have an elaborate cabinmate request system that limits the number and types of requests. For example, a parent might be able to request to exclude one cabinmate or include another, but not both. While having a specific cabinmate is not irrelevant, it is far less critical than parents believe.

Recently, I got an entirely new question from a first time camp parent: “What is the one care package I can send to my camper to assure she will have a good time at camp?”

I was initially at a loss to answer her. Her daughter would be at camp for 21 days. She would have over 300 waking hours filled with 40+ activities, 11 cabinmates and a wide array of counselor/role models. She would learn songs, master skills, and foster grit. How could any care package, regardless of how thoughtful or fun, tip the scales one way or the other compared to the richness of this experience?

While I hesitated to respond, I realized what was really happening. This mother needed to believe that she could control (or at least meaningfully influence) every aspect of her daughter’s life. It was this mom’s job to protect her daughter and provide for her. In fact, I suspect this was more than a job to her. It was her identity. She simply did not consider the possibility that her daughter could have an experience in which the mother’s influence would be minimal or even insignificant.

In his well-written book Homesick and Happy, psychologist Michael Thompson makes a similar observation. Every time parents would ask his advice, they would always ask “what else can I do?” or “what am I not doing?” The underlying assumption is that more parenting is better parenting.

The underlying assumption that “more is more” is reinforced in almost all other aspects of our lives. The musician that practices more sits first chair in the orchestra. The athlete that shoots extra free throws each day becomes the starter. The student that studies the hardest makes better grades. The young lawyer who bills the most hours gets promoted.

Parenting, however, does not fit this approach. In each of these other endeavors, the efforts of the individual improve the individual. In parenting, this is not the case. Parents are not improving themselves; they are attempting to improve another. Children need to develop a sense of self, resilience, social skills, and coping mechanisms on their own. When parents become overly involved in their children’s livesfriendships, schoolwork or otherwisethey strip them of opportunities to learn.

In short, with regard to parenting, less is often more. 

I am not saying that parents do not matter. Parents can help provide stability, model healthy relationships, and develop values. In their article, Robinson and Harris stress that students benefit from parents that value education. In this case, the parent is creating a narrative (“setting the stage” in their language) that says that education is important. 

Creating such narratives is clearly one of the best ways parents can influence their children. Examples of narratives might include “hard work pays off” or “our family has had tough times, but we always bounce back” or “always be kind to others.” These narratives must be modeled as well as spoken to be effective. 

But parents should not attempt to fight every battle, adjudicate every conflict or aid with every assignment. In fact, doing so is often actually harmful as it sends the signal that the child needs to be helped or saved. That is a deletarious signal for a child to receive.

All of these parental efforts come from a place of love. Parents want their children to live fulfilling lives and to avoid pain and failure. Unfortunately, they lack the ability to make this happen for them. Resilience is developed through struggle. A child only learns how to overcome failure when he or she actually fails and then overcomes that failure. 

In the end, parents influence their children in profound, but subtle ways. 

They influence through their narratives and their examples. These help guide the general direction of their children’s development.

Parents should also find good partners to help collectively raise their children. The teachers, coaches, mentors, and camp counselors all make a difference. In fact, Robinson and Harris note that one area in which parents do have a positive impact on education is “requesting a particular teacher for [a] child.”

Finally, creating a stable environment where children feel safe and valued helps provide a solid emotional base for future learning. A child who feels safe will be more willing to take reasonable risks that foster growth.  

But in the meantime, parents should let their children deal do their own homework, have their spats with their friends, and have their own adventures. Let’s return to the example from summer camp and cabinmate request. The campers who do thrive are not the ones whose parents attempt to micromanage the cabinmate process. They are the ones whose parents express confidence in them and assure them that they can navigate the social challenges. This narrative of resilience primes the child for a successful experience. Parents overly concerned about their child’s academic success should take a lesson from these confident parents.  

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