The Results of Modern Parenting

Well this is a surprise:

Children whose parents are over-controlling “helicopter parents” when they are toddlers, are less able to control their emotions and impulses as they get older apparently leading to more problems with school, new research suggests.

The study looked at to what degree mothers of toddlers dominated playtime and showed their child what to do, and then studied how their children behaved over the following eight years, revealing that controlling parenting is linked to a number of problems as a child grows up.

Something which always amuses me about many modern parents is their casual dismissal of two thousand years of experience by their forebears. Parents having time to play with their children, let alone micromanage the activities, is something very, very new. I’ve asked around and few people my age (41) had their parents play with them when they were toddlers, and absolutely none of my father’s generation did. Children were expected to play with their siblings, with other children, or by themselves – as quietly as possible. Parents would read to their kids, or help them with a particular task (“ask a grown-up to help you” often appeared in the instructions in children’s play-sets), but they were never seen as a play partner. The reason for this was parents were too busy and it wasn’t really their job. Now it appears some mothers not only want to join in their childrens’ playtime, they want to take it over. Unsurprisingly, this is having an effect on their development.

“Parents who are over-controlling are most often very well-intentioned and are trying to support and be there for their children,” said Dr Nicole Perry of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, who co-authored the research.

“However, to foster emotional and behavioural skills parents should allow children to experience a range of emotions and give them space to practice and try managing these emotions independently and then guide and assist children when [or] if the task becomes too great.”

If the role of a parent is to raise a child to become a functional adult, they ought to be able to stand by and watch their offspring struggle and overcome small problems. But I suspect many mothers are more interested in the “unconditional love” they keep telling me about, and hence can’t bear to see their child undergoing any sort of difficulty. I’ve said this before, but I think some may have been better off getting a dog.

“The problem here really is that if you don’t learn skills to self-regulate, how can you self-regulate when you leave the home, like [when] you go to school or you go to university? In a way it is a form of abusiveness – taking this opportunity away from children,” he said, although he noted over-controlling parenting was usually done with the best of intentions.

But Dr Janet Goodall from the University of Bath urged caution, noting that it is difficult to say how much parental control is “too much”, and that cultural factors such how dangerous a child’s environment is should be considered when looking at parental behaviour.

What’s interesting about this is it echoes with what I was on about in yesterday’s post. Modern parenting seems to be an odd mix of over-controlling combined with ultra-permissiveness. Several mothers I’ve observed try to micromanage every aspect of a child’s life and environment, sometimes demanding the entire world be changed for the benefit of her brat, yet at the same time let him or her dominate the household. Mothers will campaign for diesel cars to be banned in cities “for the sake of the children” yet allow her toddler to dictate when he is eating, what he is eating, and where he’ll be sat while doing so. There are few households now where young children are forbidden from interrupting adults when they’re talking; most are permitted to barge in for the most trivial reasons and the mother will give them their full attention for as long as required. As a side observation, I’ve found French children are a lot better behaved in the home and in restaurants than their British counterparts; for all their reputation of being liberals, the French are a conservative lot.

For whatever reason, the study mentioned above only looked at the degree of parental control not permissiveness, and I think they may be missing a large piece of the puzzle. By way of example, have a look at this tweet, which to be fair is quite funny:

You can be damned sure it was the kid’s mother who caved in and ordered her husband to drive around town looking for ice cream. Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that perhaps this sort of parenting is not going to produce a generation of adults able to deal with the world at large. Here’s a question for my readers: how many of you would have got away with that at three years old, or any age? More importantly, how many of your children would today?

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30 thoughts on “The Results of Modern Parenting

  1. Oh, that tweet….

    Put the kid in its room, door closed, let it cry itself to sleep. Works wonders. They soon get the message 😀

    And then visitors are surprised as to how easily my kids go to sleep.

  2. My parents didn’t play with me that much and I am very uncordinated.
    I spent ages throwing a soft ball at my son with him holding a toy cricket bat and vice a versa and his levels of cordination are so much higher than mine.
    (I know he is not a copy of me so there are other factors).
    About the ice cream, just smack her.

  3. I’ve found French children are a lot better behaved in the home and in restaurants than their British counterparts; for all their reputation of being liberals, the French are a conservative lot.

    Agreed. The same applies to most European nations I’d say.

  4. I most wholeheartedly concur. Many children today have had nary a moment without supervision since this helicopter parent phenomenon took off–not only is this problematic in terms of psychological development, but it leads to a failure to resolve personal disputes. Consider that when playing out of sight of parents, kids have to settle things themselves. Being a narc was discouraged and would lose you friends when I was younger. Now more often than not, it’s a cry to Mom to take care of every trivial problem. Little wonder that as they grow up, the role of the mother is replaced by the role of the State. This inability to reckon with others is amplified by social media–how many times have you been blocked as a result of picking apart an argument, or refuting a baseless claim? Disagreement is intolerable to a worrying number of people.

    The rise in fatherless households is also a cause for concern (Thank the divorce courts and the welfare state for that–bit of a perverse positive feedback loop, eh?) It’s unlikely that a mother will encourage roughhousing as a father might, and more likely that the protective maternal instinct will seek to mitigate risks to the child. Learning your limits, and how to play in a manner that leads others to want to play with you are important lessons learned from rough and unsupervised play.

    Admittedly, some of this is the result of a more benign cause–older parents having fewer kids. The investment in each child is higher and the tolerance for risk is lower. However well intentioned, what comes down the road is often a real mess…

  5. I, too, was an expert in child-rearing before I had kids!

    As far as I can tell, my kids’ generation are better behaved, less drunk, less pregnant and better travelled than my generation (roughly the same as our host’s). And I think in most ways (perhaps not the drinking and pregnancy), my generation were better behaved than my father’s.

  6. My 3yr old has been crying for 2 hours because she ate all of her dinner but didn’t get ice cream…We’re all out of ice cream. She won’t shut up… It’s 9:25pm and I’m driving to pick up ice cream…

    So, that would suggest dinner at 7:30 for a 3yr old? My kid would have already been in bed by that time, or at least in the bath and getting ready.

    Probably this is part of the problem, kid is staying up too late and already addicted to sugar. Maybe the parents should just go the whole hog and buy them a quintripple chocolate chip frappuccino from Starbucks.

    No wonder they are handing out ADHD pills like candies. Oh. I forgot, only boys need to be drugged, girls just need to be empowered. Probably already obese with the insulin resistance levels of an octogenarian.

  7. I, too, was an expert in child-rearing before I had kids!

    I don’t claim to be an expert, but I am an impartial observer. Oddly, some parents seem to think having a serious, vested, emotional interest in a child makes them more objective on the subject of parenting.

    As far as I can tell, my kids’ generation are better behaved, less drunk, less pregnant and better travelled than my generation

    It’s not about behaviours so much as how they will turn out when they reach adulthood. Will they be able to form relationships, shoulder responsibility, tackle hardships, and make sensible decisions or will they be loaded up with anti-depressants and making hysterical demands of the government?

  8. This inability to reckon with others is amplified by social media–how many times have you been blocked as a result of picking apart an argument, or refuting a baseless claim? Disagreement is intolerable to a worrying number of people.

    Oh yes, a pet topic of mine. See here.

  9. So, that would suggest dinner at 7:30 for a 3yr old?

    When I was 7 or 8 my bedtime was 7:30pm. I think the latest I ever got up as a child – and short of a hangover, until my twenties – was 9am. Staying in bed until 11am or 1pm was never an option in my house.

  10. My parents didn’t play with me that much and I am very uncordinated.
    I spent ages throwing a soft ball at my son with him holding a toy cricket bat and vice a versa and his levels of cordination are so much higher than mine.

    This is probably my bias speaking, but a father playing sports with his son is different. Because reasons. Ahem.

  11. Definitely no ice cream in our house when I was three. Ice cream was a special treat that you got on a family day out at an Italian cafe.

    Don’t think my boys behaved like that when they were young, no fucking way would I be out driving for ice cream that’s for sure, thats a mums job!
    They and me are pretty lucky though to have had a mother that has been able to dedicate her life as the homemaker and give up work since our first was born, she stocks, cooks, bakes and makes all kind of treats and the pantry is well stocked, we got seven fridge freezers in our gaff. I would be first to confess that my two are spoiled rotten, no one really gets parenting textbook right. My youngest is partial to an ubereats which is a bit of a luxury in my books since he doesn’t work but he doesn’t think so.

  12. I always make sure to finish the best chocolates precisely so my children have the opportunity to learn this important lesson. Couldn’t make my wife understand the importance of this – guess women are just wired differently or something.

  13. Oddly, some parents seem to think having a serious, vested, emotional interest in a child makes them more objective on the subject of parenting.
    It’s counterbalanced by the opportunity to closely observe the child’s behavior, and its reactions to your policies. In addition, you get the chance to realize what a huge gap there is between theory and practice, and how policies which you always took for granted (e.g. Set Firm Boundaries, Choose Your Fights) turn out to be self-contradictory.

    And when you get more than one kid, you realize how different they are from each other even before you’ve had a chance to mess things up. Sometimes a technique which works perfectly on one of them has no effect on the other.

    Sometimes I think that part of the problem is that people have one kid, or two far apart. When you’ve got a bunch of screaming brats, you have to establish discipline just to survive, and there’s no possibility of being a helicopter parent to all of them at once.

  14. Never back down or give in. Never.

    If you do it once, you’ll be in negotiations for the rest of their lives.

    Got to the point where I took a pleasure in saying no, especially in the supermarket and at the sweet laden checkout.

  15. Practice the art of the deterrent threat.
    “I have many jobs. Entertaining you is not one of them.”
    Savour the words “this is not a negotiation”
    Most parenting dilemmas can be resolved by considering “what would Nancy Reagan say?”

    And for the love of all that is holy get the sleeping sorted out. If you think controlled crying is going to damage your child wait till you see the effects of a mother having a nervous break down, a father who can’t hold down a job because of sleep deprivation and a marriage on the rocks.

  16. We always have room for improvement but it’s shocking what a ruckus a 2 year old can muster.
    We have 2 kids across the street that are about 9 and 11. The mother is out there watching them ride bikes and play all the time. There are actually no dangers to speak of on our street. I have this nearly uncontrollable urge to scream at her to go back into the house and leave them the fuck alone.

  17. Oddly, some parents seem to think having a serious, vested, emotional interest in a child makes them more objective on the subject of parenting.

    It doesn’t make you more objective. It makes you more experienced.

  18. Funny enough, I have a grad at the moment who seems to completely go to pieces at any kind of significant obstacle. Actually, any kind of obstacle! He doesn’t seem to have ever developed any skill at communicating in a situation where others may not just do everything you want of them. Now if he was middle eastern or such like I wouldn’t be too surprised, but most NZ’ers have this skill built in, all I can think is his parents have been very compliant for him and allowed him to grow up without facing any challenge under his own steam.

    I really think it is a poisonous way to bring up children. There is something in the warnings most cultures have over the Oedipal complex

  19. And for the love of all that is holy get the sleeping sorted out. If you think controlled crying is going to damage your child wait till you see the effects of a mother having a nervous break down, a father who can’t hold down a job because of sleep deprivation and a marriage on the rocks.

    This. A hundred times this.

    If the kid will sleep on its tummy or back or in whatever orientation is unfashionable these days, FFS let it. And if the health visitor or whoever gets on your case, give them The Glare. Once we got this into our thick skulls our lives were sooooo much easier.

    The risk of random cot death is FAAAARRRR lower than the risk presented by a sleep-deprived and stressed mother at 2 in the morning for the three hundredth day on the trot. Not a joke.

  20. Well done that three year old! Nothing like showing them who’s boss at the earliest opportunity.

  21. If I had a dollar for each…

    Academics love these studies of degrees of parental attention, because they fit nicely on a spectrum. By contrast, measuring peer influence is messy. But it’s known to be crucial: some parents bust a gut to get the sprog to Eton, others leave the education to gangs.

  22. About ten years ago, my sister read an article in The Atlantic called How To Land Your Kid in Therapy and it completely changed how she parented her two young kids. Psychotherapist who wrote the article said over parenting, or helicopter parenting, can be just as bad as neglecting your child.

    Kids are meant to learn how to handle the world starting when they are young and by the time they are 18 or 19, they have interacted with all sorts of people in a variety of situations. When my sis and I were young, we were often told ‘suck it up, buttercup’ or ‘youve made your bed, now you lie in it’ and my sister realized that was correct attitude from our mother.

    Another thing I think is corrupting children is consumerism, how cheap and plentiful items can be, and kids constantly want new things which is corrupting. When I was child in the 1970s, I had two pair of shoes, three pairs of trousers, a bunch of t shirts and a few sweaters and that’s it. Now, I am gobsmacked by how many clothes and shoes my niece and nephew have but it never seems to be enough, always another shirt or shoes to buy.

  23. I’d guess I’m one of your younger readers, being a millennial born late 80s, but would never have gotten away with screaming for ice cream. Ever. Got that on the annual summer holiday to the beach, if we were lucky.

    I recently did some volunteering at the big bang science fair held in the Birmingham NEC. We got kids to rebalance the UKs energy grid, they were given a multi-billion pound budget, a CO2 limit and could buy model power stations at a few 100m a pop (coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, tidal) and see how many lights they kept on.

    During the Thursday and the Friday, it was school groups. No issues. Saturday and Sundays the parents were there, and we ended up banning them from participation after 2 sessions, as they would *not* let the kids experiment, were snatching models off other kids, drowning out discussion, and calling the game stupid when it became clear that the UK cannot be sensibly run on solar power alone.

    It was quite unbelievable.

  24. If you promised the kid ice cream then you should deliver. However a sensible parent would say, how about “favourite treat” tomorrow rather than a bit of ice cream today.

    Then you don’t have to get ice cream in the middle of the night, and they get a reward that teaches them the value of postponing satisfaction.

    Agreed about the sleeping thing. I looked after a neighbours kid, who was apparently difficult to get to sleep. I took her up before she was over-tired and held her so she couldn’t wriggle. Ten minutes later she was sound asleep.

    Letting your kid ruin your sleep because you don’t establish firm routines, is mental. I’m always astounded how otherwise sensible people will let their kids sleep in their beds.

  25. I agree with you sports is different, I would do the same with a daughter, if I had one.

  26. I’m always astounded how otherwise sensible people will let their kids sleep in their beds.

    That’s very common these days, I think.

  27. I have a 2.5yr-old and am probably not going to have another. Since I really only get to see him for a couple hours max per day I spend it playing with him 1-on1. I really struggle with how to balance instilling independence and quality dad time. The other stuff (eating sweets, sleep time, etc) is pretty easy, honestly. This sort of article kind of terrifies me since I’m not sure how much is too much 1-on-1 play and the implications for his future mental well-being are real.

    The TV thing is a tough one too…

  28. There’s a fortune to be made in self help child rearing books.

    My provisional title: YOU’RE WRONG, I’M RIGHT.

  29. Don’t encourage helicopter-parents to get a dog. “Pet parent” types are very hard on a dog. A dog needs to be able to have confidence that its owner has life pretty much in hand. A hovering, fluttery pet-parent makes the poor dog worried that something awful’s about to happen—why else would my owner be so nervous? People like that are much better off with cats.

    This is why if your dog is afraid of thunder the worst thing you can do is give in to your natural impulse to be reassuring—you’re telling him “Yes! There IS something to be worried about!” Instead the family should mill about busily during a storm. If your family isn’t big enough to mill see if you can enlist the neighbors to help. Eventually the dog will think “Nobody else seems to be worried, I might as well come out and see what’s up.”

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