The most common message from educators and parenting experts is: Get involved with your children, their school, their activities.

Then there’s the small caveat: But not too much.

“The major problem nationally is underinvolved parents,” said psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of “The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life.” “But in affluent suburban neighborhoods, you get a lot of parents who are way overinvolved.

Call them controlling, pushy, enmeshed or hyper: Parents who’ve become too invested in their child’s success (or failure), be it in academics, sports, appearance or social life.

Overinvolvement “reflects some emotional need on the parent’s part, not the best interests of the child,” said Dan Neuharth, author of “If You Had Controlling Parents.” “Parents’ hopes and fears for themselves are transferred onto the child.”

Everything from books (recent example: “Raising Your Child to Be a Champion in Athletics, Arts and Academics”) to Baby Einstein videos to the specialization of youth sports encourages the idea that it’s up to parents to ensure their kids are the brightest and most athletic. Not taking advantage of every learning opportunity, one author notes, is practically considered middle-class child neglect.

“Overinvolved parents and overscheduled children are the recommended ways to raise children these days,” said Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.” “And it’s really not to anyone’s good.

“Parents have to ask themselves, “Do my kids feel they’re the authors of their own lives, or do they feel they’re living a life someone else scripted for them?”

Getting an early start

It starts early and hard, beginning with new parents, said Muffy Mead-Ferro, who wrote a backlash memoir, “Confessions of a Slacker Mom.” When she was pregnant, “I started to feel intense pressure to perform as a mom and make my baby perform too,” she said. “I was already expected to be molding and shaping her even while she was in the womb.”

She decided giving her children, now 4 and 6, the opportunity to solve their own problems – and saving herself a lot of hassle – would contribute more to their success than piping in Mozart.

“It hurts when your 3-year-old says, ‘Get out of my way,’ because you want to be a part of everything they do. But we have to be willing to let them do things themselves, and do it imperfectly,” said Muffy Mead-Ferro.

Considering long-term effects

No one is suggesting parents shouldn’t be supportive, encouraging and active in their child’s lives; numerous studies show children who are emotionally connected to their parents do better in school and make good life choices, such as avoiding drugs.

But overinvolved parents, even with the best intentions, often fail to consider the long-term effects of always intruding in a child’s life, experts say.

Children struggling in school performed better when parents took hands-off, positive approach rather than a critical, controlling one, according to a study by Eva Pomerantz, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. Her research was reported in a spring issue of Child Development.

“For low achievers with moms who had controlling responses, kids’ grades went down over six months,” she said. When parents offered encouragement and supported the child’s problem-solving skills, children had better grades in the same time period.

High achievers did well regardless of parents’ response, Pomerantz said. That could be because these children already get positive feedback in school and don’t need parents to reinforce their competence, she noted. “Low achievers need that extra boost from parents.”

Parents shouldn’t help unless a child asks for assistance, Pomerantz said. If a child is having difficulty, parents can sit next to children as they work and ask guiding questions. “If you simply give the answer, you’re not helping your child in the long run,” she said.

“The more you step in, the more your child becomes dependent on you for the next time,” agreed Michael Murphy, head of Seattle Country Day School, an independent private school with kindergarten through eighth grade. “Parents can’t constantly rescue children from every mistake. Kids have to slip and stumble sometimes for their long-term growth.”

Young children will attempt to please their parents, then burn out and “just throw you over” when they’re old enough to assert their independence, Thompson said.

Neuharth agrees: “If you make decisions for your child, like making him try out for the school play because you always wanted to, the probable effect is alienating your child as he grows older.”

Parents might get their A pluses, but aren’t teaching life lessons. “If you push too hard, kids respond to you, instead of the material,” Thompson said. “They’re dutiful students instead of inspired ones.”

The consequences can also stretch into relationships and future workplaces. Controlling parents often refuse to let children disagree, or negate their anger, said Neuharth, a marriage and family therapist in California. If children feel they have to act a certain way to gain their parents’ love or respect, “one possible legacy as an adult is that it’s hard to be oneself. It’s hard to have a full emotional range.”

Also, when children grow up, they either rebel against authority or always want someone else to make a decision, Neuharth said. Neither attitude wins points with bosses.


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