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Excessive parental involvement deprives children of vital learning opportunities

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It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from pain, disappointment or mistakes, but some parents are guilty of swooping in to “fix” whatever situation the child is in — which ultimately is detrimental to the child, experts in the field of child development say.

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Such intervention robs children of valuable learning opportunities, stunts their ability to make decisions and undermines self-confidence, they say.

“There’s really a fine line, in my mind, between being that protective parent and giving kids freedom to figure out things,” said Dawnita Nilles, doctoral graduate student in the University of North Dakota Department of Teaching and Learning.

With her own children, Nilles is focused on “giving age-appropriate freedom along with protection against anything that’s going to be life-long” in consequence, she said. “It’s like a 4-year-old learning to ride a bike. We certainly want to protect them; we have them wear a helmet. “But they’re going to skin their knee. We can’t protect them from every skinned knee.” The tendency to “over-parent” may be rooted, to some degree, in fear, said Brandy Randall, associate professor of human development and family science at North Dakota State University.

“I see parents who are afraid to let their kids explore life,” she said. “They always hover over them.”

“As parents we may feel like we’re protecting kids from things, but the long-term consequences of that are pretty negative.”

When parents step in to finish their kids’ school projects or do their homework, “the primary effect is that the kids are not going to learn responsibility,” Nilles said.

“They won’t have that personal satisfaction of doing things themselves — the sense of accomplishment that ‘I can do it.’ ”

Over-parenting or “hyper-parenting,” however, should not be confused with being supportive, she said.

“There’s a fine line between showing them how to do that math problem and doing the problem for them. It should always be the child’s work on the paper.”

When the parent intercedes, “the child thinks, ‘I’m not good enough to do this. I have to let someone who is older, smarter and more creative than me do it,’ ” Nilles said.

“And then, why should they even try?”

“I’ve heard of teachers who are not sending homework home (with kids) because they know the parent is doing it,” she said. “Wow, that’s scary.”

Authorities in child development emphasize the need for children to learn to become increasingly independent, or “autonomous,” Randall said.

“When children come into the world, they’re completely dependent on their parents. By the time they’re 30, we don’t want to be doing their laundry and paying their bills and making their doctor appointments.

“They have to learn skills they need to become successful, autonomous adults,” she said. “They need to increasingly take responsibility for more of their world.”

When children are very young, they need to learn to deal with small disappointments so they can better handle bigger ones later, she said. “We call it ‘stress inoculation.’”

Parents who are overly involved in their children’s activities “inhibit kids’ ability to develop stress and coping skills,” she said.

Research has shown that children who are over-parented “are afraid to take chances and afraid to fail,” Randall said.

“Parents need to be OK with kids failing and not being good at things.”

In school, each year builds on the last one, Nilles said. “If parents are doing projects, there’s going to be a point when the child doesn’t have the skills.”

Starting at a young age, kids need “to learn how to organize a project to get it to completion,” she said. “They need to learn time management.

“In the real world, the boss isn’t going to do the project for them.”

The trend toward over-parenting is “concerning,” she said. “Is it going to be the employer who has to teach these skills because parents have not?”

Children learn work-related and other skills as they are given “age-appropriate responsibility” at each stage of their development, Nilles said.

“We give them responsibility and privileges because they’re gaining those skills.”

Parenting is hard work, Nilles said. “The hardest thing for parents to learn is that every child is so unique. One child might be ready (for a new responsibility); another might not be ready at the same age.”

As a society, Randall said, “we think of childhood as a time of joy and wonderment. I think we also need to think of childhood as a time of training for adulthood. What skills do we want adults to have?”

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