Finding the right balance in helping children
Interesting column by Eli J. Finkel and Gráinne M. Fitzsimons:
American parents are more involved in our children’s lives than ever: we schedule play dates, assist with homework and even choose college courses.
We know that all of this assistance has costs — depleted bank balances, constricted social lives — but we endure them happily, believing we are doing what is best for our children.
What if, however, the costs included harming our children?
That unsettling possibility is suggested by a paper published in February in the American Sociological Review. The study, led by the sociologist Laura T. Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, finds that the more money parents spend on their child’s college education, the worse grades the child earns.
A separate study, published the same month in the Journal of Child and Family Studies and led by the psychologist Holly H. Shiffrin at the University of Mary Washington, finds that the more parents are involved in schoolwork and selection of college majors — that is, the more helicopter parenting they do — the less satisfied college students feel with their lives.
Why would parents help produce these negative outcomes? It seems that certain forms of help can dilute recipients’ sense of accountability for their own success. The college student might think: If Mom and Dad are always around to solve my problems, why spend three straight nights in the library during finals rather than hanging out with my friends?
And there is no reason to believe that parents and children have cornered the market on these dynamics. Indeed, “helicopter helping” should yield similar consequences in virtually any relationship — with spouses, friends, co-workers — in which one person can help another.
We tested this idea in a 2011 experiment, published in the journal Psychological Science, in which we randomly assigned American women who cared a lot about their health and fitness to think about how their spouse was helpful, either with their health and fitness goals or for their career goals. . .