Raising Successful Children

An article by Madeline Levine in the New York Times this past Sunday was one of the best I have ever read.  Her insights, IMHO are spot on.  A worthy read….below.

Madeline Levine is a clinician, consultant and the author, most recently, of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.”

PHRASES like “tiger mom” and “helicopter parent” have made their way into everyday language. But does overparenting hurt, or help?

While parents who are clearly and embarrassingly inappropriate come in for ridicule, many of us find ourselves drawn to the idea that with just a bit more parental elbow grease, we might turn out children with great talents and assured futures. Is there really anything wrong with a kind of “overparenting lite”?

Parental involvement has a long and rich history of being studied. Decades of studies, many of them by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy. These “authoritative parents” appear to hit the sweet spot of parental involvement and generally raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially than children whose parents are either permissive and less involved, or controlling and more involved. Why is this particular parenting style so successful, and what does it tell us about overparenting?

For one thing, authoritative parents actually help cultivate motivation in their children. Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford University, has done research that indicates why authoritative parents raise more motivated, and thus more successful, children.

In a typical experiment, Dr. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle. Most do so with little difficulty. But then Dr. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence. Tackling more difficult puzzles carries the risk of losing one’s status as “smart” and deprives kids of the thrill of choosing to work simply for its own sake, regardless of outcomes. Dr. Dweck’s work aligns nicely with that of Dr. Baumrind, who also found that reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes.

Their research confirms what I’ve seen in more than 25 years of clinical work, treating children in Marin County, an affluent suburb of San Francisco. The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.

The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality. If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality. Ditto nightly “reviews” of homework, repetitive phone calls to “just check if you’re O.K.” and “editing” (read: writing) your child’s college application essay.

Once your child is capable of doing something, congratulate yourself on a job well done and move on. Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself (if he’s young) or angry at you (if he’s a teenager).

But isn’t it a parent’s job to help with those things that are just beyond your child’s reach? Why is it overparenting to do for your child what he or she is almost capable of?

Think back to when your toddler learned to walk. She would take a weaving step or two, collapse and immediately look to you for your reaction. You were in thrall to those early attempts and would do everything possible to encourage her to get up again. You certainly didn’t chastise her for failing or utter dire predictions about flipping burgers for the rest of her life if she fell again. You were present, alert and available to guide if necessary. But you didn’t pick her up every time.

You knew she had to get it wrong many times before she could get it right.

HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It’s easier when they’re young — tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a preteenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimizing risk for our children.

What kinds of risks should we tolerate? If there’s a predator loose in the neighborhood, your daughter doesn’t get to go to the mall. But under normal circumstances an 11-year-old girl is quite capable of taking care of herself for a few hours in the company of her friends. She may forget a package, overpay for an item or forget that she was supposed to call home at noon. Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids, for toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood, for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks — the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate — that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.

So if children are able to live with mistakes and even failing, why does it drive us crazy? So many parents have said to me, “I can’t stand to see my child unhappy.” If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.

While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.

There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do his math homework. Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic. Compare this with the parent who spends weeks “helping” his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a “gotta get into” school is a certainty. (While most of my parent patients have graduated from college, it is always a telltale sign of overparenting when they talk about how “we’re applying to Columbia.”)

In both situations parents are using control, in the first case behavioral (sit down, do your math) and in the second psychological (“we’re applying.”) It is psychological control that carries with it a textbook’s worth of damage to a child’s developing identity. If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside. Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends’ children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting aimed at meeting the parents’ need for status or affirmation and not the child’s needs.

So how do parents find the courage to discard the malpractice of overparenting? It’s hard to swim upstream, to resist peer pressure. But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering.

A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy.

Parents also have to be clear about their own values. Children watch us closely. If you want your children to be able to stand up for their values, you have to do the same. If you believe that a summer spent reading, taking creek walks and playing is better than a specialized camp, then stick to your guns. Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Sari Nickelsburg

    “HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.” This has been my biggest challenge as a parent, and my child is only three. The only thing that’s made it is easier is the sheer joy on his face when he conquers a task or problem on his own. Not to be trite but when he proudly exclaims “I did it!”, it reminds me that the entire point of parenting is to send your kids out into the world with the confidence and ability to do it on their own.

    1. Gotham Gal

      you got it. you are raising an adult even though he is only 3.

  2. Rohan

    You know Joanne, I had a very cool interview with my guitar teacher and one of my questions to him was..–Rohan: For a kid who just starts out, what kind of role do the parents play in the journey?Drue: I have certain parents who are just very good at it. They have the talent for it. When they start at about 8 years, for the next 6 months they would encourage the kid to practice. Eventually the child would start practicing without the parents. The parents would be more and more supportive mentally. I think the ideal role that the parents are playing would be to assist the child and not push.–I thought he nailed it when he said ‘assist, not push’http://www.alearningaday.co…

    1. Gotham Gal

      i like that. assist not push.

  3. Jomamma

    Thank you so much for posting this. It is something I continually struggle with and it’s so great to get the reminder to let her do things for herself. Of course I hate to see her unhappy but I know, deep down, that sticking to my guns on something that I know to be right, and letting her cry, is more important than giving in and cheering her up in the short term.

    1. Gotham Gal

      failure, crying, getting your finger caught in the door…it’s all about figuring it out themselves.

  4. lindsaycampbell

    My favorite part of that Aspen Ideas Festival talk you posted was Lawrence Cohen, author or Playful Parenting’s saying (which he quoted from a former supervisor) “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. I feel like the Attachment Parenting principles that are so popular right now fail to make the distinction between when to comfort and when to challenge and result in kids who can’t sleep alone, walk without a stroller or comfort themselves when they are frustrated, tired, or mad. This whole panel was a breath of fresh air. Thanks for posting!

    1. Gotham Gal

      it was a really good panel. smart people who really saw through the lines of the insane parenting going on around our country…

    2. AMT Editorial Staff

      Please add to the list, 2 year olds and older with pacifiers in their mouths…it’s a muzzle. And then food becomes the next substitute to keep children quiet and “happy.”

    3. Kirsten Lambertsen

      I have used a great deal of attachment parenting with my kids. And they each turned out completely differently. People seem to forget that children are people with their own personalities. They aren’t clay to be molded, and they will each react in their own way to any parenting approach.Attachment parenting is very misunderstood. It’s all about teaching your kids how to comfort themselves.

      1. lindsaycampbell

        I think that it is so misunderstood (by me, especially!) that it makes the messages even more confusing. I feel confronted by other parents all the time if I’m not making the same choices as them. LA and NYC are especially bad, and I’ve raised my son in both. I’m really open to whatever helps my son become well-adjusted and able to cope with the challenges his life hands him. I totally agree with you that precisely BECAUSE each child is their own person there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to parent. I’m sorry that I attacked Attachment Parenting specifically. If that’s what works for your family then that’s wonderful!

        1. Kirsten Lambertsen

          It’s also misunderstood by a lot of people who practice it 🙂 The recent Time magazine cover (was it Time?) with the 3 year old breast-feeder didn’t do it any favors, PR-wise, ha!I agree with you emphatically about other parents, and would extend it to the entire childcare system in general. We’re dealing with pre-schools right now. It’s discouraging at best. There really is an environment right now that there’s a “right” way to do everything in parenting, and if you aren’t complying with it the judgment that people feel entitled to pass is just obnoxious.Parenting is complicated. Yet finding your way to your own style often seems to boil down to a single philosophy, doesn’t it?

  5. bijan

    this is so good. thanks for sharing this. read it twice.

    1. Gotham Gal

      me too.

  6. awaldstein

    Good piece.Need to say though that of all the things we do in life that are messy…be they building a biz, relationships…parenting is the easiest to search for the guidelines and the hardest to apply them when things are out of whack.And, many kids fall down holes. Some minor, some large and take years to get out of like doing harmful stuff to themselves, their families, drugs and on and on.Most get out of these holes but the dynamics of parenting change when extreme situations drive problems to the top of the daily pace of life.Applying the great principals in this piece to situations that are not even close to text book norms is something that is not addressed often enough.

    1. pixiedust8

      That’s a good point. I wonder if the author’s book addresses that, since I’ve read another piece where she mentions that she counsels many children/teens who have issues.

      1. awaldstein

        Kids issues become family and life issues.I always try to think of this as family dynamics not just parenting although obviously they are intertwined.

    2. Gotham Gal

      Parenting defines ebb and flow. Extreme situations or any situation where you kid is out of whack is seriously difficult to know if you are doing the right thing. Each step can be brand new. Tough job but also the most rewarding.

      1. awaldstein

        True…I raised a teenage boy mostly by myself.Tough years. We are amazingly close today.

    3. Donna Brewington White

      Parenting may be the messiest thing that I do even as the thing I care about most and put the most thought into. It is just so dynamic and the same approach that works so perfectly with one child can backfire with another. I don’t know what else requires this level of alertness, of awareness, with so much at stake. And yet anxiety is not an option, is destructive.

      1. awaldstein

        We agree at the deepest core level on this.No wonder we are such good friends Donna.

        1. Donna Brewington White


      2. Gotham Gal

        Hardest job ever

  7. pixiedust8

    I definitely want to read her new book. That said, this is common sense, but apparently, we have gotten to the point where we (society) need this kind of stuff pointed out to us.I had a friend who was pushed and supervised many years ago, and both she and her sister–who are very bright–do nothing for a living now. They were burned out by the relentlessness of their parents–and it totally backfired. I guess the happy medium is harder than it seems.

    1. Kirsten Lambertsen

      I respectfully disagree. As a new parent, I don’t think that parenting is “common sense.” I think it takes a lot of thought, and is frankly one thing that is worth as much thought as you can give it.The beginning of the piece presented something that I think goes contrary to common sense. It’s very counter-intuitive to me not to praise my kids when they accomplish a challenging task.I applaud anyone who devotes time to learning to be a better parent. I don’t think parenting is any more common sense than driving a car is. It is something you learn, even if you had ‘ideal’ parents, yourself.

      1. pixiedust8

        I think some people are naturals, so to speak, and some aren’t. I’ve seen both.

  8. JimHirshfield

    Thanks. Sharing it now.

  9. ellen

    great advice. So many times I see that a parent’s own social barometer going up as to the “ivyness” of the college. They use it as another status symbol.Interestingly, I have a friend who stayed home with her first child up to age 2 . She used reading and math flash cards when her child was still in the high chair. She was very territorial and never stopped bugging that child. He is now more fearful and inward. At age 13 she still doesn’t give him a break. She wrote his Bar Mitzah speech.When her second child was born, this mother went back to work. The second child was raised by nannies but he is outgoing, self motivated and is not afraid to take risks.

    1. Gotham Gal

      let your kid be independent. that is one of the scariest things in the world for parents.

  10. AMT Editorial Staff

    Best Line of the article: “There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent.” So very true. Could add about parents trying to make up for their perceived “lack” through their children.

    1. Gotham Gal

      “lack” is spot on. living vicariously through your kids is not pretty.

  11. rachel

    I have found that most of the parents (moms) I connect with all think this way. There is definitely a pervasive movement towards the opposite. We had baby proofers who came to our house when my son was 8 mos. I told him I wanted him to identify anything that could be fatal – i.e. falling out of a window, furniture tipping over but was ok with my kids getting their finger slammed, etc. He looked at me like I was crazy, but I really believe it’s how children learn.Also, having parents who totally lived for me and very little else I can’t express how important it is to have happy parents. A big goal for me.A really good read.

    1. Gotham Gal

      i agree. we never baby-proofed our house.

  12. JimHirshfield

    I just read this again. Still SO eye-opening. Keeping this post open as a browser tab for a long time. Gonna read it again and again.

  13. AG

    I really appreciated this article and immediately sent it to my dear mother, who was and is definitely culpable of trying to clean up my brothers mistakes and ensure he “does what he’s supposed to do.” He’s in college. Where I think the point of view gets tricky is when it comes to children who are not living up to their potentials and making choices that will negatively impact their futures. Levine writes, “if children are willing to deal with mistakes and even failing…”I’m not sure kids are willing to deal with short term failure and certainly not failure that will impact them in the future, something their brains at younger ages may not yet have the capacity to process. She doesn’t either address the blow to self esteem failure can cause, even if the child is choosing that failure by failing to take the steps he or she should be taking. It’s hard to make up for lost time and to undo mistakes one’s made.I keep coming back to school. What’s actually stuck out to me from the entrepreneurs you highlight is how many of them are Ivy League (and other prestigious university) educated. Surely not a coincidence. And to attend an elite university these days, one needs to be on that train from a young age. The tiger mom certainly scares me as do mothers who write college application essays for their kids, but in this regard, I think it’s harder to let kids who may not be self-motivated fail.

  14. RichardF

    The last paragraph is pure gold

  15. Raising a Child

    Parents behavior is the main role in the Raising a Child life. Parents make there them Healthy Child with there care and love.

  16. Janet Hanson

    “One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.” Amen to that. 🙂

  17. Donna Brewington White

    Thank you for sharing this fantastic article. Timely for me. I was just thinking of another post you did on parenting teens a few years back. At the time, I asked my oldest son who is a year older than your Josh if he thought it was accurate and to my surprise (and I admit also to my dismay) he emphatically agreed. It was a conversation starter. I’ve grown up a lot since that moment.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Wow. So nice to hear

  18. Kirsten Lambertsen

    I don’t find hanging back and allowing my kids to make their own mistakes difficult at all.The part of this piece that made me squirm is the part about not telling my kids they’re smart and capable. I really have to work on “Yay for you!” and “Wasn’t that fun?” instead of “You are SO smart!” (This is something that I don’t think really counts as over-parenting, does it? Just telling a kid he’s smart or talented?)At Montessori, this is something they emphasize, focusing on the process and not the result. I think I need to do more of that in my parenting.At the end of the day, I think the best thing you can do is set the example. I see it in my kids every day. They do what I DO, not what I SAY 🙂