Spotlight On: Over-Parenting

30 August 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 30 August 2019.

I have for some years resisted getting a satnav for my car, because I know the safety net of the satnav would tempt me too much. I would stop paying attention and eventually become dependent on it, with no idea how to navigate any distance myself. Simply being in the passenger seat has the same effect on me: I know the driver is responsible for getting us there and back, so I tune out.

So it is with our children. Since executive function is a vital but finite resource, we are wired to use it only where necessary. In other words, we’ll avoid thinking about things if we can. This helps us to understand how deliberate rationing of our mental resources is key to high performance. It also helps us understand why we have a tendency towards irresponsibility if – like the passenger in the car – we can get away with it.

This is where parents come in.

Taking responsibility for our own lives is hard work. It is mental effort that we would all like to avoid – and that includes our children. They will assume the mental load of taking responsibility for themselves only if the circumstances require it. As parents and teachers, our duty is to shape circumstances such that they will demand personal responsibility of our children.

Dr Judith Locke has written and presented extensively on this topic, and in an article this week she gave some good practical advice on how to avoid over-parenting. In our context at Queenwood, the reception staff have a wonderful window into the tendency of young people to shift responsibility onto their parents, so I asked them for their observations about where our girls seek unnecessary help. These are perfect opportunities to teach our children independence and personal responsibility.

Forgotten lunches are the most frequent example. What’s the worst-case scenario if a girl forgets her lunch or doesn’t place her order in time? The Worst Possible Outcome is that she will get a plain sandwich provided by the School, instead of a lovingly prepared selection of favourites from home.

No girl will go hungry. Junior School girls who have no lunch simply tell their teacher, Senior School girls tell reception – and food is promptly provided. (The Junior School girls who eat all their lunch at recess and then claim to have nothing are a slight variation – but they too won’t go hungry!)

Supporting our children at school is a good thing but, tempting as it is, reflexively leaping into action to deliver a forgotten lunch is a sign of over-parenting. What does it teach her? She will learn that eating something that is not customised to her preferences is a hardship beyond her capacity to bear. She will learn that there is no point in making the effort to organise herself, because an adult will step in to make sure that her life will be just as comfortable if she doesn’t. But one or two plain sandwiches later, she will be far more likely to remember her lunch!

Forgotten sports uniform and musical instruments are the next most frequent. The Worst Possible Outcome here is that she will have to sit out the training or rehearsal, and that she will have to accept a scolding from a teacher or, for older girls, even a sanction such as a detention.

What could she learn from this? She could learn that it’s worth paying attention to her timetable and packing her bags the night before. She could learn that being part of a team means making an effort not to let others down. She could learn that everybody makes a mistake now and then, but tomorrow is a new day and life will go on even if she does get into (very minor) trouble today.

What will she learn from having the missing item delivered? She will learn that preparing herself is not worth the effort. She will learn that the adults in her life think her needs should take priority over theirs, which is why they will drop everything and do a delivery for their daughter rather than get on with their own busy lives. In short, she will over time learn behaviours that will make her more rather than less selfish, more rather than less irresponsible, more rather than less dependent. (We also have some spares – uniform and instruments – that are available and can save the day, if only she will ask!)

We reinforce to the girls that their school lives are their responsibility. When it comes to uniforms, for instance, we arrange workshops for the Senior School girls so they can learn to hem their own skirts rather than assuming that it is for mum to fix (and sadly they rarely assume it’s dad’s problem). We teach them friendship skills, and whilst we would always expect parents to tell us if they think there is a substantial case of bullying, we also ask that girls should generally be given the time and space to learn to resolve relationships for themselves.

Girls are given repeated reminders – to return permission slips, to clean their shoes or adjust their uniforms, to submit their homework, to bring their equipment. No girl deliberately ignores these in order to make trouble for herself, and like all parents I am tempted to rescue a tearful child who has made a simple mistake. But the reality is that these kinds of mistakes are perfect learning opportunities because the Worst Possible Outcomes are, in the scheme of things, trivial. If we respond as if these outcomes are catastrophes, we reinforce needless anxieties and entrench helplessness.

No single action by us will determine our child’s future, but our habits become theirs. In the current Zeitgeist, the tendency on the part of all adults (not just parents) is towards over-intervention in the lives of children. I’m not saying that anyone who has ever delivered a lunch is a bad parent. I am saying that we all need to stop, think and generally do much less of the day-to-day for our children.

The opportunities for our children to learn are endless, and the thing to remember is that the stakes are low while they are at school. In the moment, it is tempting to step in – after all, is any lunch or assignment or musical instrument worth enduring tears and panic? No. But the point is that personal responsibility is a habit, and habits must be practised to take root. Over time, her habits will tend towards independence and responsibility or towards calling home for help. When she’s 18 and heading off for a gap year in south-east Asia, what do you want her habits to be?

Ms Elizabeth Stone