Mother's Day is a day when moms get a break from their typical parenting responsibilities and are pampered. A mother may be served breakfast in bed, get a pedicure and find the chores get done without her. We hope that all mothers reading this are enjoying such luxuries today.
However, we also want to take this opportunity to reflect on the other 364 days of the year and how to make them less of a contrast to the peace and joy of today. One way to decrease the stress associated with parenting is to think of parenting as something best done in moderation.
People often think that when something is good, then more of that thing is inherently better. However, many things in life healthy in small to moderate amounts become harmful in excess. Eating is necessary for survival, but overeating is currently leading to a national public-health epidemic. The body also requires adequate rest, but too much rest becomes laziness. Even exercise, in excess, can lead to physical injury. We would like to argue that the same is true about parenting. It is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Research has clearly established it is beneficial for children when their parents are involved in their education and activities. Many studies have pointed to the benefits of parents talking to, reading to, playing with and providing their children with activities that help them develop and learn. In fact, early-intervention specialists teach these very behaviours to parents of at-risk children because children with more involved parents tend to perform better academically, have more friends and exhibit fewer behavioural problems.
It is important to note, however, that the benefits of parental involvement are found when researchers compare parents who are generally uninvolved with those who already play an active role in their children's lives. When going from low involvement to moderate involvement, the benefits are numerous.
But, just because some involvement is good does not mean more and more involvement is better and better. We think the relationship of parental involvement to child outcomes is an inverted U-shaped curve. Too little involvement is associated with less-than-optimal child outcomes. As parental involvement increases, child outcomes improve; but at some point, the benefits of involvement reach their peak. Parental involvement in excess of this point may actually have a negative impact on children.
Some research we have done has pointed to the potential negative effects of over-involved parenting. We asked college students about parental involvement in aspects of their daily lives such as selecting classes, settling disputes with roommates and intervening with faculty members over grades. We found that when students perceived their parents as engaging in this type of "helicopter parenting" behaviour, they reported feeling less autonomous and competent. In turn, these feelings were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms and decreased life satisfaction.
As parents, we understand the motivations for high levels of involvement, especially in these times of economic uncertainty. Parents want their children to be happy and successful and act to give their children the advantages they need to compete for limited available resources. It exacerbates the situation when a parent hears stories about what others are doing. When some children's first-grade dioramas were clearly built with the assistance of a structural engineer, a mother may look at her child's tape-and-markers creation and fear her child will fall behind.
When parents solve their children's problems for them, however, they can undermine their children's sense of personal competence. First, the way people develop new skills is by practising them. By not allowing children to try, and, yes, also to fail, they may never develop the skills necessary to succeed in the future. Second, parents may be sending an unintentional message that they don't believe their children are capable of solving their own problems. As a result, children may doubt their ability to solve a problem in addition to not having developed the necessary skills to do so, creating a cycle of dependence on their parents.
This high level of involvement in their children's lives may have negative consequences for parents as well as children. Recently, we conducted a study that looked at how mothers' beliefs about parenting related to their well-being. We found certain beliefs associated with a very intensive style of parenting were related to negative mental-health outcomes for mothers.
Specifically, mothers who believed they should arrange their lives around their children's activities as well as those who thought being a mother was the hardest job in the world reported decreased satisfaction with life. Even after controlling for the amount of social support they received, women who believed mothering was the hardest job in the world also reported more stress and depression.
But why would being a mother be viewed as the hardest job in the world? Because intensive, over-involved mothering is extremely demanding. Parents are constantly transporting their children to and from activities, monitoring (doing?) their homework, and explaining every decision in detail. Making sure every moment of every day is stimulating, educating and entertaining is exhausting. Even when children are physically away from their parents, technology connects them through texting, Facetime, Facebook, etc. Therefore, parents may never get a break.
Mothers, in particular, are affected because of the societal expectation that it is the mother who is primarily responsible for making sure it all gets done. In our study, we found even when women believed that they were better-equipped to parent than their husbands, they did not feel empowered by having a superior skill set. In contrast, they felt more stressed and less satisfied with life.
So, our Mother's Day gift to you is to give you permission to parent in moderation. We are definitely not recommending you neglect your child. Our guess is if you are reading this column, you are probably already talking to, reading with, and providing your children with stimulating activities. In other words, you are doing enough. In fact, if you are feeling as though mothering is the hardest job in the world, you may be doing more than you need to.
Remember, children benefit from solving minor problems on their own, learning to persevere in the face of small failures and having to entertain themselves. Instead of scheduling another activity for your child, you may be better off scheduling some time to relax, see friends, or do something just for fun. If you take better care of yourself, you are likely to be happier. Numerous studies have indicated happier mothers have happier children, so taking some time for yourself is really benefiting both of you.
Happy Mother's Day!
Holly H. Schiffrin and Miriam Liss are psychology professors at the University of Mary Washington. They collaborate on parenting research and are working on a book about parenting and work-family balance.
-- McClatchy Tribune Services