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Science Says You Should Give Child-Led Parenting a Try. Here’s Why

4 essential tips for child-led parenting

Published on: June 29, 2021

mother sitting on the ground outside her house playing with sidewalk chalk with her two children

It is often said that engaged parenting is the best way to raise a child. An example of being engaged could be discussing the reasons behind the emotion-driven behavior of characters in your kid’s favorite show and helping them learn about appropriate ways to react if they find themselves in a similar situation. The discussion could even explain why your child isn’t allowed to watch certain films or play certain games.

Although engaged parenting has its benefits, the line between being an engaged parent and being an overly engaged one may occasionally become a little blurred. Researchers whose studies have largely focused on overindulgent parenting say that when you give too much, love too much or excuse too much, you could be doing your child a major disservice. They say that overindulgent parenting can lead to lasting issues, such as learned helplessness, irresponsibility, poor self-control and a sense of entitlement.

In a recent study, researchers led by Stanford University associate professor Jelena Obradović observed how parents engaged with their kids in everyday situations, such as when they were playing, tidying up after themselves, learning a new game or discussing a problem. Approximately 100 children between the ages of 4 and 6 participated in the study. The researchers wanted to analyze parent-child engagement to understand how that engagement influences children’s behavior.

The study found that too much parent-led parenting can be counterproductive. In other words, the children of parents who intervened unnecessarily — for instance by suggesting solutions or asking questions even when their children were on top of things — were more likely to have a more difficult time regulating their behavior and their emotions. These children also tended to struggle more with issues related to self-control, executive function skills and attention. 

Ever since psychologist Haim Ginott interviewed a teen who spoke of feeling like his parents constantly “hovered over him, like a helicopter,” “helicopter parenting" has become a term commonly used to refer to parents who are always present, parents who overindulge their children. This type of “hovering” parenting can lead to negative outcomes. That said, children need their parents to be present, they need nurturing and they need some form of structure in order to thrive. So, how do you find the right balance between being too present and not being present enough?

The Stanford University researchers suggest that adopting child-led parenting can make it easier to know when you need to intervene and when it is time to pull back. Here are four easy ways to adopt this practice. 

Don’t help unless you have to.

Wanting to help your child is normal, but too much intervention can prevent them from learning to do things by and for themselves. Honestly go over how you engage. Does your child constantly require your help? Are you always hovering? What do you do for them that you should be letting them do for themselves? Be honest about what you need to stop doing and what your child needs to start doing independently. Be willing to step back and let them lead in situations where your intervention is unnecessary.

Give your child the tools they need to succeed.

You’ve probably heard Maria Montessori’s well-known mantra: “Help me to help myself.”

Montessori believed that if children were provided with the right tools in the right environment, they would succeed. In terms of raising your child, this means helping them develop important skills, such as:

  • Decision-making – Encourage your child to participate in the decisions that concern them. Examples can be as mundane as asking them to choose between their red shirt or their blue one. Invite them to negotiate the “negotiables,” or ask for their opinion when making a family decision or solving a family issue.
  • Autonomy – Set your child up to accomplish things for themselves by ensuring that they have the tools they need to succeed. For example, some clothing (no zippers, no shoelaces, etc.) can make it easier for even the youngest children to get dressed by themselves. Encouraging your child to do age-appropriate chores shows them that they are capable of success.

Step in when you have to.

Although kids benefit from experimenting and learning to do things by themselves, there are many occasions when they require a parent to intervene. For example, coaching your child to express their emotions in words helps them develop their emotional intelligence skills.

Most children require parental intervention to help them understand and learn to deal with difficult situations. That said, parental intervention does not mean shielding your child from those situations. It simply means being present to talk things over and provide them with the tools they need to deal with those situations when they recur in the future. 

Provide a strong structure.

Freedom can work only within an established structure. You can let go only if both you and your child are aware of what is expected. So, what are your negotiables and nonnegotiables in terms of your child’s behavior? What do you expect from your child, and what are the consequences if those expectations are not met? Does your child clearly understand the expectations and the consequences?

Overly engaged parenting always comes from a good place, but it can turn your child into a dependent adult. The more you let go, the more you show your child that you believe they have what it takes to succeed in life.

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