With the competitive nature of college acceptances, the rising norm of GPAs that far exceed 4.0, and SAT/ ACT scores that border on perfection, it’s no wonder why parents are becoming increasingly anxious about their child’s ability to get a fair chance at a decent future after high school. Many parents these days come from a generation when simply applying yourself in school meant being accepted to a good college and finding a career that would hopefully provide a life of financial stability (and make your family proud in the process). Whether you were the first in your family to graduate college or the next in line to carry on the family legacy at a specific collegiate institution, one thing was for sure: attending a decent college was your path toward a successful future. Now, as a parent, you naturally want to draw on your own life experience to prepare your child for their future, in hopes that they will achieve a better life than even you have had. Your goal is to ensure that your child is loved, safe, and has the best possible running start at this thing called life.
Despite these good intentions, supporting your child on their path toward a bright future can sometimes lead to what is known as “overparenting.” While parenting and parental involvement is a good thing, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. Let’s set the scene. Your child is quickly approaching senior year. You hear other parents eagerly discussing summer programs, test prep courses, and college tours. You find yourself researching college acceptance rates and last year’s polling on college acceptance requirements and begin to squirm. Your mind is racing and you are plagued with worried thoughts. Will my child be able to get into a good school? He/ she doesn’t even keep their room clean or do their homework without my nagging, how will he/ she manage to navigate life after high school without me? Why is this all happening so quickly? I’m so far behind; my child just isn’t ready.
Propelled by these thoughts, you schedule a plethora of after-school and summer activities that you think will make your child a more well-rounded college candidate. You organize school books, folders, and binders, showing your child how to prepare themselves for success in their classes. You email their teachers, scheduling office visits to talk about your child’s grades and ways that they can improve in class. You encourage your child to meet with their teachers regularly and, once scheduled, remind them to attend these meetings. When your child gets a poor grade, you know immediately because you have checked the online grading portal and discuss with them what needs to be done to “fix” the grade.
In your mind, allowing your child to fail is not an option because it would mean that you have somehow failed at parenting. (While this is not true, in the moment it can feel truer than true.) In your mind, your child’s educational shortcomings have come to represent a failure on your part. So, you “parent” even more. You model success for your child by doing the work with them, no matter how long it takes. You stay up late at night, reading, editing, and–at times–rewriting your child’s papers. You create outlines to help your child better organize their thoughts in preparation for upcoming tests. You are there in the trenches with your child, and failure is off of the table. You are doing your best to support your child in navigating this phase of adolescent trial-and-error to ensure their success.
Despite the best intentions, this level of parental involvement can leave a child ill-prepared for their future. Although you had hoped to foster agency, success, and independence in your child, you now have a child who lacks independent thinking, organization, self-confidence or urgency. In the process of teaching, you have actually done everything for your child, leaving them unable to independently problem-solve and navigate difficult situations without your guidance. A recent UCLA study found that parents who take over tasks that their children could be performing independently limit the child’s ability to develop mastery of a skill, leading to greater instances of anxiety and depression.
While no parents wants to see their child experience physical or emotional pain, failure is actually the best teacher. It is in the time of failure that your child learns what needs to be done differently in the future. I have talked to many parents who fear that if their child experiences failure they will become anxious and depressed. In reality, “overparenting” is more likely to contribute to a child’s anxiety and depression than simply allowing them to fail and learn. Learning is a process of exposure and mistakes.
Today, I encourage you to take a long, hard look at your level of involvement in your child’s day-to-day process. Are you, despite your best intentions, guilty of overparenting? Trust the foundation that you have laid, and give your child the chance to fail. They will surely learn in the process. By being overly cautious and involved, you are potentially encouraging a sense of self-doubt and insecurity in your child. This generation of children has some of the most creative minds we have seen in quite some time. They are out-of-the-box thinkers, eager to break free from those parameters set by our own generation and others before. Allow your child to embrace who they are at a pace that is right for them. They will surely achieve a rich and fulfilling life measured by their own definition of success, and it may far surpass what you ever imagined or expected.