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Over-Parenting Can Do More Harm Than Not Enough


Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share with the Huffington Post community the following thoughts. I wanted to share them with you as well…

Everyone agrees that it’s a crime to neglect a child. That’s a no brainer. What we’ve failed to see for two decades is that over-parenting — not under-parenting — can do even more harm.

Psychologists have found that a kid without an attentive parent can be emotionally damaged — but soon discover they must find a way to fend for themselves. Children from over-parented homes can just plain fail to develop at all.

The Bully Issue

Dieter Wolke, Ph.D, Professor of Developmental Psychology at The University of Warwick Medical School in the UK, and lead author of this study, gives a practical example of how this plays out: “Overprotection by parents can increase the risk a child will be bullied.” According to the study published last week in Child Abuse & Neglect, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 70 studies on more than 200,000 children. “Since parental support and supervision are important aspects to prevent bullying, the researchers were particularly surprised to find that over-protective parenting can have adverse effects on children. Parents who try too hard to buffer their children from harm, they assessed, can actually hurt them.”

The goal of parenting, Dr. Wolke suggests, is to make children competent, self-regulating, and effective people. “Children need to deal with various forms of stress in mild doses — like an inoculation that helps the body to fight a real infection by having built antibodies. Similarly, children do need to experience some conflict to learn how to deal with larger problems, such as bullying.”

Five Action Steps

So, what’s the answer? Either extreme — abandonment or abundance — is wrong. So how do we nurture young people, but not over-do it? The parents and teachers I know who equip students to handle bullying and other difficulties on campus practice the following action steps:

1. Teach your kids problem solving skills.

Instead of conditioning our young people to “depend on parents” to fix what’s wrong, why not cultivate a “problem-solving bias” in them, to understand and resolve their problems — whether it’s a low test score, a bully on the bus, or a deadline they can’t meet. This builds a can-do attitude in them, a resilient spirit as they encounter challenges and it prepares them for life.

2. Discuss the art of negotiation.

Much of life is about negotiating conflict with others and resolving it with a win/win solution or a compromise. I’ve spent years talking to my son, Jonathan, about negotiating conflict with difficult peers when they disagreed or with teachers when an assignment seemed impossible. This deepens their logic, empathy and ability to communicate. It’s a skill they will use the rest of their lives.

3. Build emotional intelligence in your kids.

EQ, not IQ, is the greatest predictor of success for young people, both as students and later as graduates. Emotional intelligence enables a person to be self-aware; to manage their own emotions; to be socially aware (how are people connected or disconnected with each other) and to manage relationships. When we build healthy EQ in our kids, we prepare them to be more resilient. (Note: we’re currently creating two new books called Habitudes and Emotional Intelligence).

4. Help them set and manage expectations.

I believe that much of life is about setting and managing healthy, realistic expectations. Kids become unhealthy when they just can’t seem to navigate what to expect (or feel entitled to) and the reality they face. For example, while we wish everyone was kind and empathetic, even grown adults can be… uh, well, immature. Prepare your kids for hardship; tell them life can be tough. It’s normal.

5. Don’t do it for them.

Whatever you do, as your kids grow older, move from “doing it for them” to “helping them learn to do it themselves.” Don’t give them a fish; teach them to fish. By age 10, when they can’t finish a project or meet a deadline, or make a practice, have them call their teacher or coach. Teach them to apologize for mistakes. If need be, go to the teacher with them, even hold their hand, but have them do the talking. It works.

Talk to me. What would you add to this list?


  1. TxMomof4 on May 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

    So true! There is a great deal of difference between a hand up and a hand out and the same applies to raising a child. We can teach them to be dependent on others to take care of them or we can feed their confidence and coping abilities so that they can take on whatever life throws at them for themselves. Even young children can start learning these lessons – my 3 year old twins dress themselves, buckle into their carseats, put their dishes in the sink,etc. It gives them confidence and pride in their own abilities. I don’t hover or do it for them, even when it would be easier or faster. Convenience does not raise self sufficient and capable adults.

    • Tim Elmore on May 22, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      Thanks for sharing..It is so true, isn’t it? It does give kids a sense of confidence when they accomplish a task on their own. Great feedback!

  2. Suzanne on May 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you for this. I’m trying hard to be a “free range parent” and gradually giving my boys independence. It comes naturally for me to want to do things for them, so I make a conscious decisions every day to hand over what I think they are capable of, and letting them figure things out on their own. I see parents of their grade school peers finishing homework assignments and staying up late to complete projects for their kids so their child can make honor roll. I figure that now is the time for these kids to be making their mistakes (and hopefully learning from them), while a low grade won’t affect which college they get into.

  3. Steven Fekete on May 24, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Tim, I really enjoyed this article. I am a 28 year old guy who definitely experienced growing up with over-parenting. I have definitely felt it’s effects in my adult life, but only just recently realized how much of a detriment it has placed on my development. This especially showed itself when I got married last year.

    Tim, my question for you is this: I really appreciate your advice on how to help prevent these issues in children, but what is your advice as someone who has already grown up with these problems and now is trying to help himself? Do you have any words of wisdom? Any advice is appreciated!

  4. Heather Lantry Rubio on May 25, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Thanks Tim. Great article. I was parented the way you suggest so it comes easy to me. But unfortunately most parents today over parent. So it takes a lot of courage to parent this way because other parents will judge you as if you’re a bad parent for empowering your children to do things for themselves instead of doing everything for them.

  5. 'lazy'teen on June 13, 2013 at 4:20 am

    As a high school student I fell like this is accurate. I have friends that are like me and have had to do mostly everything on their own, at least school wise and when it comes to buying things they want, and friends that are only children and get everything they want and have no work to show for it.

    The ones that get spoiled tend to be a little hard to be around sometimes, while the others I feel a lot more comfortable being around and I trust them a bit more because they know boundaries. I have some friends that are so sheltered by their parents they basically were not allowed to attend parts of health class (ie. Sex ed.) and in our school district that comes up as early as 5th or so grade, then again all throughout high school. I still have friends my age that have no idea how human reproduction even works!

    Personally, I was raised by just mom. I had no idea who my father was until I turned 15 (now 17), mom is an LPN and when I was about 7 or 8 we had to move so she could go to school, so I ended up being her go-to diaper changer and baby sitter at about 8 years old. We spent a lot of time at the baby sitters or (as we got older) by ourselves. We never really get anything handed to us, even thought mom pays for my music lessons and my brothers sports, she sees us working our asses off at those things as payment enough and we do get things from these activities that are helpful when it comes to dealing with life in general. If we start slacking in these activities, we have one chance to fix it and if we don’t, good-bye guitar lessons.

    We were allowed to run around our neighborhood playing tag or home run and things like that whenever we chose to, even after dark, but when mom said it was time to come home it was time to go home. We never thought twice about any risks, we were all smart enough not to play in traffic, get in vehicles with strangers and what not. Hell, our towns biggest church youth group frequently had us all running around mostly the whole town playing games, sometimes in the pitch dark in the middle of winter. I had friends get pulled out of it because it was ‘too dangerous’. Never mind the fact that this was all supervised, it’s a small (really small) town and we have all lived here our whole lives. I can assure you no one was in any real danger of anything.

    As for the bullying, I deal with that as well as I can. It’s hard some days but I can usually just block it out and get on with my life, but as someone with a minor form of depression that can be hard. I think it’s called Dysthymia(sp?), I didn’t even realize I was depressed I kinda just thought that’s who I was it persisted for years (Gr. 5 – present) until the school guidance councilor put it out there that maybe I was depressed. A few of the symptoms of this actually reflect what over-parented children behave like (avoiding opportunities for failure), but that’s not the cause of it. I have very little drive to do ANYTHING and I have to fight that constantly, there is also a large amount of just… lack of emotions I guess and you always feel like other view you in a negative light. It’s hard to get much done with all of the crap that comes along with it lingering over you but I’ve learned to manage it as best I can.

    I can guarantee you I was not over-parented (we still spend a lot of time fending for ourselves, mom works A LOT), to this day I will not let anyone just hand me things without doing something in return, so at least I can rationalize it that I’ve paid them back in some way. I work as hard as I feel I can at every thing I do, I think twice about what I do as well, ask myself what the consequences of doing or not doing something will be and then make the decision and prepare for the fallout (good or bad).

  6. Dmom on October 5, 2013 at 9:35 am

    I believe this so strongly!!! We read Charlie Shedd’s book, “Promises to Peter” when our first child (of five) was born. His philosophy was to have them making all their own decisions by a year before they left home (senior year). Our kids went to boarding school at 9th grade, so that meant making all their own decisions during 8th grade! We weren’t sure it was possible! But it worked! They are all successful, and very, very wise decision makers. SO O I would add to your list: Let them make more and more of their own decisions. For us this started in infancy with letting them choose between two rattles, age 5 choosing how much dessert, age 6 whether to be a vegetarian like mom and dad or not, first grade, choosing their own bed time and waking themselves up, school–responsible for all homework, 5th grade responsible for their own laundry (mom might do some, but they weren’t to count on her), shopping for their own clothes, 7th grade setting their own curfews, to name a few milestones.

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:29 am

      Great suggestions! I like to think of these milestones as gaining certain rites of passage to gradually learn to live autonomously and independently. I am encouraged to hear you have experienced positive results through this mentality. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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Over-Parenting Can Do More Harm Than Not Enough