But does overparenting hurt, or help? While parents who are clearly raising a successful child embarrassingly inappropriate come in for ridicule, many of us find ourselves drawn to the idea that with just a bit more parental elbow grease, we might turn out children with great talents and assured futures. Parental involvement has a long and rich history of being studied.
Decades of studies, many of them by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy. For one thing, authoritative parents actually help cultivate motivation in their children. Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford University, has done research that indicates why authoritative parents raise more motivated, and thus more successful, children. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle.
Most do so with little difficulty. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence. Their research confirms what I’ve seen in more than 25 years of clinical work, treating children in Marin County, an affluent suburb of San Francisco. The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality.