Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fact-Checking Claims: Are Parents Really So Terrible?

Earlier this week I questioned New York Times columnist David Brook’s allegations. Basically parents spend too much time praising, improving and withholding love from their children. In case you missed his rant:

There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree…Children are incessantly told how special they are.

The second defining feature is that children are honed to an unprecedented degree…Parents are more anxious about their kids getting into good colleges and onto good career paths. Parents spend much more time than in past generations investing in their children’s skills and résumés and driving them to practices and rehearsals. Love and Merit, David Brooks, New York Times

His final blow:

Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection.

How true are these claims? Is there any evidence for them?

Brooks, who often pads his column with social science research, provides no evidence for any of these claims. True, he spouted them in an opinion piece but he has a huge platform. He wasn’t the first to utter such claims. He won’t be the last. Similar claims regularly pop up in the media. They’ve entered the public imagination. It’s high time to turn a more critical eye on these largely unchallenged accusations that very well may become our parenting legacy. Each one deserves a thorough debunking but I’ll only be able to briefly address each one here.

CLAIM #1: PARENTS PRAISE KIDS TOO MUCH.

Despite it’s popular appeal, the evidence is not readily available. Although plentiful articles, books and op-eds accuse parents of such obnoxious behavior, researchers have not been overly bothered about proving it. I cannot find any studies or even mere surveys documenting this trend. One of the challenges here is simply trying to clarify the exact behavior that so offends or troubles Brooks and other commentators. So I’ve dug up some related areas of research.

The perils of praise.

Ample research has documented the downside of praising a child’s innate abilities rather than effort - what a 2007 New York magazine cover story called the Perils of Praise. When children are congratulated for being smart, they attribute their performance to their intelligence (and not effort) and are less likely to prep and do well on a future test than those high-fived for their hard work. When they don’t do well, they attribute poor grades to their lack of intelligence.

Carol Dweck’s popular ‘perils of praise’ studies, while certainly important, don’t address how often parents praise kids. Her research shows the outcomes of specific types of praise. I couldn’t find research addressing whether parents generally praise abilities over effort. I do it sometimes but still, it’s not clear how often parents do it. In their book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report a Columbia University survey found 85% of parents think it’s important to tell their kids they are smart. I can’t find it and it’s not quite the same as evidence showing parents constantly tell kids they’re smart or athletic or anything else. Even if you and the soccer mom next door suspect it’s true, no one has bothered to find out whether it is true. The media’s focus on “perils of praise” lends the impression parents are praising too much.

Biting off another huge issue…decades ago, psychologists and educators used to worry about low self-esteem. They labored to raise child self-esteem (Joshua, you are so smart! You are special! You Are The Child of the Day!). The current emphasis on the perils of praise could be fall-out from the self-esteem movement that has now fallen out of favor with the experts. If parents do praise inherent traits and abilities it is again because this is what the experts recommended for a long time.

Narcissistic children.

Narcissism has been suggested as another downside to too much praise. You might recall a recent study out of the Netherlands showing kids who received a lot of praise by parents showed narcissistic traits (“kids like me deserve something extra”). Studies on children like this are rare. As many parents know, narcissistic-like behavior can be a part of normal development in children. There’s a reason we don’t call toddlers who refuse to share narcissists. Anyhow, some U.S. studies show narcissism rising among adults and college students. Some do not. Some show empathy on the decline, others, on the rise. For brevity’s sake, you can see some of the critique of the apparent narcissism epidemic in this NY Time’s article – Seeing Narcissists Everywhere.

Children are overprotected.

There’s also a growing sense that parents coddle or smother children by obsessing about their safety. But what exactly does overprotection mean? Parents could have an exaggerated sense of danger. For example, parents might have an elevated fear of kidnappers.  Free Range mom Lenore Skenazy might agree parents overestimate the chances a kidnapper lurks around they corner but I’ve yet to find data to this effect. I’m not sure there’s any study on the accuracy of parental risk perception. It would be cool. Someone should do it. On a scale of 1 (no biggie) to 9 (my worst fear)….how concerned are you about….look how easy it is. I’ve already started it, there. If it’s out there, let me know.

Parents could be accused of protecting their kids against a host of risks their grandparents didn’t even know existed. Older generations might jeer parents today for slathering kids with sunscreen, cutting out high fructose corn syrup and insisting on bike helmets. But is this fair? Are the new concussion screenings and carseats overprotection?

Again, if parents worry about a lot more threats, it’s largely because the experts and the media constantly report these threats – often in dramatic fashion. When not breastfeeding has been likened to a pregnant women riding a mechanical bull, it is clear even public health messages are not immune from hype. As I’m writing, the “Internet Safety Letter” arrived in my inbox from the school.

Even if kids are overprotected from negative or potentially harmful experiences, it’s not clear how this might affect children. If parents spend a lot of time and money ensuring their children’s future health and well-being it could promote the idea kids are fragile creatures and not necessarily gifted or capable of helping themselves. It could also make kids feel like they are the center of the universe. There is not much in the way of research here.

 Children get too many awards/gifts/parties.

It could be argued that kids get too many awards, lame holiday parties and trophies. I don’t know even where to look for this data or what form it would take. I would agree there are too many of these events and rewards but still, these are not quite the same behaviors. I will sign the No More Birthday Party Goodie Bag Petition. Send it to me. Quick.

Parents don’t discipline anymore.

Much anecdotal and some empirical evidence suggest parents focus less on obedience than in the past. Certainly they spank less. Discipline has veered away from physical punishment to time-outs and talking it out. In fact it’s not even called discipline much anymore. Today experts recommend positive reinforcement (e.g., complimenting or reinforcing good behavior). Alan Kazdin, Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale, recommends a ratio of 3 positives for every negative (see my post). Scientific evidence of the widespread changes in these trends remains rather limited despite frequent discussion of them by experts and the media. So it is not clear to what extent parents actually practice kinder, gentler child behavior management. If parents are engaging in more positive or lenient discipline (I have to admire how quickly you powered down your iPad, Stella) then they are perhaps praising more.

Surprise, surprise. If parents are getting soft and practicing a more positive approach it’s because the experts recommend it.

Parents are too permissiveness about chores.

In line with the kinder/gentler/wimpy parent argument, there’s a popular sentiment parents don’t make kids do monotonous, routine tasks around the house and garden anymore. Much of the evidence is far from rigorous, anecdotal in nature but studies do attest to the benefits of childhood chores. The Wall Street Journal definitely thinks children need chores. No surprise, advice columns and parenting magazines love chores. A lot of experts like to advise parents how they should manage the chores. Do them together. Make it fun. Don’t say “do your chores.” Say “let’s do our chores!”.

Parents don’t let kids fail.

I suppose this is another kind of coddling/overprotection. Here the offense entails kids getting special dispensation or saved from bad behavior or grades. It could entail school work, namely parents helping their children with school projects. I can’t find any data there. By media and anecdotal evidence it would seem epidemic. But then again, first grade is the new kindergarten and school has gotten harder. Is there grade-inflation in elementary and high-schools. Can’t find much evidence either. Colleges, most say yes though Alfie Kohn disagrees.

Sometimes there are complaints about not keeping score in kiddie sports. I’m not even looking for any data here. Tracking goals at preschool soccer games might coddle kids, but they often know the score or don’t care. Rest assured, if they stick around the sport for a couple more years they land on travel teams, often year-round commitments that offer a good dose or reality where players and teams are scored, ranked, demoted, promoted, repeatedly, in-flight, out-of-flight, in-state, out-of-state, regionally, perhaps even nationally.  

Kids are special.

Indeed there are more special needs kids than ever with our expanded awareness and diagnoses of psychiatric disorders and physical conditions and illnesses, including food allergies, concussions and gluten-intolerance. More kids are labeled with ADHD, autism, depression, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder and anxiety to name just several conditions in the psychological realm. This is probably not what Brooks meant but I do think it could contribute to the sentiment kids are treated with kid gloves, even if it operates on a more unconscious level. In any event, this is not a state of affairs to pin on parents. 

CLAIM #2: PARENTS HONE CHILDREN TOO MUCH

Brooks argues parents engage in a constant process of bettering their children in an attempt to get a leg up on the competition.

Parents are more worried about getting their kids into college.

Kids apply to more colleges than in the past. This has produced more applicants and applications and enhanced the “selectivity” of colleges. So getting admitted appears to be more difficult. I think we can agree there are also more test prep services, counselors and college guides than ever. In an attempt to get a measure of “college-admission anxiety,” John Tierny at The Atlantic mapped the geographical distribution of private college-prep consultants across the U.S. and found a concentration in the Northeast and other large metropolitan areas. The Princeton Review’s 2015 College Hope and Worries Survey found 73% of parents are stressed about college admissions. I probably don’t need to mention it’s a biased sample.

I can find plenty of college admission counselors and admissions consultants admonishing parent to stop stressing so much (you over-involved bad mommies!) but not a reliable survey showing parents are stressed. How much do parents worry unnecessarily about college? It remains unclear. What is certain, parents worry a good deal about paying for college according numerous surveys including a recent Gallop poll. Considering the costs, I’d say those concerns are totally reasonable.

Parents spend more time building their kids’ resumes/extracurricular activities.

Studies do show parents are laying out a lot more moola for enrichment activities. There has been an escalation in extracurriculars or as a married team of economists put it, the rug rat race. After moving to an affluent enclave in San Diego, they produced some evidence that upper-income parents have rapidly increased their expenditures in extracurricular fare over the past few decades, out-spending their less-moneyed peers. Not surprising, they pinned most of the blame on women, namely well-educated women who dropped out of the workforce to shuttle their budding college applicants from Mandarin to squash and Kumon.

Even if parents spend more time and money on their children, is it all in an effort to get their kid into a selective college? Why do parents sign their kids up for so much? Is it to pad a kid’s college admission application? Maybe parents are keen to expose their children to a wide range of experiences, perhaps ones they never had themselves. Maybe they do it because it’s the norm. Maybe their kids like to play the piano or paint pottery. Maybe they work and need somewhere for their kids to be after school. Maybe they prefer a few minutes to themselves (in the car waiting for their kids?). Maybe they are making up for music and art classes cut out of their schools. There are plenty of reasons but I can’t find a survey on the matter. There is, however, plenty of debate and some mixed research on how many extracurricular activities children should endure. 

Parents are too involved in their kid’s lives.

Yes, mamma bear, you know this charge. It goes by several different names – hyper-parenting, intense parenting, hovering and helicopter parenting. This claim deserves more attention than I can do justice here. I do think some parents are over-involved thanks to a number of factors including smartphones and social media. We all know some of these parents. Some days it seems they are a large, boisterous crowd. Despite lots of speculation and bashing of parents in the media, however, there is not much actual evidence to go on here.

There are but a handful of studies on helicopter parenting, most if not all are on college students. Why? They’re a handy subject pool. Also, hovering parents bug the heck out of college administrators. In one survey university officials and faculty estimated about 50% of parents hover too much. Their concern might be warranted. A recent study found college students with controlling mothers were more depressed and less satisfied with life. But here’s what the media did not report. Hovering mothers were not the norm, far from it. Other studies have shown a similar lack of rampant hovering. The extent of the problem remains uncertain. Stay tuned.

CLAIM #3: PARENTS GIVE AFFECTION BASED ON MERIT.

I can’t find any direct evidence parents today mete out hugs or warm fuzzies based on their children’s achievement. The closest relevant data comes from older studies on affluent teens by Luthar and Latendresse. The research duo has documented how privileged kids face stress and depression due to their parents’ high expectations and often physical or emotional absence. Madeline Levin writes about these at-risk advantaged youths in her book Price of Privilege. So the claim appears more relevant to more achievement-oriented, affluent families. Do these parents directly hand out love and affection for good grades, the right SAT scores and such? I suspect it's a more indirect, more subtle process. It might be that kids in these families think their parents care more about their grades and SATS scores than emotional well-being, opinions, happiness, etc. And the parents might. Even if parents are heavily involved in their kid's academic schedule or college major, is this the same as merit-based love? Brooks went all out here but there's not much evidence this happens. 

Are parents in general more manipulative or discriminating in their love? Is this a troubling new trend? Unconditional love doesn’t appear to be new. The psychological literature attests to parents differentially distributing not just affection but time, attention and money based on a child’s gender, physical appearance, personality, birth order and sexual orientation to name just a few conditions. I’m not excusing this behavior, merely suggesting parents today did not invent it.


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PHEEWWW. Patient friends, that was just the tip of the iceberg, an initial pass at fleshing out these claims and the evidence to support them. I hope it’s become clear that the evidence is not great for most of them. This doesn’t mean they are not real or not happening in a portion of families or neighborhoods. The fact that research hasn’t addressed them remains troubling. For all the public fuss it is remarkable nobody has asked parents for their opinion or tried to track some of the behaviors. Nor tried to query parents to better understand these behaviors. It is relatively simply to ask parents why they sign up their kids for after-school activities, for instance. They may not have particular insight into some behaviors, like how often they praise their kids, but on some of these matters they could fill in some blanks. 

If these supposed bad parenting behaviors are happening (to an unprecedented or some critical degree) than the question becomes, so what? In Brooks' piece and the larger media space there is rarely a nuanced examination of the scope of consequences of such trends, but a preponderance of focus on the negative impacts. 

Also troubling, the not so subtle assumption here and elsewhere? Parents are to be blamed for all of these behaviors, basically due to their competitive, self-involved, wimpy characters. There is little nod to the complex socio-cultural, political, economic, educational, historic factors involved. As I initially remarked, the media and the experts should take a long look at their roles in perpetuating and promoting these ideas and trends, if in fact parents are committing them. If parents are focused on shaping or bettering their children’s health and well-being, it’s in large part because they are repeatedly being told how to improve their children by a constant barrage of advice, anecdotes, official recommendations, warnings and studies from newspapers, parenting websites, mommy bloggers, press releases, tv and radio hosts and public health ads.

NOTE: If you do have evidence relevant to any of these claims, please let me know.

4 comments:

Susan said...

I think you should go ahead and ask parents all those question. Go Momma Data, go!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey maybe I will! A monkey can do an online survey these days.

Lindsey Morris said...

So I teach and I am a mom--and full disclosure a new fan. But there is something you missed--as on point as you are. Those are all very middle and upper class things even if they aren't true. I can tell you that 80% of the children I have taught are in no way coddled. They aren't even particularly well cared for. I first taught in inner-city Memphis, were I could demonstrate for 90% of the kids that these things were not happening and there was no where near enough praise. Now in Utah, a whole different world, I see middle-class kids, but they definitely aren't praised for being smart. Here it is all industry. He must only be talking about the students he has personal contact with--and that has to be a limited subset.

The last thing I'd say, is that in the classroom we do see an effect from praising for intelligence instead of work, but it isn't with the child praised. If you ask a room of first graders to raise their hand if they are a good student, every shoots up. By third grade only a few. When we praise someone for being smart, it encourages magical thinking in other students. The difference when asked between that positive 1st grader and the insecure 3rd grader is that the latter thinks the other child is successful for being smart not because of a process of hard work, failure and revision. We are taught to make our praise specific in elementary school to help avoid this catch. If you want them, I can dig up the stats. I am always shocked at how people want to make sweeping parenting generalizations, but ignore data from educational studies.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Howdy Lindsey, welcome.

Love to hear from another mom and a teacher no less. Geez, did I forget to mention the very small sub-set of hyper parents? Yikes. Thank you. Important point. Double underline it. Very small subset. And thanks for pointing out praise differs across the country and by household, neighborhood, etc. I often must remind myself I typically address a very narrow swath of parenting and parents here.

So, if you just move a few times we might be able to do a cross-cultural survey of parental praise. Do you have any plans to move to say, California?

The classroom praise stuff sounds cool. So let me see if I understand this. Praising smart kids makes other kids think their work and effort won't pay off. That only smart kids can succeed bc, well, they're smart. I hadn't heard that rendition on the peril of praise research but it makes sense. Who does this research, do you know off the top of your head?

Speaking of sweeping generalizations about (those hyper, coddling, anxious!!) parents, you have anything to say about Poor Little Rich Women, the NY Time's op-ed about Upper East Side moms?