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Parents are the latest villains

Several weeks ago, Gloria James, the mother of LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, shouted at Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics for tangling with LeBron as he headed for a slam dunk.

Then millions of Americans saw LeBron yell at his mom, “Sit your (butt) down!”

Comments on the Internet denounced Gloria James as an overbearing mom who needed to leave her grown son alone.

“Miss James, stay home, throw a shoe at the T.V.,” read one post on sports.yahoo.com.

“She is obnoxious and crude,” said another.

Only a few days before, “American Idol” producers banned David Archuleta’s dad Jeff from rehearsals, and headlines chastised him, too.

The heated criticism of these celebrity parents is not surprising because there are few groups in America we criticize as easily as parents.

Mother blaming may have gone out with miniskirts, but it has given way to equal-opportunity parent bashing.

Books and articles castigate parents for helicopter parenting, overscheduling, living through our kids, and even using them as Prozac. We’re too affluent and buy our kids too much! chants the chorus. We’re raising a nation of wimps!

Finding fault with parents is a national sport. Any other group criticized so regularly would long ago have launched a civil rights movement.

But when we criticize rather than empathize, we miss an important opportunity to understand ourselves – because while parent-bashing may make us feel one-up on other parents, at the same time we’re riveted, because we see a bit of ourselves in the transgressors.

Take the slam on helicopter parents. Critics often give examples of high anxiety and control – the dad who won’t let his child get a word in edgewise on a college tour or the mom who writes a child’s homework essay.

A little empathy would go a long way here: what motivates such parents are their loving and protective feelings, heightened by anxiety about whether their children will “make it” in this uncertain and highly competitive world. These feelings have contributed to a very healthy modern trend: the ramping up of parental attention to their kids.

Helicopter parenting may step over the line – it can be intrusive and infantilizing. But parents quite rightly bristle at the implication that there’s something wrong with staying close to and supporting their kids as they grow older.

Critics need to understand that involvement with our kids – helping them learn, providing structure and knowing what they like and dislike – is not only good parenting. It also has biological roots.

Because parenting is key to survival and reproduction, evolution has shaped it. We humans are what biologists call a K-selected species. We live in a stable, predictable environment and our survival strategy is to groom a few large offspring to be highly competitive. (R-selected species, in contrast, live in short-lived unpredictable habitats and maximize their broods’ survival by quickly reproducing many offspring, giving them little time, care or food.)

Nature has given us a system of affiliation or love that sets this intense parenting in motion. That’s why we want the best for our kids and are hellbent to guide and nurture them.

Far from condemning intense parental involvement, psychological research has found that the more parents are involved with their children – be they toddlers or teens – the healthier and happier the kids and the more they achieve in school. High parental involvement gives kids solid self-esteem and helps them feel secure and strongly connected to us.

When Wendy studied parents of elementary school children, for example, she found that the more-involved mothers were with their children – that is, the more time they spent with their kids and the more they knew about what their children did and about their likes and dislikes – the better their children did on report cards and standardized achievement tests, and the fewer learning and behavior problems they had in school.

Those highly involved parents weren’t necessarily at home more than other parents, but when they were, they made sure to spend time with their children.

Researchers Xitao Fan and Michael Chen have found that students with involved parents are 30 percent more likely to achieve higher grades and test scores than kids with less-involved parents.

Helicoptering also derives from a related evolutionary impulse that all parents recognize.

The panic we feel when our kids compete in today’s hypercompetitive world gives us the urge to take matters into our own hands – just as our ancestors felt when they saw a tiger leaping toward one of their cubs.

Today our children’s lives aren’t at stake when they apply for college, take a crucial exam or audition for an arts magnet program: we parents just feel like it is. Often we’re far more anxious than our kids, and feel like relieving that anxiety, at least temporarily, by leaping into the breach and taking over.

Empathizing with helicopter parents would make us examine the crux of the matter – the dilemma that well-meaning parents face almost every day: “How do you draw the line between supporting your child, and pushing?”

Today’s constant competition drives parents nuts. You don’t want to apply pressure, yet what if you don’t sign her up for Soccer for Toddlers?

She’ll start league play behind the other kids! What if you don’t make your son take that second SAT prep course? The other kids are doing it! They’ll go to Harvard, but he’ll be stuck at the local Typewriter Repair Institute!

Empathizing with helicopter parents would focus us on the solution to this dilemma, which lies in understanding psychological autonomy.

Political autonomy means independence or self-government, but autonomy in people is simply the feeling of initiating an action.

Children, in fact all human beings, need to feel that what they do is self-initiated. You can give children maximum care and structure and stay emotionally close without lessening their feelings of autonomy.

If you read an essay and give praise and suggestions for improvement, that doesn’t interfere with the child’s autonomy. If you choose the essay topic and write an outline, that does. You can be highly supportive of your daughter while encouraging her autonomy. The distinction is not between “doing or not doing” for her – it’s whether she feels autonomous.

Empathizing with helicopter parents would also reveal that some parents, in contrast, don’t hover over their children enough. The sensationalistic criticism does them a disservice, too, by implying that parents should “let go” as children grow older, rather than increasing their kids’ autonomy while staying highly involved.

Hovering parents act out of mainly positive desires that all parents recognize in themselves. Rather than ragging on parents, why not empathize with their feelings of caring deeply for their children?

Why not applaud the millions of well-intentioned parents trying their best, praise them as examples to learn from, and help everyone resist the impulse to violate their kids’ autonomy?

Kathy Seal (kathyseal@gmail.com) and Wendy Grolnick, professor of psychology at Clark University (WGrolnick@clarku.edu), are co-authors of “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child” (Prometheus, 2008).

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