Autonomy is one of the core childhood needs. Right from birth, our kids rely on us for survival and safety, but as they grow older, they start to demand increasing levels of autonomy. Parental involvement, while highly beneficial, can also become a restriction to how far kids can explore the world and grow into themselves. Any developmental constraints can push your kid to resist authority.
Research explains why finding the right balance between a child’s autonomy and parental involvement is very crucial.
Step away from that focused little kid
We often look for teachable moments and find plenty of opportunities. For example, reading a book with a child might mean discussing story plots with them. If they aren’t allowed to play a video game, it means explaining why.
There’s good reason for this: Research has shown that engaged parenting helps children build cognitive and emotional skills.
Too much parental direction, however, can sometimes be counterproductive, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. The researchers observed parents’ behavior when they kindergarten-age children were actively engaged in playing, cleaning up toys, learning a new game, and discussing a problem.
The children of parents who more often stepped in to provide instructions, corrections or suggestions, or to ask questions—despite the children being appropriately on task—displayed more difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions at other times. These children also performed worse on tasks that measured delayed gratification and other executive functions, skills associated with impulse control, and the ability to shift between competing demands for their attention.
The phenomenon occurs across the socioeconomic spectrum. We have been conditioned to find ways to involve ourselves, even when kids are on task and actively playing or doing what we’ve asked them to do. But too much direct engagement can come at a cost to your kids’ abilities to control their own attention, behavior, and emotions. When we let kids take the lead in their interactions, they practice self-regulation skills and build independence.
The research shines new light on how we help and hinder our children’s development during the pivotal transition to elementary school.
It also comes as we parents, increasingly derided as “helicopter” and “snowplow” caregivers, are spending more time with our kids than our own mothers and fathers did—even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned many of us into primary playmates and homeschoolers.
How do you respond to a focused kid?
The research examined how caregiving environments contribute to child health, learning, and well-being over time. The start of elementary school is an especially challenging time when kids are expected to manage their attention, emotions, and behaviors without your direct help. Finding the right balance when engaging with our children is especially important around kindergarten.
It’s a significant shift when we have to learn to pull back.
The research study brought together a diverse group of 102 children ages 4-6 and their primary caregivers in a Stanford University lab. For two and a half hours, the kids worked on a series of tasks that child development specialists have used for decades to measure self-regulation, as well as executive functions deemed either “cool” (when emotions don’t matter) or “hot” (when emotions are high). The children also participated with their parents in structured activities requiring different degrees of adult interaction.
In a novel approach, the scholars had each parent and child observed separately. Using video recordings, the interactions were broken down second by second and evaluated independently. This allowed the researchers to identify subtle shifts in how parents engage with their children. During a 25-minute activity, for example, a mother might follow her son’s lead for 13 seconds, then withdraw for 5 seconds, then direct him for 35 seconds.
Typically, when researchers study a given aspect of parenting, they assign a single rating for the entire interaction. But that approach can be biased by the researcher’s overall impression of the parent-child relationship.
Most caregivers seemed supportive and caring. On average, the research team didn’t see many parents yelling at their kids, being intrusive, or checking their phones. But there is a lot of variability within those averages, and their goal was to discover more subtle differences among parents who are generally doing fine.
These moment-by-moment shifts in parental engagement may be subtle, but they matter—the message that children are getting may not be so subtle.
For their analysis, the researchers created a measure of what they call “parental over-engagement.” They noted the moments when a child was working independently or leading an activity. They calculated the ratio between times when parents intervened in ways that were meant to be helpful (not harsh or manipulative) and when parents followed the child’s lead.
The researchers found a correlation between high levels of parent involvement when a child is focused on a task and children’s difficulties with self-regulation and other behaviors. This was most apparent for children’s “hot” executive functions. When a child was passively engaged, the researchers didn’t find any link between parental over-engagement and children’s self-regulation, suggesting that there is no harm in parents stepping in when children are not actively on task.
The point of the study was not to criticize parents. Parental over-engagement doesn’t mean it’s bad or obviously intrusive engagement. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with suggesting ideas or giving tips to our kids.
But we need to be aware that teachable moments have their place. Helping a preschooler to complete a puzzle, for example, has been shown to support cognitive development and build independence. And guidance is important when children are not paying attention, violating rules, or only half-heartedly engaging in an activity.
Sometimes, however, our kids just need to be left alone or allowed to be in charge. This message may be especially relevant during the pandemic, when we may wonder how much direct involvement our children need, especially with everybody balancing new obligations. It’s important to have that honest conversation with yourself, especially if your kid is doing okay. As stressful as this time is, try to find opportunities to let them take the lead.
To spark curiosity, don’t tell preschoolers too much or too little
Another study found that preschoolers are more likely to choose to gather more information about a topic if they know just enough about it to find it interesting, but not too much that it becomes boring. Preschool children are sensitive to the gap between how much they know and how much there is to learn, the finding indicates.
Researchers say this “optimal” amount of existing knowledge creates the perfect mix of uncertainty and curiosity in children and motivates them to learn more. There’s an infinite amount of information in the real world. Yet despite having to learn so much in such a short amount of time, young children seem to learn happily and effectively. The researchers wanted to understand what drives their curiosity.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, focused on how children’s knowledge level influences what information they find interesting. The findings suggest that children are not simply attracted to information by its novelty. Children are naturally curious, but the difficult question is how to harness this natural curiosity.
In a series of experiments, the research team designed in-person and online storybooks to measure how much three- to five-year-old preschool children know about different “knowledge domains.” The experiment also assessed their ability to understand and comprehend a specific topic, such as contagion, and asked how children’s current knowledge level predicts their interest in learning more about it, including whether someone would get sick after playing with a sneezing friend.
Intuitively, curiosity seems to belong to those who know the most, like scientists, and those who know the least, like babies. But what the researchers found here is quite surprising: it was children in the middle who showed the most interest in learning more about contagion, compared to children who knew too little or too much.
As the studies show, how you engage, direct, and interact with your child’s activities determines how good they become at handling their own emotions and behavior. When your child is focused on something, let them be, but there’s no harm in stepping in when they are not on task. So give your child opportunities to practice independence and experience autonomy.
The right amount of uncertainty and curiosity in a child that motivates them to learn more is heavily influenced by the level of knowledge. To harness their curiosity, ensure that your preschooler knows just enough interesting information. Not more, not less.
This article is derived from “To spark curiosity, don’t tell preschoolers too much or too little” (Rutgers University), “Parents: Step away from that focused little kid” (Stanford University) and are used under CC BY 4.0.