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Helping versus hovering Part 2: How can we avoid over parenting?

Helping versus hovering Part 2: How can we avoid over parenting?

A couple of months ago, in early December, I shared a post on “hovering versus helping” after reading Jessica Lahey’s book “The Gift of Failure”. Lahey’s message is basically that well-intentioned parents who believe they are helping their kids are actually doing more harm than good by hovering. I had promised to follow-up with another post providing some practical tips on how we can avoid “over parenting” and some ideas on what exactly we CAN do in an effort to foster the development of our children’s’ autonomy, so here we go!

The development of autonomy is an important part of our children’s maturation process. Ultimately, one of our goals as parents is to prepare our children to go out into the world on their own. In her book, Lahey argues that our overprotective and failure adverse parenting style has resulted in undermining our children’s competence, autonomy and their resilience.  In other words, we are failing as parents as far as preparing them to go out into the world as autonomous individuals. She argues that one of the best things we can do as parents is to let go of control, and work towards helping our kids embrace opportunities for failure and help them find ways to grow and learn from their setbacks.  Great, but how do we do that?!

Step 1. Back off!!

As challenging as it can be (believe me, I know this is easier said than done!) resisting the temptation to jump in to help, assist, or speed things up for our children is very important. Lahey (2015) describes autonomy supportive parenting as sticking to the sidelines; in other words, being present and available for support, but not taking over. No micromanaging! For example, encouraging your 6 year old to bring his/her plate to the kitchen after a meal is a great idea, but step back if you notice they are holding the plate with one hand and rushing, resulting in them spilling some of what’s leftover on the plate. This is an opportunity to learn how to wipe up a mess and to discover that holding the plate steady with both hands and walking slowly will prevent a spill. Another example might be, when asking a child to clean up his toys, allow him the time it will take him to do so on his own, even if you know you could get them sorted and put away much more quickly.

As a parent, it can be very challenging to stick to the sidelines, and you may struggle knowing what to do as you watch (been there!). Here are a couple of tips.  Try to listen and be empathetic without diving in to solve a problem your child is struggling with.  Express an interest and support them by listening and, if appropriate, help them by providing alternative solutions when they are problem solving. The idea to retain here is that we want to give our children the space to develop skills on their own and learn from their mistakes. By repeatedly stepping in, we are not providing them with room to figure things out on their own, and hence, we are fostering dependence and communicating a message to them that we don’t think they can do it, or not without our help in any case. This is not the message we want to convey to our children, is it? So back off!

Step 2. Let’s change how we perceive failure!

Lahey (2015) maintains that failure has become a bad word (the new F word?!) and that it’s important we “destigmatize it”. Obstacles, challenge, and failure (yes, even failure!) are a part of life. Let’s work on changing the way we think about failure and the way we talk about it with our kids. Failure is an important part of children’s development and allows for opportunities to solve problems and develop resilience. So, looks like there is an upside to failure after all! Let’s admit to our children that we have struggled ourselves or have had things turn out differently than we had hoped. Lahey argues that failure is one of our most valuable parenting tools. In other words, let’s give our kids permission to stumble by sharing stories of our own struggles and let’s help them by supporting them when they stumble as they get back up.

“Failure is success if we learn from it.”~ Malcolm Forbes

Step 3. Encourage your kids to take risks and to try something new by being a healthy role model

Our society has an aversion to fear which results in less risk taking and consequently less opportunity for growth. Communicate your confidence in your child’s ability to cope with challenges and setbacks.  You might also consider modeling some healthy risk taking behaviour yourself. Maybe try something new and share your experience with them. Perhaps you have always wanted to try a painting class but haven’t for fear that you wouldn’t be very good. You could try out a paint night activity and share with your child by explaining that this is something you had wanted to do, but had been hesitant to do, and that it felt good to try something new! Basically, the idea is encourage your kids to try something new and model this behaviour for them.

Owning up to our own mistakes with our children and sharing our own experiences with obstacles and how we learned from a challenging situation can help them become more comfortable overcoming obstacles themselves. By modelling, we can teach our children to see mistakes as opportunities for growth and feedback as helpful to the learning process. Let your kids know that mistakes are natural and that you love them no matter what. Encourage them when they make mistakes and praise them for taking responsibility for a mistake and for working through a challenge. These actions can also help challenge unrealistic and unhealthy striving for “perfection”.

Step 4. Ditch the bribes and rewards!

Lahey (2015) explains that the less we push our children to perform academically, the better they will learn. The use of external rewards (I think most of us are guilty of this! Stickers or treats anyone?), interferes with our children’s engagement and more importantly with their love of learning. Lahey (2015) shares that in her own classroom, she has witnessed that students desire to please parents and teachers through achievement has interfered with them enjoying the process and kills their motivation over time. The research on motivation clearly indicates that when humans perceive control (which comes with rewards and bribes), their motivation is negatively affected and as a result their potential for learning is affected as well (Pink, 2009). As an alternative, Lahey (2015) suggests we encourage our children to set their own goals and praise their efforts rather than their results. When we step back, they will become more invested and take ownership of their goals and develop a sense of autonomy.

Lahey (2015) refers to Carol Dweck’s (2006) fascinating research, which showed that praising kids for their effort rather for their intelligence resulted in them being more persistent when faced with a difficult task and as a result they performed better. The research suggests that children who are praised for their intelligence were less likely to take risks for fear of making a mistake and compromising their score or status as being labelled as smart. Dweck’s research demonstrated that students who were encouraged to place importance on the learning process developed a growth mindset, which resulted in greater effort, more engagement with the learning process and better performance. Those with a fixed mindset tended to be less engaged, make less of an effort and didn’t perform as well. As parents, we want to encourage a growth mindset in our children. How? Let’s start by resisting the temptation to praise results and make judgements on their grades (ex. “Way to go, you got a B+”) opting instead, to praise their efforts and the learning process (“You really worked and improved a lot! What do you think helped you grasp the material you prepped for the test?”). Lahey (2015) also reminds us that important research by Angela Duckworth (1987) has shown that persistence and commitment to long term goals (which she labelled as “grit”) is the best predictor of success, outweighing grades, IQ, etc. Encouraging a growth mindset in our kids can help contribute to the development of “grit”, so praise your kids’ efforts and perseverance and not their results!

Step 5. Give your kids chores to do around the house

Allow your children to contribute around the house from a young age. Lahey (2015) points out that kids enjoy helping out and feeling competent. Think of a time your child did something on his/her own and that look of pride beaming from their cute little face! Lahey (2015) encourages us to allow our kids to help out by doing age appropriate tasks. For example, toddlers can put their dirty clothes in a laundry hamper; between 3-5 years of age, kids can help clear the table after a meal; and older kids (6-11) can do more complex tasks like helping to cut fruits or vegetables or helping to prepare grocery lists (I tried this one out with my 6 year old and she beamed with pride as she practiced her writing skills and sneakily added a couple of silly items onto the list to make me giggle!). Children over the age of 12 can do most other household chores (ex. replacing batteries in a smoke detector, laundry, etc.). Remember, what’s most important here is for the child to have a sense of pride from having participated and contributed and not from a job perfectly done. Laundry folded by a child might not look as polished as when you do it yourself, but that’s not the point here! Give your child the space and time to do things him or herself and allow them to develop valuable skills as well as a sense of competence and pride. Don’t praise the completed task, praise their dedication and persistence. Remember, these are excellent opportunities to help our children develop important life skills they will use throughout their lives as well as develop a sense of competence and confidence (and hey, it might reduce your list of chores, so I say go for it!).

Andrea Martin is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


Duckworth, E. R. (1987). “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and other essays on Teaching & Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishers.

Lahey, J. (2015). The Gift of Failure. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Helping versus hovering: If you want to be a better parent, looks like it’s time to back off!

Helping versus hovering: If you want to be a better parent, looks like it’s time to back off!

A couple of months ago, I listened to a podcast a colleague had recommended to me which really got me thinking. Jonathan Fields of Goodlife Project was interviewing Jessica Lahey about her book“The Gift of Failure”. Her message is simple and echoes something we have heard more and more about in the media in recent years: Well-intentioned and loving parents who believe they are helping their kids are actually doing more damage than good when they hover. Lahey is a high school teacher and mother herself.  In her book she explains that in today’s society we have a tendency to be “overprotective or overparent” which, despite our good intentions, is actually doing our kids more harm than good. As a psychologist who works with children and their parents and as a parent of two young kids myself, Jessica Lahey’s message really hit home. I found myself thinking more and more about her message and decided to pick up her book, which did not disappoint!

In her book Lahey argues that we have become so averse to fear in our culture and that we avoid it at all costs; not only for ourselves, but also in our efforts to protect our children.  However, she explains that by trying to prevent our children from experiencing any discomfort or distress we are depriving them of an opportunity to learn valuable skills, like problem solving and resilience, and consequently undermining their development. Although this “looking out for” or hovering (call it what you want!) comes from a good place, we are actually doing more damage than good. This overprotectiveness, despite its good intentions, is depriving our children of the chance to develop skills and resources they need to succeed in adulthood such as self-confidence and autonomy. By stepping in to save them we are not providing them with space to figure things out on their own, and hence fostering dependence and communicating a message to them that we don’t think they can do it, or not without our help in any case. Is this the message we want to convey to our kids?

Lahey also explains how we are passing on our fear of failure to our children. By encouraging them to avoid failure we encourage them to “play it safe" and discourage them from taking risks. Could you imagine if no one took risks anymore? Think of Henry Ford, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey; all great examples of people who took risks and went on to have a lot of success.  Not all the risks we take turn out as we had hoped, but often setbacks (or even perceived failures) are the experiences from which we learn and grow the most, even if the experience isn’t always pleasant.

As parents, I think it’s fair to say that we all want the best for our children. We go to great lengths to protect them and help them. But is this helpful? As a parent myself I struggle with this. Am I doing too much for them? Am I not doing enough? We are bombarded with messages from the media, friends, family, etc. that make it hard to know what is “the right thing to do”?

After reading some of Lahey’s articles (Lahey 2013, Lahey 2015) and her book  (Lahey 2015) I found myself paying more attention to my own actions as a parent. Recognizing that at times I will hover (I admit it!) when my daughter is doing her homework (she’s in Grade 1, don’t I need to sit and do her homework with her?), or picking up my little ones toys and clothes (“It will be simpler and quicker if I just do it myself!”), but these well intentioned actions are undermining my childrens' abilities and preventing them from doing things for themselves that will help them become more confident and autonomous in the long run.  Can you parents relate to this struggle? Please, tell me that I am not alone in this! I have since been working on (and struggling with!) resisting the temptation to jump in to help, assist, speed things up - you get the picture. Not an easy task and certainly requires discipline on my part. Lahey (2015) reminds us that focusing more on our children’s long-term well-being and less on their short-term happiness is important.

Lahey (2015) refers to parents who are overly aware of their children’s needs and jump in at every chance to save them. This could be a parent rushing to school to deliver a forgotten assignment, lunch, or gym equipment for example.  In an interview with Jonathan Fields on the Goodlife Project Lahey shares an example from her own life when her son forgot his math homework and she had to hold herself back from bringing it to school for him. She goes on to explain that luckily she held herself back from bringing it in because it gave her son a chance to learn from his experience and come up with a strategy with his teacher to help him remember his homework in the future. A practical lesson that empowered him and helped him develop problem solving skills and practical organizational habits. She explained that had she swept in to save her son, she would have fulfilled her need to feel like a “good mother” by swooping into school with his homework, hoping to prevent any negative consequences, but she would have robbed him of the lesson he learned that helped him grow and become more autonomous that day. 

In the last few years more studies have been done to explore the effects of parenting styles on childhood outcomes. Although parental involvement has been demonstrated to be associated with many positive child outcomes, if the involvement is not developmentally age appropriate (ex. helping a 9 year old get dressed daily versus helping a toddler) it can have negative effects such as increasing levels of depression and anxiety (Schiffrin et al. 2013). Research has demonstrated that the effects of overparenting (as discussed above) can produce negative effects such as reports of feeling more negatively about oneself and lower overall well-being in college students (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2015). Studies showed that the negative effects of over controlling or overprotective parenting were due to adolescents perceived violation of their need for autonomy and sense of competence (Shiffrin et al. 2013).  According to the literature, over involvement often begins when kids are very young and it’s argued that it continues throughout high school, college and beyond. In fact, some universities have spoken out against parents who “hover” and of the negative effects on these students and have even invested money into programs to help the university staff handle them (LeMoyne & Buchanan 2015). If that isn’t an indication that we have gone too far in parenting, I don’t know what is!

I agree with Lahey (2015) when she suggests that “overparenting” likely comes from a place of fear. A fear that our children won’t be ok, and wanting to do everything we can to ensure their well-being. Could overparenting also be related to a fear that we won’t be good parents? We need to resist jumping in to fulfill our own selfish need to feel like we are “good parents”. It’s time to put our own needs aside and prioritize the needs of our children by allowing them the space to try to figure things out on their own (and possibly even fail sometimes!).

Lahey (2015) puts it so beautifully: “with a little luck, they will look back on their childhood and thank us; not just for our unwavering love, but for our willingness to put their long-term developmental and emotional needs before their short-term happiness. For our willingness to make their lives be just a little bit harder today so they will know how to face hardship tomorrow.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog for practical tips on how we can avoid “overparenting” and what exactly we CAN do to foster the development of our childrens’ autonomy.

Andrea Martin is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


Schiffrin., Holly. H., Liss, M., Miles-Mclean, H., Geary, K.A., Erchull, M.J., Tashner, Y. (2014). Helping or Hovering? The effects of helicopter Parenting on College Student’s Well-Being”.  Journal of Child and Family Studies. Vol 23: 548-557.

Gottlieb, L.(2011). How to Land your Kid in Therapy. The Atlantic. July/August 2011 Issue.

Lahey, J. (2015). The Gift of Failure. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Lahey, J. (2015). When Success Leads to Failure. The Atlantic. August 11, 2015.

Lahey, J. (2013). Why Parents Need to let Their Children Fail. The Atlantic. January 29, 2013.

LeMoyne, T., Buchanan, T. (2011). Does “Hovering” Matter? Helicopter Parenting and its Effect on Well-Being”. Sociological Spectrum.  Vol 31:4, 399-418.

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