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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.

Professor Richard Koestner shares his knowledge about the why, how and with whom of goal pursuit.

Professor Richard Koestner shares his knowledge about the why, how and with whom of goal pursuit.

Want to make changes in your life? Most of us do. On our very first podcast episode Professor Richard Koestner shares the why, how and with whom essentials for goal success. Richard Koestner is a Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University where he has conducted research on human motivation for the past 27 years. He has published over 125 scientific articles and has received several awards for excellence in teaching. He first inspired my love of psychology when I attended his undergraduate class at McGill and today he shares some of his expertise with you. We talk about his journey to becoming a professor and researcher and dive into a little research on teaching and parenting related to his earlier work. We move into a discussion about why it is difficult for people to successfully make changes in their lives; why we usually fail 6-7 times before we make changes last! Professor Koestner has dedicated his research to understanding what helps us beat these odds and in this episode he talks about three important ingredients for success related to the why, how and with whom of goal pursuit. We also discuss when we should think about letting go of some of our goals and how to do that most effectively. This episode is a must if you're thinking of making New Year's resolutions or any resolutions for that matter. Hope you get as much out of his teachings as I have over my years of knowing him.

Music by P. Bourdon

To listen to our podcast on iTunes, click here.

Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. Richard Koestner is a professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Learn more about Richard's research here.

Show notes

Drive, Daniel Pink

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, Faber and Mazlish

Self-Determination Theory, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan

Edward L. Deci, Professor of Psychology, University of Rochester

David McClelland, Professor at Harvard University

Wayne R. Halliwell, Professor and Sports Psychologist

Peter M. Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology, Implementation Intentions

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

The Importance of Goal Disengagement, Carsten Wrosch, Professor of Psychology at Concordia University

Jutta Heckhausen, Professor of Psychology, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney 

You can’t save the damsel if she loves her distress: Understanding self-motivation

You can’t save the damsel if she loves her distress: Understanding self-motivation

You can’t save the damsel if she loves her distress. This profound statement was made by a client of mine. Don’t worry, she said she was ok with me using her wise words in this blog post and I’ve changed personal details to protect her identity. This client of mine had an eating disorder and was truly suffering with it. When people who cared about her would come to understand just how much she was suffering, their responses typically involved trying to help. Sometimes they would offer her rewards as incentives to change; “I’ll take you to a movie if you eat lunch today”. This occasionally got her to eat a meal, but it never led to any lasting change. She’d often get tips or advice on how she could change. “Have you thought about scheduling meals?” “Just stop weighing yourself!” and so forth. But she was a smart girl and was able to think of these solutions on her own. Knowing what to do wasn’t the problem. The real problem was that she was on the fence about whether she wanted to change or not. She found that when people tried to “motivate her” to change, she actually felt less motivated to do it. What she was telling me that day with her comment was that damsels, like most people, will usually do whatever they want to do, and trying to convince them to do something that they don’t want to do, usually doesn’t work.

I’m sure that many people reading this can relate. Think about a time when you felt unsure about whether you wanted to change something in your life. It could be forming a new habit like going to Yoga more often, or stopping something you were already doing, like quitting smoking or getting out of a relationship that wasn’t working. Who were the most helpful people at that time? Was it the ones who pushed you the hardest? The ones who rewarded you somehow when you made small changes? The ones who made you feel just a bit guilty if you didn’t make the changes you originally set out to? Or was it the ones who were there to support you and talked to you about why you had wanted to make the change in the first place?

For most people, and in line with what a lot of science suggests, the last option listed - the one that meets someone where they are at and taps into their motivation from within - would feel the best and would be most conducive to long lasting change. Tying this to therapy, it’s like therapeutic skills and strategies are the car that will get you from A to B, but a person’s own motivation to change is the fuel. The car won’t drive without it. And, interestingly, the things that a lot of people do naturally to help motivate themselves or others can often end up actually undermining motivation and can lead to less change.

How am I motivated, let me count the ways

There is one theory that has shaped my thinking about motivation more than anything else. It’s called Self-Determination Theory (SDT; for a review see Ryan & Deci, 2000). SDT tells us that our motivation can either come from outside ourselves (extrinsic motivation) or can come from within (intrinsic motivation). What’s more, extrinsic motivation can take on different forms, and all this motivation can be placed on a continuum from completely external to completely internal (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 2000; 2008).

External motivation is when we do things for reasons outside ourselves. Behaviours are performed because of some kind of demand or tangible reward. This is like a kid who does chores to get candy money, or like one partner motivating the other to go to the gym by offering to cook dinner in return. Introjected motivation is a little less external, but not much. This is essentially when we do things because we will feel guilty or bad about ourselves if we don’t. This is what drives us when we do something for someone just so that we don’t get yelled at, or when we eat healthy food because we feel like we’re doing something “wrong” otherwise. Identified motivation is moving towards being more internally focused on our continuum. This is when we engage in a behaviour because it is in line with something we truly value. We might find a TV show to be painfully boring, but we watch it with a loved one if it’s important to them. We might absolutely hate a particular class, but will study hard for tests because it will help us get into a program we really want. Integrated motivation is the most internal of the extrinsic motivation family. This is when we bring some sort of external motivation or value into how we see ourselves. We do things because they are so important to us that it wouldn’t feel genuine not to do them, but not because they are fun in and of themselves. Finally, intrinsic motivation is when we engage in a behaviour because our most authentic self simply wants to. This is when we learn about something because we are curious, or when we make someone a gift because it’s fun for us to do. This is when we act for no other reason than the joy of doing something.

Why intrinsic motivation is king (or queen, or any gender neutral ruler you like)

Our society uses extrinsic motivation to get people to do things all the time, particularly the external and introjected varieties. Anyone remember ever studying for a test for no other reason than to get that A? Or just to avoid getting scolded? I know I do. But the science suggests that getting people to do things by using external motivators both leads to worse results, and actually sucks out the intrinsic motivation from people even if it was there to start. This has been shown in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts including businesses, schools, and in therapy (see Deci & Flaste, 1995 for a review of business and education contexts, and Ryan et al., 2010 for a review in therapy contexts).

The overwhelming conclusion is that extrinsic rewards get people focused on outcomes instead of on working well along the way, and make tasks less enjoyable. They also result in less learning. For example, in studies where groups are either told that they can read a story for interest, or need to read a story because their knowledge of it will be tested, those who think they will be tested use rote memorization instead of actually processing information and forget the information soon after they write the test. Extrinsic rewards result in less creativity in art and problem solving, and less financial productivity in business. Bringing this back to the damsel in distress, prior to starting therapy with me, my client had been in an eating disorder program in which gaining weight was tangibly rewarded. I can imagine why this type of program did not foster her intrinsic motivation to change. In my experience with her, the times that she seemed the most motivated tended to be when I would ask her about why she wanted to recover and supported those reasons. People tend to offer extrinsic rewards with good intentions, thinking they’re helping to boost motivation, but it works in the opposite way.

If you’re interested to hear a bit more, here’s a nice Ted talk by Dan Pink in which he makes a case for not using external motivators in businesses: 

Final thoughts

Writing this feels like a throwback to a joke that my very first clinical supervisor told me at the start of my very first clinical placement. He asked me, “how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer feels much clearer now than it did then: it takes one. But the lightbulb has to want to change.

Stay tuned for a future entry in which I’ll talk about how to foster and support more intrinsically based motivation in ourselves and others.

Michelle Leybman is a clinical psychologist in Toronto, Ontario. Learn more about Michelle here.

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 blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


Deci, E. L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do. Putnam Publishing Group.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). A self-determination theory approach to psychotherapy: The motivational basis for effective change. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 186.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

Ryan, R. M., Lynch, M. F., Vansteenkiste, M., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Motivation and autonomy in counseling, psychotherapy, and behavior change: A look at theory and practice. The Counseling Psychologist.