Everyone agrees that it's a crime to neglect a child. That's a no brainer. What we've failed to see for two decades is that over-parenting -- not under-parenting -- can do even more harm.
Psychologists have found that a kid without an attentive parent can be emotionally damaged -- but soon discover they must find a way to fend for themselves. Children from over-parented homes can just plain fail to develop at all.
The Bully Issue
Dieter Wolke, Ph.D, Professor of Developmental Psychology at The University of Warwick Medical School in the UK, and lead author of this study, gives a practical example of how this plays out: "Overprotection by parents can increase the risk a child will be bullied." According to the study published last week in Child Abuse & Neglect, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 70 studies on more than 200,000 children. "Since parental support and supervision are important aspects to prevent bullying, the researchers were particularly surprised to find that over-protective parenting can have adverse effects on children. Parents who try too hard to buffer their children from harm, they assessed, can actually hurt them."
The goal of parenting, Dr. Wolke suggests, is to make children competent, self-regulating, and effective people. "Children need to deal with various forms of stress in mild doses -- like an inoculation that helps the body to fight a real infection by having built antibodies. Similarly, children do need to experience some conflict to learn how to deal with larger problems, such as bullying."
Five Action Steps
So, what's the answer? Either extreme -- abandonment or abundance -- is wrong. So how do we nurture young people, but not over-do it? The parents and teachers I know who equip students to handle bullying and other difficulties on campus practice the following action steps:
1. Teach your kids problem solving skills.
Instead of conditioning our young people to "depend on parents" to fix what's wrong, why not cultivate a "problem-solving bias" in them, to understand and resolve their problems -- whether it's a low test score, a bully on the bus, or a deadline they can't meet. This builds a can-do attitude in them, a resilient spirit as they encounter challenges and it prepares them for life.
2. Discuss the art of negotiation.
Much of life is about negotiating conflict with others and resolving it with a win/win solution or a compromise. I've spent years talking to my son, Jonathan, about negotiating conflict with difficult peers when they disagreed or with teachers when an assignment seemed impossible. This deepens their logic, empathy and ability to communicate. It's a skill they will use the rest of their lives.
3. Build emotional intelligence in your kids.
EQ, not IQ, is the greatest predictor of success for young people, both as students and later as graduates. Emotional intelligence enables a person to be self-aware; to manage their own emotions; to be socially aware (how are people connected or disconnected with each other) and to manage relationships. When we build healthy EQ in our kids, we prepare them to be more resilient. (Note: we're currently creating two new books called Habitudes and Emotional Intelligence).
4. Help them set and manage expectations.
I believe that much of life is about setting and managing healthy, realistic expectations. Kids become unhealthy when they just can't seem to navigate what to expect (or feel entitled to) and the reality they face. For example, while we wish everyone was kind and empathetic, even grown adults can be... uh, well, immature. Prepare your kids for hardship; tell them life can be tough. It's normal.
5. Don't do it for them.
Whatever you do, as your kids grow older, move from "doing it for them" to "helping them learn to do it themselves." Don't give them a fish; teach them to fish. By age 10, when they can't finish a project or meet a deadline, or make a practice, have them call their teacher or coach. Teach them to apologize for mistakes. If need be, go to the teacher with them, even hold their hand, but have them do the talking. It works.