Overparenting? Why Do Grownups Have to Take Over?

by Rick on August 30, 2013

Why Do Grownups Have to Take Over Everything?

–A Seven-year-old Boy

Reading parenting talk from “experts” online, it seems parents are either over-involved or under-involved, either over-protecting or neglectful, tiger parenting or laissez-faire liberals. American “parenting” is either too “slow” or too fast.

It is an issue of critical importance. There is plenty of evidence that American children are not being properly prepared for an increasingly challenging, diverse, complex, and changing world.

But most of this pendulum conversation misses the point. The more educators (parents and others) get the message that we are falling down on the job of raising the young, the natural thing is to try harder. What is required, however, is not for us to work harder, but smarter. The resolution of the pendulum conversation is not to find a balance between two polar opposites, but to look elsewhere.

Are we overparenting or underparenting? We should be asking a different question: Who is taking responsibility for what?

The reason we should be careful about who takes responsibility is that whoever takes responsibility wins.

My friend and colleague Janet Lansbury who works with parents of babies made this point in her latest piece “The Curse of Respectful Parenting.” In my article  “Are You Over-Parenting?” the punchline comes from a seven-year-old: “Why do grownups have to take over everything?”

Seventh grader Malcolm kept getting into enough trouble for him to be sent to my office, and I called in the parents. In the conversation I found myself saying, “If you care more about it than Malcolm, it absolves the him of responsibility.”

His father said: “So you are telling me to back off, right?”

I said, “No, I am saying you need to change the quality of your involvement. It’s not more or less.”

“What do you mean?” one said.

“I am suggesting that you stop trying to change him, and make room for him to take responsibility for changing himself—to learn from his mistakes. Right now, he doesn’t have to do any learning, because you are doing all the work. Your anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Many parents and teachers think responsibility is something they have to teach because it’s not something that kids naturally want to take. But that’s not true. Kids want to take responsibility, because their very being knows that whoever takes responsibility gets the ability, and ability wins. The adult challenge is to create the conditions in which children can show us what they can do.

Good schools are showing us how!

In May of 2011 when I visited the Academy for Global Citizenship, an inner city charter school in Chicago, all 200 students from kindergarten through third grade were busy at their academic work, even though this was the next to last day of school. Last week I visited again. AGC now has 350 students kindergarten through 6th grade in two buildings. I saw the same busy, businesslike climate in each classroom. All 350 students were working; the thing is, it seemed no one was making them.

What was going on? The difference between schools that educate and schools that interfere with children’s education is whether or not the students are respected as full fledged human beings who have a purpose and want to make a difference. The difference between a good school and a bad school is whether the students feel ownership or not.

The difference between good and bad parenting is not whether the parents are more or less involved, but whether or not the child is respected for having his or her own genius. Are they seen as creators and scientists researching the world and their place in it? Are they decision-makers with a purpose? Are they subjects or are they objects? Respecting another human being is seeing them as primarily an origin of learning rather than a recipient of instruction.

Whether parents are trying to be tigers, neo-hippies, helicopters, or balance-seekers my advice would be to stop trying; just be a learning parent. That will be good enough. As school approaches, there are lots of voices answering the question “How can you prepare your child?” There are lots of good ideas, but the key is remembering who’s going to school. Homework may become another challenging battlefield until parents remember to ask the question, ”Who Takes Responsibility for Homework? What is the Parent’s Role?”

Making sure that children and students take responsibility does not mean that educators should not take responsibility, it means they must learn the uncommon disciplines of how to take responsibility without controlling.

Yes, kids have minds of their own. Don’t we actually want that? Both in and out of school, the mistake we grownups tend to make is not the mistake of taking too much or too little responsibility, but rather not respecting children as whole people trying to self-actualize, and not understanding that self-actualization starts at birth.

So, my Seven-Year-Old Friend, the answer to your question of why grownups have to take over everything, is that they love you and feel responsible for you—which is a good thing. Perhaps you can help them learn how to take responsibility without needing to control you. High responsibility/Low Control. That’s the ticket.

Third Grade Responsibility Chart  at AGC2013-08 Elias JOb Chart2

Other articles on the subject:

Parenting is a process of growing up— and not just for the kids.

Education is Leadership

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ALERT: Homework Police – It’s Time to Retire | Vicki Hoefle
September 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne August 30, 2013 at 4:50 pm

I’m going with this particular entry isn’t as helpful as most. My 1st grader (oy, 1st grade) is supposed to read for 15 minutes a day in Spanish. Alone or to me or Dad. When we went out today I suggested that we take a book so that we could read together. No. She doesn’t want to. She’s supposed to read per the teacher. I just can’t figure out how to make this happen. 1st grade and I’m at a loss. I don’t want to take over and I don’t want to force her to read. I can’t fathom not wanting to read. She loves being read to. I’ve offered the “you read a page, I’ll read a page” I’ve assured her that we will keep reading to her….

This entry has come at a good time, but I still feel like I don’t understand.

By the way, her genius is not finishing projects because she likes talking…in English in her Spanish immersion class… I am so screwing up parenthood.

Marianne White Dunlap August 31, 2013 at 3:46 am

We forget sometimes that part of “creating the conditions in which children show us what they can do” is creating the conditions within ourselves that allow us to be in control and not controlling.

Rick August 31, 2013 at 8:06 am

Anne,
Sounds like you need to let go of HER outcomes. The teacher is saying she should read; it is not your job to make it happen, but an issue between her and her teacher. Her sense of her own autonomy, agency, initiative and industry are key developmental stages for her. She must come out of this process owning her own purpose and mission. who owns the reading? who owns the assignment? For sure she senses that you care about these things, and she is trying to tell you: “If you succeed in caring more about this kind of stuff than me, you will take away my responsibility from me, and that will be devastating for me, because I know that the only way I will be able to make something of myself is if I do it myself. If you succeed in your project of making me a success, I will be a loser.”
Whose image is on your self-definition photo?

Rick August 31, 2013 at 8:17 am

PS: Once you let go of HER outcomes so that she can feel your trust in her and her genius, you might be able to ask her if there is some way you could help? like “I know this is your work, and all, but you know me, I love you and I want to be involved somehow. Is there some way I could be of use to you? The person you read to, perhaps? The one who reminds you to take breaks? The one you do extra-curricular activities with?”
BTW: No, her genius is not talking and being irresponsible about completing projects and speaking English in Spanish class. Those are manifestations of the responsibility issue. You do not know her genius or where it is leading her in pursuit of her calling and the expression of her character. Sounds like she is a person with a will, and that is a very good thing type “difficult child” into the search box above.

Rick August 31, 2013 at 8:19 am

The Invincible Thirty-Something and the Three Joys of Parenting a Difficult Child

Norma September 3, 2013 at 3:03 am

I enjoyed this entry.
I think you said it all with “If you succeed in caring more about this kind of stuff than me, you will take away my responsibility from me, and that will be devastating for me, because I know that the only way I will be able to make something of myself is if I do it myself. If you succeed in your project of making me a success, I will be a loser.”
My opinion is taking away a child’s responsibility for their actions leads to drug and alcohol problems as well.

Rick September 3, 2013 at 4:26 am

Norma, That’s an interesting theory, and I haven’t heard it put like that before. But of course, if you are feeling responsible you have wind in your sails for real-life challenges that take you somewhere; why would you do need to jump ship?

Gary September 3, 2013 at 6:11 am

Parents sometimes take over because it fulfills their need to be in control and it’s awfully hard to let children make mistakes (and learn from them) when parents have all the answers. NOT!

Todd September 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Hey Rick. Great article and something I needed to hear right now. So thank you.

On another note, I found the article too link heavy to be easily digestible. Too many links is distracting and I also think Google dings you for that. Just thought I’d let you know.

Marty September 4, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Great post, Rick, and a revealing dilemma for Anne – I so appreciate her honesty about how to use the post to have her daughter do what is asked of her.

I think you addressed the problem about as well as it can be addressed, Rick. Gary’s comment is so true, too. I think we (parents) have a high fear of losing control, thinking it means that we are failing. I had the opportunity to train new staff for a child care company for many years, and part of my training included letting staff know that their job is not to control the children in their classrooms. It sounds so antithetical to being a good classroom teacher, doesn’t it? But so many behavioral issues dissolved once they finally gave up control.

Arlette et Jean Pierre Moggia September 5, 2013 at 10:24 am

nous avons eu le plaisir de pouvoir lire en Français ce long texte
nous aurions aimé pouvoir parler avec toi pour mieux comprendre car à notre âge nous n’ avons pas les mêmes souvenirs de notre enfance et c’ est vrai que la vie actuelle a bien changé sur le mode d’ éducation des enfants. Ysabelle si tu a l’occasion de nous appeler sur Skype nous serions très heureux de pouvoir converser avec toi ..
dans l’ attente nous vous embrassons tous bien fort.

Rick September 6, 2013 at 7:55 am

Oui et Oui, Mais je ne parle bien pas francais.

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