Kids Benefit More When Parents Step Back And Let Them Take the Lead

It's easy to want to jump in and help your kid finish an activity. But, according to new research, parents aren't doing them any favors when taking over.

It's totally normal for parents to want to step in and help their kiddos when they see them struggling through an activity, or simply to guide them when they feel it's necessary. But research shows parents may want to try and take a step back in those moments.

A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in March 2021 found it can sometimes be counterproductive when parents intervene too much, particularly when kids are right on task. The Stanford-led study looked at kindergarten-age children who were playing, cleaning up toys, learning a new game, and talking about a problem. They found children were negatively impacted when their parents stepped in more often to help. These kids struggled with regulating emotions and behavior and performed worse on tasks that involved executive functions.

"Parents have been conditioned to find ways to involve themselves, even when kids are on task and actively playing or doing what they've been asked to do," Jelena Obradović, Ph.D., lead researcher and an associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education told Stanford News. "But too much direct engagement can come at a cost to kids' abilities to control their own attention, behavior, and emotions. When parents let kids take the lead in their interactions, children practice self-regulation skills and build independence."

Previous research out of the University of Pennsylvania found kids also benefited when parents didn't always step in. The reason? Kids "persist less when adults take over," according to the observational study, published in the journal Child Development in January.

Allyson Mackey, Ph.D., a psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and postdoctoral fellow Julia Leonard, Ph.D., came to the conclusion through two experiments. In the first, they placed 4- and 5-year-olds into three different groups, including a control, and showed them how to put together a block puzzle. The kids were then asked to put together a new puzzle. In one group, adults stepped in to physically finish the puzzle for the kid while, in the other, adults verbally helped the kid put it together.

In the end, all kids were given a puzzle box that was glued shut—aka it wasn't possible to open. The kids who had an adult finish their puzzle previously persisted less than the others with the box.

In the second experiment, 4- and 5-year-olds were placed in a group where adults took over or one where adults took turns with the kids to put together a puzzle. The purpose of this one was to see how easily kids quit a subsequent activity after they are used to adults taking over.

"We found that parents who took over more during a challenging puzzle task rated their children as less persistent. In a second study, we found that after an adult takes over on a challenging task, children quit sooner on the next task compared to children who interacted with an adult who did not take over," Dr. Leonard tells "Our results suggest that interventions to help adults take over less may lead to greater persistence in young children."

What surprised Dr. Leonard most about the findings was "how hard it was to reverse the demotivating effects of taking over. This is important because there are clearly situations in which adults need to take over—you're in a rush or your child is doing something dangerous. We found that reframing taking over as 'taking turns' helped, but not very much."

The results make sense to Robyn Koslowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of the Targeted Parenting Institute, a program helping parents and children overcome various disorders of childhood, who wasn't part of the study. "Children have an innate drive to figure things out and to succeed at a task. But they also have an innate drive to please their parents. So, if the parent jumps in, the child gets the message that the product is more important than the process—the results of 'finishing the task' are more important than the process of learning," says Dr. Koslowitz, who just launched the podcast Post-Traumatic Parenting. "Once they learn to value the product over the process, they're going to have less of an incentive to try themselves."

How Can Parents Take a Step Back?

With that said, it's understandable that parents may still struggle to take a back seat—especially during the pandemic when frustrations with virtual learning and isolation loom.

Dr. Mackey, parent to a 5- and 1-year-old, understands. "Even knowing this work, it's hard for me not to take over," Dr. Mackey told PennToday. "You might have a hard time watching your kids learn new skills, but this research shows us that it's important to let them struggle. If you start to do their math for them, they might learn they don't have to do it themselves."

The good news is there are ways for parents to learn to step aside. An effective first step, says Dr. Koslowitz, is to look at the given situation at hand. "Is right now a 'process' time, or a 'product' time? If the school bus is honking outside, and the child is learning to tie his shoes, it might not be the best time to value 'process' over 'product.' That's a time the parent might want to tie the shoes themselves," she explains.

But other situations, such as when a child is doing an art project, are a perfect opportunity for parents to let kids figure things out on their own, even if they fail at first. "Parents might be able to console themselves by allowing themselves to use 'process praise' to help the child through it. Saying things like, 'I see how hard you're trying, I know you can figure it out yourself' might help the parent resist the urge to jump in and provide too much help," says Dr. Koslowitz. "The parent can also follow up by saying, 'Wow, you were frustrated, but you tried again and figured it out for yourself!'"

Dr. Leonard also has some advice: count to 10. "Figure out the context. Do you think your child could do this with a little more time or if you offered some hints? If so, wait a bit longer," she told PennToday. "Have confidence in your child's ability to learn and know that often struggling is part of the process. If you really think it's beyond their capabilities though, step in. You don't want your child to feel unsupported."

The Bottom Line

While more research needs to be conducted to see if it matters how long a parent waits to step in or which interventions make the biggest difference, it's clear that letting your little ones struggle a bit allows them to persevere more.

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