Most mothers and fathers are fans of this "child-centered, time-intensive approach to parenting," according to a Cornell researcher. Here's what you need to know.  
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
parents and child hands
Credit: Fly-m/Shutterstock

January 28, 2019

Since the early 2000s, just about every mom and dad has heard the term "helicopter parenting." The term refers to "a style of parents who are over focused on their children," says Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide. "They typically take too much responsibility for their children's experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures," Dr. Daitch says. Now, a Cornell researcher reports that parents these days are taking helicoptering to the next level with a type of child-rearing called "intensive parenting." 

What Is Intensive Parenting?

Patrick Ishizuka, the author of “Social Class, Gender, and Contemporary Parenting Standards in the United States,” published Dec. 22 in Social Forces calls this form of parenting "a child-centered, time-intensive approach to parenting." Another way he describes it in his research is "concerted cultivation." 

Parents who follow this style "facilitate their child’s participation in extracurricular activities, play with them at home, ask them about their thoughts and feelings, and respond to misbehavior with discussion and explanations." The alternative is called "natural growth," in which "parents ... set rules for their children’s safety but give them flexibility to play on their own or with friends. Parents are less involved in the children’s activities and give them clear directives with little room for negotiation."

Need a couple of examples? In Ishizuka's research, he had participants read various scenarios in which a mom or dad interacts with a child aged 8-10. One of the vignettes: A child complains about being bored after school. The parent following concerted cultivation suggested that they sign the child up for a sports team or music lessons. The other, who subscribes to natural growth, advised the child to go outside and play with her friends.

What the Research Found

Ishizuka analyzed data from more than 3,600 study participants who were parents. The participants read these scenarios/vignettes, which focused on child’s leisure activities, how the parent speaks to the child, and how the family interacts with professionals in institutions like schools or a doctor’s office. The participants were then asked to rank the parent’s behavior from "excellent" to "poor."

The research showed that the majority—75 percent—of college graduates and non-college graduates rated the concerted cultivation approach as “very good” or “excellent.” But only 32 percent of college graduates and 38 percent of non-college graduates rated the natural growth parenting style “very good” or “excellent.” Most parents also said intensive parenting is the ideal approach for both mothers and fathers, and applies to parenting both boys and girls.

In turn, Ishizuka concluded that intensive parenting "has become the dominant model for how parents across the socio-economic spectrum feel children should be raised—regardless of whether the parent has the resources to actually do so."

"This points to exceptionally high standards for how parents should raise their kids," the researcher noted. "It suggests that parents are experiencing significant pressure to spend great amounts of both time and money on children. 

The Trouble With Intensive Parenting

Bonnie Compton, a child and adolescent therapist, parenting coach and author of Mothering With Courage tells that she believes this pervasive gravitation to intensive parenting is the result of parents feeling "fearful that they will not provide their children the best opportunity, the perfect childhood, so their parenting becomes fear-based." 

"The more involved they are, the more they believe they have control…over the child, their behavior, circumstances that the child may encounter, friendships, school, etc.," she says. "Their identity is tied up in their ability to parent. They fear that their child’s success and behavior is reflective of how well they were parented."

While Compton acknowledges that more time spent between parent and child is a benefit of the strategy, she's concerned that intensive parenting "may or may not result in more connection, if the parent's focus is fear-based." "Parents will be more focused on making sure everything is perfect in the child’s life rather than simply spending quality time together," she notes. 

Other drawbacks for children: "Intensive parenting can lead to enmeshment within the family, as a result of parent’s expectations of their children…who they are, how they think and feel, and what they believe. Children are not given the opportunity to become the unique independent individual that they are. Children, whose parents have anticipated and attempted to solve problems the child may face, have not allowed their child to experience consequences of their choices, make decisions on their own, solve problems, or fail. Kids often become overwhelmed and anxious when left on their own to experience life’s ups and downs and [may grow up to] believe the world revolves around them."

In his study, Ishizuka touches on how taxing it can be for parents to adopt an intensive parenting approach, especially if their aspirations don't match their resources. Compton agrees, pointing out that limited time and/or money are very much at play for many families.

"Not all parents can afford the increased time with their kids, or the financial burden of private school, coaches, tutors, lessons, etc., leading to more anxiety and guilt," she says. "Parents are becoming more stressed, anxious, and depressed as they put more pressure on themselves in their parenting. Also, competition between parents adds to their pressure."

The Bottom-Line 

Despite its popularity, intensive may be stressful in the short-term and problematic in the long-run, for everyone involved. "It can become emotionally exhausting for parents and kids," Compton says.

She recommends that parents who are considering the strategy bear in mind that "growth often occurs by letting their child experience life challenges." Though the desire to intensively parent is likely rooted in love, "parents are doing their child a disservice by not allowing them to learn life lesson and skills. By trying to make their child’s life easier so that they don’t suffer, they are ultimately creating more suffering for the child." After all, it is only through learning important life skills, by living their own life, that a child can grow up to be a responsible, independent adult.