Are you a helicopter parent, attachment parent, or intensive parent, and why does it matter?
This is the introductory post to my new series, Experts Unplugged. In this series, I will explore parenting and education topics through conversations or profiles of experts who are doing cutting-edge research about parenting and kids’ learning. As a doctoral student, I have been continually surprised at how approachable and engaged most researchers are when you ask them directly about their research areas. In contrast to the writing found in most academic journals, when researchers talk about their own work outside of the confines of academic writing, they can frequently break down complex topics for all of us and tell us passionately in their own words why their research is important to know about.
My first “expert” is Dr. Holly Schiffrin, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Mary Washington. And I asked her about why parenting styles matter and why current trends may be harmful to both kids and their parents.
I first encountered Dr. Schiffrin’s work when I was researching last week’s post about intensive parenting. Her work has been mentioned in Time Magazine, Reuters, and the Huffington Post. According to the findings of her research, parents who subscribe to a style of parenting that she describes as “intensive” are more likely to be unhappy, depressed, stressed, guilt-ridden, and anxious. And the children of these parents may end up as depressed and anxious themselves as adolescent and young adults, as well as not very good at basic problem-solving and coping skills.
But what does her research really mean for parents? After all, very few parents would describe themselves as “helicopter” parents or “intensive” parents. Through e-mail, I asked Dr. Schifflin a few questions about her research.
School of Smock: Why should we care about parenting styles? Why do they matter?
Dr. Holly Schiffrin: I think that it’s very important to talk about parenting. It is one of the most important jobs in the world and there is virtually no training for it. People simply parent the way that they were parented for better or worse. Understanding that there are alternative ways of parenting as well as what research evidence there is on different styles of parenting can help people make informed decisions and approach parenting in a more thoughtful and pro-active manner (rather than just having to react in the moment to a child’s behavior). That being said, I think that there is a broad continuum of ways to parent children that is appropriate and beneficial. Even different children of the same parent need slightly different approaches based on their temperaments. I think there is some clear research on things parents shouldn’t do though (e.g., physical forms of punishment and psychological control), so it’s important to get those messages out to parents.
School of Smock: What is intensive parenting? And how does it compare to other parenting styles?
Dr. Holly Schiffrin: I think your question is very interesting and one that needs further research. Hays [who wrote the 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood] defines intensive parenting as having three primary characteristics including the idea that mothers are naturally the best parent, parenting should be child centered, and children are sacred and should not be thought of in terms of market value (i.e., the ability to earn money and take care of you when you’re older). When we conducted our quantitative study, we found some of the things that Hays included under “child-centered” showed up as independent factors. So, we have five components including essentialism (mothers are naturally the best parents), parenting should be child-centered, parenting should involve providing stimulation for your child, children are delightful and fulfilling, and that parenting is challenging/demanding.
It is not completely clear how these components of intensive mothering map onto more traditional parenting styles such as Baumrind’s authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. I lean toward that it is authoritative parenting gone awry. I think these are parents with the best of intentions. They’ve heard that being involved and stimulating your child (e.g., reading to them) is good and they just take it to such an extreme that it becomes stressful.
SS: How is intensive parenting different from “attachment parenting”?
HS: It is also unclear how this style of parenting maps on to other less-traditional parenting styles such as attachment parenting. In one sense, you could think of attachment parenting as being very high on essentialism, child-centeredness (e.g., feed on demand, co-sleep, and have baby with you at all times by wearing them as you go about your daily activities), and child is sacred/delightful/fulfilling. However, I think these parents would reject the ideas that you need to provide constant stimulation or that parenting is challenging because they view it as a natural process. Again, at this point, I think that attachment parenting (focus on emotional nurturing of child) and intensive parenting (focus on stimulating child to maximize cognitive as well as social development and motor coordination through structured activities) are distinct styles of parenting. I do think that some (but probably not all) intensive parents go on to become what we call helicopter parents of adolescents and young adults. I think some of these parents remain intensely involved even as it becomes less and less developmentally appropriate as their children age. However, much of what I’ve just said are thoughts I’ve formed from reading/conducting research, but still need to be tested empirically.
[Watch a very extreme (and funny) example of the helicopter parenting of an adolescent from the IFC show Portlandia:]
SS: What else do you plan to research? What are your other projects?
HS: My research colleague, Dr. Miriam Liss, and I are currently collaborating on a book about balancing work and family life that will address research on parenting, among other topics. We hope to summarize the research in a manner that is user friendly and helpful to both parents and professionals. In addition, I am currently planning a study to examine the impact of intensive parenting on the outcomes of preschool-aged children. We’ve seen that it can take a toll on mothers, but mothers might be willing to sacrifice their own well-being if they think it gives their child better opportunities in life. However, the helicopter parenting study you mentioned showed that children may not be benefiting from this level of involvement as young adults. If younger children aren’t benefitting either, then it will be clear we need to get the message out to mothers to give themselves a break from the intense style of parenting that decreases their own satisfaction with life and increases their stress and depressive symptoms while it provides no benefits to the child. But, time will tell if that’s the conclusion we can make or not.
SS: How did you become interested in this research on parenting styles?
HS: I got my Ph.D. in child development, so I have always had an interest in what benefits child development. In graduate school, I worked with children who were at risk of poor development due to a variety of risk factors (e.g., being born low birth weight, prenatal exposure to drugs, low maternal education, low income, etc.). We conducted interventions to help these parents learn how to interact appropriately with their children (e.g., talk to them, read to them, show affection toward them, and generally be more involved). I think my interest shifted to the other end of the continuum when I became a mother because I saw parents doing all of these behaviors that research has said are associated with good outcomes in children (e.g., better grades, more friends, and fewer behavior problems), but it’s taken to such an extreme. It’s as if parents think they have to be with their children all the time because if some involvement is good, then more involvement must be better. However, it’s completely stressing the parents out and I think the logic is flawed.
SS: What might parents misunderstand about how to parent well?
HS: More is not always better. For example, you need exercise, but too much can hurt the body. You need food, but too much can make you unhealthy. Similarly, with parental involvement, there may be a point where there are no additional benefits to the child, but there is a detrimental impact on the parent due to stress (and there is research that says it’s not good for kids when parents are stressed and depressed). And, in fact, there may be some detriment to the child if the involvement becomes so intrusive that the child doesn’t develop a sense of autonomy and competence, which has been associated with decreased satisfaction with life and increased depressive symptoms in our helicopter study. Just like anything else there can be too much of a good thing!
Note: Interview has been condensed and edited.
Do you have an idea for an area of parenting or education research that you’d like to know more about, from the perspective of a researcher working in that field? If you could ask a parenting researcher any question, what would you ask?