Parents who are too structured, and too involved in their children’s academic lives are causing more harm than good. That’s what Bill Deresiewicz says, the author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” He writes, ““[For students] haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure, the cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”
I’ve seen the damage done, and heard the stories. When I was in college, I would speak to other students about their hopes, their dreams, and what they really wanted to do with their lives. The answers I received most commonly were along the lines of, “my parents want me to ______.” These were the children of those parents who planned out everything, who set the bar exceedingly high, and who took away their intellectual and emotional freedom. There they sat, telling me about their outwardly successful situations while coming to terms with the fact that their lives make them miserable.
In 2013 there were numerous news stories regarding the increasing mental health concerns of college students.One survey from the previous year caught the attention of Charlie Gofen, retired chairman of the board at the Latin School of Chicago. Gofen mentioned the statistics found within the survey to a colleague in an email. He asked, “Do you think parents at your school would rather their kid be depressed at Yale or happy at University of Arizona?” His colleague responded, “My guess is 75 percent of the parents would rather see their kids depressed at Yale. They figure that the kid can straighten the emotional stuff out in his/her 20’s, but no one can go back and get the Yale undergrad degree.”
The 2012 survey accounted for more than 4.7 million students on 400 campuses. 95% of the counseling center directors of these campuses said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus. 70% said that the number of students on their campus with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year, and they reported that 24.5% of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs.
Another survey was done, in 2013, by the American College Health Association. They surveyed approximately 100,000 college students from 153 different campuses in regards to their health. These students were asked about their personal experiences, and at some stage over a 12 month period:
- 84.3% felt overwhelmed by workload
- 60.5% felt very sad
- 57.0% felt very lonely
- 51.3% felt overwhelming anxiety
- 8.0% seriously considered suicide
The surveyed schools included campuses in all 50 states, and varied from small liberal arts colleges, to large Ivy League schools. The mental health issues that are causing concern are not only found at the big name colleges, they are found everywhere. We can see that this is happening to students who end up at hundreds of schools in every tier. It appears that these mental health issues do not stem from the rigorous work of getting into an elite school, but rather from some aspect of childhood itself.
Alright, but is over-parenting the cause for this rise in mental health problems? Well, there are currently no studies to prove causation, but there are a number that exhibit correlation.
Psychology professor Neil Montgomery of Keene State College conducted a survey in 2010 of 300 college freshman across the United States. He found that students with “helicopter parents” were the ones who struggled the most with mental issues. “We have a person who is dependent, who is vulnerable, who is self-conscious, who is anxious, who is impulsive, not open to new actions or ideas; is that going to make a successful college student?” Montgomery said. “No not exactly, it’s really a horrible story at the end of the day.”
Montgomery added that those students who were not constantly monitored by over-involved parenting, or “free-rangers”, exhibited fewer of those traits.
A 2011 study by Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan at the University of Tennessee discovered that students with helicopter parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety, depression, or both.
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A study in 2012 of 438 college students published in the Journal of Adolescence discovered, “initial evidence for this form of intrusive parenting being linked to problematic development in emerging adulthood … by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.”
What the emerging data shows is confirmation of harm to our children’s mental health by asking so little of them regarding life skills, yet so much of them when it comes to sticking to the academic plans we’ve set.
Psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine, believes there are 3 ways that over-parenting can unknowingly cause psychological harm:
- When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
- When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
- When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.
Now, I’m not saying that you should never be there for your kid, nor am I saying that they have to figureeverything out for themselves. I know you love your children, and I know you want the best for them. The thing is, you can’t protect them from everything and you can’t live their life for them. Learning life-skills is a part of growing up, and if you take that away from them, they never have the experience of becoming an adult. They will always be there for you to pick up the pieces, and when you tell them to “be an adult,” well, they may be a little late to the party. The research shows that figuring out things for themselves is a critical part of people’s mental health.
If you want to do more good than harm, stop telling your kids how to solve their problems and how to live their lives. Instead, ask them how they are going to handle their problems, and get those creative juices flowing. You can still be in the background to show support, but please, for the mental health of your children, let them figure it out.