When it comes to success and wellbeing, most parents want the best for their children, right?
But the kind of parenting where you try to ensure your child’s success could be their downfall, according to Dieter Wolke, Professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at the University of Warwick.
Professor Wolke’s interdisciplinary research, tracking and understanding children’s development from experiences in the womb, right up to adulthood, has shown that trying to remove the trials and obstacles from a child’s path in their formative years, merely stores up trouble for later.
Professor Wolke explains: “Many parents in the modern world find it difficult not to wade in and help their struggling children. You may have finished little Mia’s Lego model for her over the holidays or organised for young Freddie to meet up with his friends – even though he has his own phone. But as parents you can’t and shouldn’t always be there to solve your child’s problems for them, because you set them up for feelings of failure, or worse, in their adult life.
“This so-called Helicopter Parenting, where adults hover over their offspring’s lives ready to solve any little problems for them, is considered by some to be a form of abuse. You take away the opportunity for a child to learn to cope.”
Life is easier
Mental health issues in young people are on the increase and Professor Wolke’s work is helping to unpick some of the reasons for this.
“We have objective data from Nuffield Foundation studies,” he continues, “tracking what is changing over time, and it shows that on nearly every indicator life has got objectively better for children. They have, on average, more pocket money, they have to work less, they do better in school, they have much less homework.
“But we find that young people are less happy. We call this the wealth paradox – as life becomes seemingly easier for them, wellbeing is reduced.
“Alongside this we have the advent of social media. We used to be able to compare ourselves only to the Jones family – and we saw very small differences between us and our neighbours or other children at our school. Now, with social media platforms we can compare ourselves to the whole world. We can develop the feeling that ‘my life is worse’ than all these people enjoying holidays or parties or social interaction.”
Protected by parents
But how are parents adding to these problems?
Professor Wolke continues: “We have found that parents, even those in the lower social classes, monitor their children much more than they did, say 40 years ago, and are becoming much more involved in their lives and their outcomes.
“Children face fewer challenges, they fail less often and are protected by their parents, but this protective effect gets lost once they leave the home, and they have to cope with all of the normal tasks of life.
“So a parent, focused on their child doing well in their exams, thinks they are helping by telling their child to just concentrate on their revision whilst they do everything else. But, by protecting them from the extra challenge, the child will not learn either the practical skill like cooking or the coping mechanisms they need.
Don’t leave them stranded
“To go into the adult world you need to know how to cook, how to budget and how to organise your life. Overprotective parents take away the skills their children need to go out there.
“You don’t send someone out on the ocean in a rubber dinghy and expect them to just sail along. It is very important for parents to think that doing everything for their child leaves them vulnerable. You leave them stranded, like in a dinghy on a big ocean, which they find very difficult; they can’t plug the holes and then they need help.
“It is also vital that, in order to become resilient adults, children should learn about failure. As an academic, like in many jobs, you fail all the time; applications or publications are rejected or need several revisions.
“Success does not come from blaming the outside world or claiming everyone is against you. Success comes from being persistent, dealing with knock-backs and recognising that you can do better next time.”
Hear more from Professor Dieter Wolke, and other Warwick experts, talking about the wellbeing and mental health of young people, in the University of Warwick Podcast episode “Is Modern Life Rubbish for the Kids of Today?”
Listen at www.warwick.ac.uk/podcasts.
25 January 2109
Dieter Wolke is professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at the University of Warwick.
He is interested in developmental pathways leading to developmental psychopathology, social and emotional development, biological at risk children (very preterm children), school and sibling bullying, infant regulatory problems (crying, feeding, sleeping) and parenting.
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