Trustful parenting is thrown off course, in various ways, when fear prevails.
By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn
I have long been advocating, on this blog and elsewhere, for what I refer to as trustful parenting. Trustful parents allow their children as much freedom as reasonably possible to make their own decisions. They trust their children’s instincts, judgments, and ability to learn from mistakes. Trustful parents do not try to guide their children’s development; they trust their children to guide their own development. They support, rather than guide, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested and needed.
Trustful parenting is the most natural and least stressful form of parenting, for both parent and child. Ethnologists have found this style of parenting to be universal in hunter-gatherer cultures (here and here). Many families in our culture now, especially those in the Self-Directed Education movement, have adopted this style of parenting and written about its pleasures and benefits. My own research on young people who grew up with trustful parents bears this out (e.g. here and here). Trustful parents are not afraid of life, and they are not irrationally afraid for their children’s lives. Trustful parents have faith in their children’s capacities, and that faith becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As I wrote nearly ten years ago (here), trustful parenting sends the following messages to children: “You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your abilities and limitations. Through your self-directed play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.” I add now these additional messages: Your life is yours, not mine, and life is to be enjoyed.
The enemy of trustful parenting is fear, and, unfortunately, fear runs rampant in our society today. It runs rampant not because the world is truly more dangerous than it was in the past, but because we as a society have generated dangerous myths about dangers. We are afraid that strangers will snatch our children away if we don’t guard them constantly and that our children will be homeless, or in some other way life failures, if they don’t get all As in school, do all the proper extracurricular activities, and get into a top-ranked college. Somewhat more realistically, we are also afraid of others’ judgments of us, if others see that we are not guarding, pushing, and pulling our children in all the ways that society says we should guard, push and pull, but instead are letting our children be and are enjoying their being.
Fear-based parenting comes in various shades, depending partly on the types of fears most prominent in the parents’ minds and partly on the parents’ personalities and economic means. Here is a list.
The term helicopter parenting has been used for at least the last three decades (here) to describe parents who are overprotective and, more generally, over-involved in their children’s lives. The typical helicopter parent, on hearing my argument favoring trust, would likely say (and I have heard some say), “It’s not my child I don’t trust, it’s the rest of the world.” They’re convinced that danger lurks around every corner, and so they guard and advise their child at every turn.
In a previous post I described how researchers have identified helicopter parenting using questionnaires and have found at least a correlation between this style of parenting and offspring’s subsequent poor coping skills in young adulthood. These parents have difficulty letting go, even when their children are adults, perhaps partly because their offspring actually seem to need extra help, as they developed habits of helplessness resulting from all the previous helicoptering. These parents continue to want to know all the details of their adult children’s lives and to offer unsolicited advice as the latter pursue higher education or careers or start to raise a family of their own.
Instead of just hovering around to help them through the obstacles of life, snowplow parents smash down the obstacles. This is protective parenting on steroids—or, more precisely, on money, power, and hutzpah. These are parents who use their wealth, status, and inflated sense of privilege to clear the path for their children. Much of their effort is aimed at getting their children into and through the most elite college possible, or the most prestigious and well-paying career, because these are parents who place great value on the outward appearance of success.
These are the parents who hire tutors to help their children through courses, hire counselors to write their children’s college application essays, shop for doctors willing to give their child some sort of diagnosis that will allow extra help at school, make large donations to colleges in exchange for an improved chance that their child will be admitted, and call teachers and even professors and employers to ask for extra privileges for their child. At the extreme—as was uncovered in the Operation Varsity Blues investigation—these are the parents willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars criminally to bribe test proctors and college coaches to cheat and lie to get their children into a chosen college. These parents also do what they can to hide their snowplow efforts from their children, to spare them the humiliation of knowing that their “success” did not come from their own merits (here). Their snowplowing is aimed not just at clearing paths and opening doors, but also at inflating their children’s egos.
This is a term that I just now made up. It’s not a great term, but it’s the best I can think of now. Maybe you can suggest something better. I wish there were a vehicle metaphor for it, comparable to helicopter or snowplow, but at least I’m still dealing with a mechanical device.
Fuel-injector parents are not so concerned with removing barriers for their children as they are with injecting their children with what they regard as the sorts of motives and attitudes that they (the parents) perceive as necessary to navigate this frightening world. In particular, they are hooked on the idea that life is fundamentally a competition, like a race, to be won or lost. To win you need to want to win and know how to compete. It’s not surprising that many parents think this way. Our whole schooling system, by design, is a constant competition for children. Everyone’s on the same track, running supposedly to the same goal, and those who fall behind or wander down some other track are deemed “failures.” By extension, many people grow up feeling that all of life is a competition, like school, where some are winners and others are failures. I’ve even heard parents argue, seriously, that the main value of school is it teaches children to compete.
The best study of fuel-injector parenting I know of is one conducted a decade ago by Hilary Friedman, for a doctoral dissertation, and subsequently published as a book entitled Playing to Win (I reviewed the book here). Friedman was interested in the motives of parents who push their children into competitive activities and then invest large sums of money, for lessons and participation fees, and large amounts of time and energy carting their children to practices and events and encouraging them to work hard to win. What do these parents expect as a return on this investment?
To find out, Friedman spent sixteen months interviewing parents from 95 different families, and in some cases also interviewing the children. She chose families involved intensely in three quite different competitive activities—soccer, chess, and dance. In each case the child was of elementary school age.
What she found, in short, was that most of the parents were investing all this money, time, and energy not because their child loved the activity, nor because the parents wanted their child to become a professional at it. The activity itself was rather arbitrary. The important thing to the parents was the competitive aspect of the activity. They believed the competitions would foster, in their children, a set of attitudes and skills, which Friedman refers to collectively as Competitive Kids Capital, that would serve them well in such future competitions as getting into a high-ranking college, getting a high-paying job, and gaining promotions.
The primary goal, to these parents, was that their children would internalize the value of winning and acquire certain general skills important for winning any competition, such as abilities to persist and to perform under pressure. Toward this end, many of the parents rewarded their children with cash or material goods or treats (such as trips to Disneyland), well beyond the trophies provided by event organizers, if they won or improved their ranking, but not if they lost. The goal was to reinforce the value of winning.
When Friedman asked the children what they enjoyed about the activity, they often talked about making and meeting friends and about the rewards given to them for winning, rarely about love of the activity itself or even about any intrinsic pleasure they got from winning. In fact, some even said they felt bad if they defeated a friend. In contrast, according to Friedman, none of the parents mentioned making friends as a reason for having their children participate in these activities.
These parents were toward the extreme, but I suspect that belief in a competitive world and the value of internalizing a drive to win is one of the reasons why so many parents today put their children—even their little ones—into competitive activities rather than just let them go out and play. What trustful parents realize, which fuel-injector parents do not, is that the real secrets to success lie not in a drive to beat others but in discovering what you truly love to do, in making friends, and in learning how to cooperate. By far the best place to learn these is play.