Super-Involved AND Free-Range??

Hi Readers! Here’s an interesting angle on Free-Ranging, brought to us by Kathy Seal. Kathy is a journalist in Santa Monica and co-author of  Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child  and Motivated Minds: Raising Children. Her websites are and Voila:


Ok, I’m gonna say something controversial: You can’t be too involved with your child.

You heard me right. Tons of gold-standard research shows that the more you’re involved with your kids –be they toddlers or teens — the better it is for them. And that doesn’t contradict my dear friend Lenore here one bit, because you can be involved without trampling on your kid’s feelings of independence and competence.

How? All you have to do is respect your child’s autonomy.   That’s what’ll prevent you from becoming one of those cringe-inducing helicopter parents. So what’s autonomy anyway?

It’s the feeling of initiating an action. It’s the opposite of feeling controlled by someone else. When kids — and all human beings — feel that what they do is self-initiated, they’re happier.   They also perform better, because the enjoyment motivates them to study or practice more.

Maybe you think there’s something icky about being highly involved with your kids. Like, it means you don’t have your own life, or you’re pushing them to achieve what you didn’t.  I hear you! Nobody wants to be involved like that.  So let’s define our kind of involvement as “support.”  Because a mountain of research has found that the more we support our children, the happier they are and the more they achieve. And it helps them feel secure and solidly connected to us, too.

My co-author, Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick, did a study of mothers of   elementary school children. The more involved the moms were with their kids — that is, the more time they spent with them, and the more they knew about what they did, liked and disliked — the better their children did on report cards and standardized tests, and the fewer problems they had in school. These highly involved mothers weren’t necessarily at home a lot, but when they were, they spent time with their children. They asked about their children’s school day, knew which subjects they enjoyed or didn’t, and who their friends were.

The big caveat is to combine your involvement with healthy respect for your child’s autonomy. And there are three ways to do that.  (I didn’t say three easy ways. But they’re not terribly hard either.)

1. Take your child’s point of view and acknowledge his feelings.

Say your 10-year-old isn’t doing his homework. He’s thinking, “It’s going to get dark soon. I want to have some fun now. I can do my homework later.”

You could take his point of view by trying to imagine, “If I were his age, what would I prefer? Riding my bike or reading a chapter on coal production?” Then you can say, “I understand that you’re having fun. But tonight we’re going to Aunt Karen’s for dinner, so unfortunately, this is the only time to do your science homework.” What counts is acknowledging your child’s feelings. You want to convey “I’m with you.”

2. Support your child’s independent problem solving.

One of the best ways to support your child’s independent problem solving is to ask questions, as I did when my son, Zach, was making a pinhole camera for the school science fair. Instead of taking him to a store to get the cardboard box he needed, I asked him, “Where could you find a big box?”

After a minutes he said, “I know — behind the store where they sell refrigerators!”

“How could we make the pinhole?” I asked next — and so on.

3. Give your child choices.

Even a tiny degree of choice boosts a child’s feelings of autonomy. So if your child is painting, you might say, “The materials need to be kept clean so you can keep using them for a long time.”  And she decides how to clean up.

As my own children have gotten older, I’ve found that questions like “Have you considered….?” or “Do you think you might want to …?” also do the trick.

Encouraging your children’s feelings of autonomy helps you stay involved without controlling them. All you have to control is yourself!