Monday, April 4, 2011

The Over-Achieving Parent

Recently, I heard a story from a friend about an over-achieving "soccer mom." When it was this mom's turn to make snacks for her kindergarten-aged daughter's soccer team, she adorned each snack with a personalized, laminated motivational tag. The tags had cute little illustrations of soccer players on them and said things like, "Run fast!" and "Kick the ball in the goal! Yes You Can!"

As a mom who works full-time, I marveled at the amount of work and time that must have gone into these little tags. I wondered - who was she really doing this for? Was she just trying to show up the other parents, or did she genuinely enjoy doing something nice and fun for her child and her teammates? And did the kids care one way or another if they had these special little tags on their soccer snacks? Did the tags make a difference in how the children played that particular game, or how they felt about their performance?

It got me the children of parents who "go the extra mile" actually end up being more successful, happier or generally better off than those of parents who just don't do this type of thing? Does it really benefit our children if we are over-achieving parents?

Birthdays, Balloons, and...Boundaries?
I've been asking myself this question - or some variation of it - quite a lot lately, even before I heard the story about the aforementioned motivational soccer mom. As I begin to plan for my baby's first birthday party, I have constantly had to remind myself to rein it in when it comes to party decorations, food and more. I've found websites that feature exquisite first birthday parties, complete with beautiful handmade decorations and made-from-scratch foods, all in color-coordinating themes that rival some weddings I've attended. These parties must have easily cost hundreds - if not thousands - of dollars. And all for a child that will, more than likely, not remember a single bit of it. And yet, I can't help but dream. What if I could do this for my child? Would it make me a better parent? Would it make him a better person in the long run?

Arguably, the opposite is true. Just watch an episode of "My Super Sweet Sixteen" and you will see what I mean. The sense of entitlement is deeply embedded in these children, even at a very young age. And the trend for parents is to do more, bigger, better. I have to wonder if this sort of behavior isn't indicative of what kind of parents these are as a whole. My hunch is that they would tend to be more permissive, afraid of saying "no" to their children; they don't want to see them unhappy, no matter the cost. As some psychologists have noted, a permissive style of parenting can actually backfire, creating a situation where children have no limits imposed upon them and, therefore, never learn the hard lesson that boundaries - and the disappointment that comes along with them - are a fact of life.

Parental Style and Developmental Outcomes
Perhaps I am mistaken, and over-achieving parents don't, as a general rule, fit into a permissive model of parenting. Regardless of how you might categorize an over-achieving parent, there is evidence to support that our actions as parents do, indeed, have a very real impact on the kind of adults our children eventually become.

The impact of a particular parenting style on child development outcomes is a favorite topic not only of psychologists, but also of the media, the parenting blogosphere, and pretty much any parent you might ask. It can result in some pretty inflammatory conversation (see the recent Tiger Mother debate if you don't believe me).

In one well-cited article, the author outlines the four basic styles of parenting recognized by most psychologists and the typical developmental outcomes of each. These outcomes are determined by ranking each child in numerous "life domains," such as self-esteem, self-control, happiness, and social competence. The article notes that children of "uninvolved" parents consistently fare worst of all, scoring low in all life domains.

But how might the children of our "over-achieving" (i.e. "over-involved") parents measure up? When it comes to issues like education, the effects are clear. According to one document I found by the Michigan Department of Education, parental involvement in education is "twice as predictive of...academic success as...socioeconomic status."  In my previous post, I noted one study that billed daycare as an inherently stress-inducing experience for young children - and yet, this same study reveal that when the parents of these children are more involved with their child during out-of-daycare time, the kids tend to have better outcomes in the long-term. Both sources indicate that a more involved parent can lead to a more successful the child, at least when it comes to education.

Aside from educational outcomes, a lack of research in the specific area of highly involved parents and the type of children they raise mostly leaves us to draw our own conclusions. It is, of course, a given that parents who are involved in their children's lives effect more positive outcomes than those who neglect their children.  However, the degree to which parents are involved - i.e. as in the case of our "over-achieving" soccer mom - is another issue altogether.

Modeling for the Future
Essentially, when it comes to parenting, we are all taking our best guess. The constant conundrum that is being a parent is further compounded by the many variables that exist from child to child, from family to family. Does it help our children when we are over-achievers? It is hard to say for sure. What we do know is that every action we take as parents - and as people - we are modeling behavior for our children. For better or for worse, we are teaching them lessons that they will carry with them throughout life. The question, then, becomes one of intent.

What is the over-achieving soccer mom teaching her children through her actions? Is she emphasizing her ability to one-up her peers, or demonstrating that public appearance is of the utmost value? If so, the intent is questionable. If, however, she is modeling for her daughter the importance of creativity, consideration of others, self-confidence, and being a team player, then perhaps her zeal is not so puzzling, after all.

As a parent, my primary goal - and my most challenging task - is to be present for my child, to continually try and be aware of the values that I am modeling for him through my actions. This is probably the most intimidating aspect of being a parent for me so far...and we're not even officially to the toddler stage yet! Still, I think remaining mindful of what we are communicating each and every day - sometimes without saying anything - is a worthy exercise, and one that will hopefully reap great benefits our children. The research seems to support that my willingness to be actively involved in my son's development will, indeed, benefit him in the run. But for now, though, I think I'll skip the laminated motivational cards - at least until he can read.


  1. To break this cycle of over-extravagance will take honesty as well as bravery on the part of the parents. Children who grow up thinking that everything they do has to be bigger and better than others will one day realize that this standard is not possible to maintain. At some point, when they "fail" to be the best, their only conclusion is that they are not "good enough." The one question that parents need to ask themselves is "Does this reflect the values that I want my child to have?" Not following the pack, is also an important lesson for children to learn. For parents who really want to make a move away from the more is better party mentality, why not have a retro backyard party. All you need is a card table for the cake, and a yard full of balls, hoola-hoops, jump ropes and horseshoes. Watch what happens when the kids take charge of the party fun!

  2. My question would be is the kid having fun at the soccer game (party, or other event). Is the kid in soccer because they want to be, or because their parents want them to be? Do the girls having the super sweet sixteen actually enjoy themselves? At those parties you were cited, did the kids actually play? Or were they kept in the "kid" area while the adults marveled over all the food, cake and gifts?
    In my experience with parents (in a day care setting), it seems like the "over-achieving" parents are trying to prove themselves. I have worked with several parents who were constantly trying to top their peers. One of their preschoolers can read Bob books, so clearly they are a better parent. It becomes a contest, which does not take the child’s development in to account.
    Parenting styles are all different and there are plenty of harmful ones, but no “right” one. I agree with modeling. Kids learn many things from their parents including their role in society. When those kids have kids they will fall back on their parents parenting styles because it is what they know. You have to model the qualities you want to empathize to your child.
    As far as how involved your soccer mom is, I would say that the quality of the parental involvement outweighs the amount. What type of activities is the mom doing with her kids? Is she playing with them or taking them shopping with her?