“If we were bored, every time we told her, she’d say, ‘Well, go and have a poo, then,’ ” Dransfield, 42, says with a laugh. “I have no idea why she’d say it, but it enraged us.”
Plenty of people in Dransfield’s generation can probably say they were given similarly snarky retorts during their youth. But the majority of today’s parents think children’s boredom is a problem parents should solve with organized activities, according to new research from Cornell University.
That finding is part of the study’s overarching conclusion: The majority of parents think intensive parenting — a round-the-clock devotion of attention and resources to children’s free time, emotions and behaviors — is the ideal way to raise children, even if they lack the time or finances to do so.
Parents are holding themselves to sky-high standards, largely to ensure their children’s academic and financial success, child development and parenting experts say. But those experts also agree that an all-or-nothing, extreme approach isn’t necessary to be a good parent. “Effective parenting isn’t defined at the end of the continuum. It’s the middle ground,” says David Palmiter, psychology professor at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa.
With some intensive approaches, “the oxygen mask is going on the child first, and the parent is woozy as a result,” Palmiter says. He advises families to focus on two things to build children’s self-esteem: competence and worthiness. Helping a kid find a skill they’re good at can mean signing up for things like sports, lessons and camps, but only one or two at a time. Worthiness can come from simply one hour a week of quality parent-child time; the quality comes from parents praising their kids when appropriate, Palmiter says. Throw in a daily dose of physical activity, and “that’s a pretty successful picture.”
Alyssa Blask Campbell, a Burlington, Vt.-based parenting consultant specializing in emotional intelligence, says helping kids means helping parents, too. “We’re giving so much of ourselves to these tiny humans that we end up crashing and burning, and anxiety spikes and then we can’t show up as our full selves,” she says.
Sociologist Annette Lareau coined the phrase “intensive parenting” in her 2003 book, “Unequal Childhoods,” based on research she did in the 1990s on middle-class and working-class families. Middle-class children were more likely to have intensive parents managing their every move. Working-class parents, by comparison, were more likely to use a style she called “accomplishment of natural growth.” Kids have more time to themselves, and parents tell their kids what to do with no room for negotiation or opinion.
The 3,600 participants in Cornell professor Patrick Ishizuka’s study rated an intensive parenting response and a natural growth response to six parenting scenarios. Seventy-five percent gave the intensive parenting response top marks. The natural-growth approach wasn’t completely rejected just because the intensive parenting approach scored higher, Ishizuka notes. But, when respondents explained why they preferred the concerted cultivation approach, Ishizuka says many talked about how taking the natural growth approach in their own lives feels like falling short.
Dransfield’s sons, 6 and 7, spend most of their time in their Arlington, Mass., backyard. The boys play in a weekend basketball league. The 6-year-old has after-school science class once a week. But for the most part, they’re left to their own devices with their toys and imaginations. “In the last few years they’ve developed really intricate games like the wolf game and the dragon game. They get the neighbors’ kids involved in them. It’s mostly outside and it’s amazing; they all have their characters and rules and scenarios they play out,” says Dransfield, who works part-time as a substitute preschool teacher and office administrator.
When her sons were younger, Dransfield says, she felt stressed by an expectation to be engaged with them at all times. “I felt like if I didn’t stand over my kid while they played, then people were judging me,” she says. “It was brutal feeling like I was responsible for every moment of enjoyment.”
For parents of only children, such as Lennie Kim of Arlington, Mass., letting kids have time to themselves can be easier said than done. Kim, 40, feels responsible for spending more time with her 8-year-old son, to be mother and friend. She doesn’t want him to grow up and feel like he spent a lot of time by himself. “In general we try to share his experience,” she says. Chores like laundry and raking are a family affair and also an opportunity for Kim and her husband to talk to their son about his day or how he’s feeling. When her son would say he was bored, her husband would play with him outside or take him to the driving range. Now her son’s days are mostly filled with hockey practices and games and cello lessons.
Kim isn’t anti-boredom, though. “In fact, I’m all for kids having more free time,” she says. Her son has asked a couple of times to quit the cello. Kim, a part-time piano teacher, has kept him in cello lessons because she feels strongly about music education. But if he ultimately doesn’t stick with it, she says she doesn’t feel the need to fill the time gap with another organized activity. “He loves reading,” Kim says. “I’m personally not concerned.”
Campbell and Palmiter both say there’s middle ground when it comes to dealing with difficult emotions and misbehavior. A little empathy can go a long way. Palmiter recalls a time a father’s 10-year-old daughter didn’t make the basketball team for the second year in a row: “He wanted to say ‘It’s unfair’ and all that stuff, and he just said to her, ‘This really hurts, doesn’t it?’ and held her as she cried. He felt like his soul was crushed, and he cried and he kissed her and left. When she was done crying later that night, she put his face in her hands and said up close, ‘You’re the world’s best father.’ He was with her without trying to make it go away.”
Campbell teaches caregivers to acknowledge the emotions being felt before jumping ahead to the problem making their child upset. Giving children space to feel things like frustration and disappointment — so long as they aren’t harming themselves or others — and then giving them ways to calm down puts them in a better position to find solutions for themselves. “Most of us don’t live in a state of happiness all the time,” she says. “What I want is for kids to have a toolbox to get back to feeling calm, and that means having tools to process the hard stuff. I think we’re so afraid of our kids having that hard feeling. We’ve got to get comfortable with the discomfort.”
Parents have also got to let themselves off the hook, says Alan Kazdin, professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center. “We don’t want parents stressed in the home,” he says. “That’s not good for anybody.”
Kazdin tells parents to focus on regularity and routine, like going to the grocery store together one day a week, and parallel play, where parents are playing near their children but not with their children directly. “Parents have all these wonderful easy tools to use when they’re looking for the big home run,” he says.
Veronica Graham is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass. Follow her on Twitter @vlhgraham.