Parents are often considered children’s first teachers and playmates. Indeed, research has consistently shown that when children are struggling with a task and need help, parental support can be beneficial. Based on this, parents have been encouraged by researchers and educators to support their children’ learning.
The Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, was the first one to underscore the important role parental scaffolding plays in child development (1). Indeed, many studies have shown that parental scaffolding and responsive parenting contribute to development of better self-regulation behaviors and executive function skills in young children (2-5).
Following this advice, parents today spend more time than ever engaging with their children. However, oftentimes this results in parental over engagement: a tendency to intervene too much and not allow the children to figure out things for themselves. Unfortunately, as with other things, too much of a good thing can be bad, and this so called “helicopter parenting” carries potential negative effects on children’s developing independence (6).
This leads to the next question: How does helicopter parenting affect child development? A recent study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, attempted to answer this question (7). For the study, 102 children, ages four to six, were tasked to clean up toys, learn new games, and discuss problems in a lab while accompanied by their primary caregivers. Researchers focused on how much direction the parents gave the children when they were trying to solve a novel puzzle.
The results were clear: Children of parents who often intervened to provide directions, corrections or suggestions, even though the children were focused on the task, had a harder time regulating their behavior and emotions. Moreover, these children also performed worse on tasks that measured the ability to delay gratification, impulse control and shift their attention from task to task. The authors concluded that while it is important for parents to be involved, too much direction and influence can be counterproductive. This leads to the question: How parents can be supportive of their children without being overly directive?
Helping children is important and beneficial, especially when they are struggling or asking for help. However, if the child is actively engaged in resolving a problem or mastering a new skill, it is best not to intervene. In other words, if you're going to fly a helicopter, only descend when necessary.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.
Bridgett, D. J., Burt, N. M., Edwards, E. S., & Deater-Deckard, K. (2015). Intergenerational transmission of self-regulation: A multidisciplinary review and integrative conceptual framework. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 602–654. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038662
Fay-Stammbach, T., Hawes, D. J., & Meredith, P. (2014). Parenting influences on executive function in early childhood: A review. Child Development Perspectives, 8(4), 258–264. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12095
Karreman, A., van Tuijl, C., van Aken, M. A. G., & Dekovic ́, M. (2006). Parenting and self-regulation in preschoolers: A meta-analysis. Infant and Child Development, 15(6), 561–579. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.478
Valcan, D. S., Davis, H., & Pino-Pasternak, D. (2018). Parental behaviours predicting early childhood executive functions: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(3), 607–649. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s10648-017-9411-9
Greenberg, A. (2015, June 2). “Helicopter parenting” hurts kids regardless of love or support, study says. https://time.com/3904527/helicopter- parent-study-controlling-students-kids-children/
Obradović, J., Sulik, M. J., & Shaffer, A. (2021). Learning to let go: Parental over-engagement predicts poorer self-regulation in kindergartners. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000838