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Can Parental Involvement Make Kids Smarter?

By Isabel Kallman

This week’s Wonderland is brought to you by Eden Kennedy (aka Mrs. Kennedy) of Fussy.
Are you a mother? Even if you’re not, you have one somewhere. And what did she do for you, did she cuddle you or change your diaper or breast-feed you for a minute two? Mine nursed me for two months and then we switched to formula, our kindly old family doctor told her two months was plenty of time for me to get all the benefits of breast milk.
And maybe two months is enough, but would I have had an extra three or four IQ points if my mom hadn’t made the switch so soon? A new study (my god, when isn’t there a new study?) seems to think so.
What researchers can’t pinpoint, however, is what causes the (admittedly small) uptick they see in verbal intelligence in the six- year-olds who had been fed breast milk exclusively for at least their first six months. Was it the milk, the big brains wondered, or was it the interaction between mother and infant?
I’m not sure what could possibly make breast-feeding interaction different from bottle-feeding interaction, unless skin-to-skin contact is more miraculously vital than anyone knows or has tried to measure. I suppose plugging a bottle into little Jaden’s mouth while you make your other three kids tuna sandwiches isn’t the most nurturing experience a baby could have — we all do what we must in order to cope, and my, Jaden’s becoming so independent! — but the idea that doing so is slowing down his brain development? Uh-oh, that siren you hear coming toward you is the Guilt Police and they have a warrant for your arrest!
So that’s today’s question: how much parental involvement does it take to help a child succeed?
This question certainly dogs parents of older children, who as they grow older may become less inclined to cuddle up with mom and dad and talk about their day at school. Fortunately for those parents with early symptoms of separation anxiety, or those who simply want to keep track of what’s going on, many schools are now putting childrens’ grades online using programs like Edline and ParentConnect. The New York Times recently published a story about what can happen to families who get obsessed with following the daily rise and fall of their kids’ GPAs.
Constant access to information that used to have to be pried out of your kid, or only heard during a parent-teacher conference, has its pros and its cons. On the pro side: You know which subjects your child is struggling in and can make arrangements to get them help if you can’t provide it yourself; you can see a failing grade and help your kid turn it around before it’s burned into her record and hurts her chances to get into the college of her choice; and it can “open up communication between parents and teachers,” said Ron Jones, the principal at Huth Middle School in suburban Chicago. “It helps keep the children minding their p’s and q’s.” Indeed, many kids really like being able to check in and see where they stand.
But just like any tool, it can be abused. Like a dieter who checks the bathroom scale every time he eats a peanut, if a parent has even a hint of the obsessive-compulsive about them, every update can turn life into one long anxiety attack. “It speaks to all your neuroses as a parent, all this need to control, that pressure to make sure everything is perfect,” said one parent who has weaned herself from the system and now checks ParentConnect only a few times a week. Says another parent, “I’d be waking her up, shouting: ‘Claire! What did you fail? What is wrong with you?’ She’d pull the pillow over her head and say, ‘Leave me alone!’”
“When the focus is on the grade so much,” says Denise Pope, a Stanford lecturer and consultant, “you’re saying to kids, ‘It’s more important to get the grade, by hook or by crook, than learn the material. And that leads to the rise in rampant cheating.”
I was never much of a cheater but I clearly remember being a high school junior and bristling when my mother suggested that a little more work would raise that B in English to an A. I got the B just to show her who was in control. *cringe*
Obviously there’s a line between parental involvement and parental over-involvement when it comes to helping kids succeed, and it starts at day one. I find that a little frightening, because that line is different for every child and it can shift from day to day — hell, from minute to minute. Most of the time I’m one of those inherently lazy parents who by sheer good fortune manages to look like I’m paying attention. I breastfed my son, sure, but only until I couldn’t take it anymore. Granted, I made it to nine months, and that’s pretty good, but I fell short of my goal of one year, I was all, “Eh, good enough.” I did teach him sign language but only because I was unemployed and found it fascinating. The fact that he briefly ended up more verbal than some of his peers was an interesting side-effect, but was never the goal. Now he’s in first grade and already I’m starting to look lazy again. We have a TV (many at our school don’t); we let our son drink Coke (several kids are only allowed of water and organic milk); we let him sleep in our bed when he wants to (what is this, an African village?), and he now has thirty-two Webkinz, leading me to think that he’s controlling me more than I control him.
Where does that line fall for you? How do your children respond to you efforts to help them? When does help and guidance turn into pressure and control?

Published May 9, 2008. Last updated August 21, 2013.
Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of Alphamom.com.

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

...

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of Alphamom.com.

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

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