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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?

Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

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


Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

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

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  • SuburbanCorrespondent

    May 9, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I think all this worrying is just another side effect of affluence. When else in the history of the world have parents had the luxury to worry this much or do this much for their children? They stayed home and raised their kids if they could, worked if they had to, and didn’t fret too much about it either way. If their kids acted up, they swatted them on the bottom or sent them to their rooms and that was that. No one had time to read a zillion books or money to consult child psychologists. Parents just used their common sense and it was good enough. Who cares if your kid’s IQ is one or two points higher or lower? Does that make him a better person? All this obsessing stems from our culture’s being child-centered rather than family-centered, anyway.
    Take a page from John Rosemond’s book Family Building and focus on the fundamentals (and I quote):
    1. It’s about the family, not the children.
    2. Where discipline is concerned, it’s about communication, not consequences; leadership not relationship.
    3. It’s about respecting others, not high self-esteem.
    4. It’s about manners and morals, not skills.
    5. It’s about responsibility, not high achievement.
    So breastfeed, by all means, and do it as long as you can. Because it’s good for the baby and because it’s way less expensive than formula and because it gives you a good excuse to lie down a lot – hey, works for me! And if it is making you miserable and engendering ill feelings towards your child, then stop. Pretty simple, huh? Believe me, when they’re 15 or 16, the last thing you’ll be thinking about is how long you nursed them.

  • Mrs. Kennedy

    May 9, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Great comment, SC. I’ll have to check out that book.

  • Zoot

    May 9, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    I have SO much to say about this topic but first? To the last commenter: “I think all this worrying is just another side effect of affluence.” – AMEN. This is a mantra I chant often as my first child was born while I was freshman in college living on goverment assistance and I never questions my “techniques” or “methods” of parenting b/c I was too busy trying to keep us alive. My second child? I over-analyze a lot more b/c I have that luxury now. It’s not always a good thing.
    Okay – about the article itself:
    I struggle NOT to check my son’s grades on a daily/weekly basis b/c I want him to tell me how he’s doing. Which he does. As a matter of fact, he checks his grades daily!
    I focus more on improvement. I look for him to get better. When his grades drop? Regardless of the actually value of the grade, that’s when I ask questions. Are we struggling b/c of the subject? Or are we getting lazy? Etc.

  • catnip

    May 9, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Another study to make those of us who couldn’t breastfeed feel bad – cause there aren’t enough of those out there.
    My son has a great vocabulary (he’s 5) and I credit reading, reading, and more reading. We also never ever used baby talk with him. Parental involvement makes all the difference if you do it early so that they have the skills and confidence to be independent later. I hope.

  • Karen

    May 9, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    I spent several years as a judgmental helicoptering AP Waldorf parent (not suggesting that all AP and/or Waldorf parents are judgy or helicoptering, but I took it to an extreme). I breastfed, co-slept, read books, sang songs. Part of it was to an assuage an overly (I felt) cavalier upbringing, part was to fill holes from an emotionally-abusive marriage. I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that successful kids aren’t necessarily the ones given more attention. Successful kids have an underlying foundation of support yet are continually encouraged to find solutions of their own.
    I was doing too much for my kids, managing their entire experience as well as their emotions. I thought I was being loving and protective, but I see now that I may have been stifling. I’m undoing that now, and I’m having to let go of my identity as a mother, the kind of mother I was, which is painful. It’s also painful to my kids, forced for the first time into such challenging activities as figuring out for themselves what the current temperature outside is so they know what to wear to the bus stop. I know! I’m a horrible mom!
    You’re right in pointing out that there is a line between guidance and control. I think it’s important for us as parents to determine what lies beneath our wish to help. What holes in ourselves and in our own childhoods are we trying to fill, as I was, by being the end all and be all to our kids? What other motivations are there? What do we truly want for our kids and who do we want them to be? (and what amount of right do we have to determine that?)
    My younger son, by the way, was breastfed for over two years in my zealotry, and he still has Down syndrome. Not that there’s any connection, but what’s a couple of IQ points in the end for any kid? I think that creating a loving environment where kids feel they can be themselves is more important than flashcards and SAT coaches.

  • steph

    May 9, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    The thing I worry about with checking grades online is the hand-holding of children who need to learn to be self-sufficient and responsible (talking about older kids here mostly). I work at a community college, and every time I see a mother or father walking their child that is a high school senior/grad onto campus to help them register I want to ask them when the hell they are going to let go. Of course I may eat my words when my 11 year old is there 🙂

  • Isabel Kallman

    Isabel Kallman

    May 9, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    thank you, dear mamas, for all your wise insights. I want to mama bear hug you all.

  • kym b

    May 9, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Always with the studies…
    Your statement ~ “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” ~ fits me to a tee.
    I breastfed each of my three kids for over a year, co-slept, did the baby-wearing thing, but I think it was out of plain laziness on my part. And I’m cheap. No way in heck was I going to get out of bed at 4am and make a bottle when it comes fresh from the tap for free without preparation. I co-slept so I didn’t even have to wake up to feed the baby, just roll over. I wore them in a sling because my 1st was colicky and if I put her down, the whole neighborhood heard about it. Then as the other 2 came, I put them in the sling because I had other kids and needed my arms free. Necessity and laziness, pure and simple.
    Now, I do admit that we read. A lot. I would credit their smarts to that more than anything.
    And wait, you can check your kids’ grades online? I think I remember seeing something about that in the newsletters at the start of the school year. I probably should have read those before I put them in the recycle bin. I will be sure to pay attention in August when it starts all over again.

  • Tootsie Farklepants

    May 11, 2008 at 12:47 am

    My oldest son starts jr. high this fall and one of the things they told us at the parent meeting is that the grades are accessible online. At first I got excited about this but then I realized that I already ride him like crazy when it comes to homework and drilling him for details about his day in class. I think I would be one of those who becomes obsessed with the instant information. After all, I did have to make a clean break from my bathroom scale a while back and we don’t speak anymore.

  • Mom101

    May 11, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    I’m so with SC up there – we call them high class problems. Parents who worry about how to praise, how much to praise, when to praise…good lord people. If this is our worst worry about our children we’re doing pretty damn well.
    I think it’s good to keep in mind that brilliant successful adults came from broken dysfunctional homes, and a lot of 30-something slackers still live over the parents’ Westchester six-car garage. There are no guarantees in life.
    Besides, aren’t we all some combination of overinvolved and lazy, depending on the situation, the time of year or how we’re feeling that particular day? Or maybe that’s just me.
    Nice column Eden.

  • Andrea K

    May 12, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Another symptom of a problem rooted in affluence is the motivation behind providing support for our children. I honestly think it becomes competitive: if I’m more involved, if I breastfeed, if my child is getting better grades… I’M a better parent. I’M succeeding. And what’s best for the child goes by the wayside, intentional or not.
    I appreciate the availability of information (online grades), but the use of that information has to be balanced with a child’s responsibility for his or her own actions. I appreciate the insight — and SC, I promptly ordered “Family Building”!

  • woojum

    May 12, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    I always try to be empathetic and encouraging with my toddlers. I’m pretty strict about them being kind to others and I’m a stickler about limiting junk food because I think it causes behavior problems, at least with my kids.
    As sappy as it sounds, love and respect is the key for me. Quality time together, unconditional love, really enjoying their company is the best foundation for forming a positive relationship with my children. They seem to thrive on that, when they’re not trying to bop each other on the head with a yo-yo.
    Hopefully, they will respect me enough to take some advice about smart choices later in life.

  • Ellen

    May 13, 2008 at 8:45 am

    I always subscribed to “The Theory of Benign Neglect”–the more they can do for themselves, the less I have to do. I “let” my kids make their own school lunches starting in second grade because I was sick of making sandwiches. Their friends thought they were really lucky. Need something washed right away? Here’s how to work the washing machine. In school as long as they tried their best the grade didn’t matter. They know what their best is, not me. And now the college e-mails grades to the student, so I don’t see the grades at all! (I’m assuming that since he hasn’t moved back home, he’s still enrolled) Have a problem with a peer or teacher? I can give you advice, but you work it out. Both my kids picked their own colleges, wrote their own essays, and got in, all by themselves. I think they turned out to be good problem solvers, and if they need some ideas on how to handle things, I can always give them some to choose from.

  • Amy-may

    May 14, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    Okay, we homeschool, so that part doesn’t apply. But, as a parenting style, we highly value independence. So, as soon as you are able to put on your own shoes, you are required to put on your own shoes. When you can read, you read to me, and I’ll be there to help with the hard words. When you can, you do. There is no babying or baby talk, whining or back talk.
    Too many parents claim to want fabulous futures for their children, while at the same time failing to give their child the opportunities to learn the very skills they will need in that future. I don’t mean ballet lessons and soccer. I mean problem solving, time management, coping with disappointment, dealing with boredom, and handling money. Having high hopes means doing everything within your power to make failure impossible. Having high expectations is allowing HIM to fly or fall, and expecting HIM to deal with the consequences. Which one says, “I have confidence in you!”?

  • PlanningQueen

    May 15, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    I have am discussing the issue of over parenting on my blog at the moment too. There is some evidence to say that as adults wait longer and have less children, they have the ability to become over involved in their children’s lives.
    Having four kids means that regularly my children have to work things out for themselves, contribute to the household and help their siblings when I need them to.
    In the long run, I think this will be beneficial to their personal development.

  • Amy

    February 2, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    ok, Im taking a philosophy class and the question was posed to state what we know for certain. I stated that I know that if you begin talking to your children while they are still in the womb and then continue right on through(no baby talk) and plenty of reading books, but definitely talking expalining what you are doing and all that will give them a better chance at speaking sooner and also a larger vocab…I caught a lot of flack from many individuals in my class stating that they did not believe that to be true. Has anyone seen any articles regarding this or did I just get lucky…I searched but couldn’t find any articles, I figured some other mothers could help me out here…please email me asap to…thank you for ANY help u can give…and sorry but I need proof not opinion…thanx again