A Brief Parable About Overparenting

A child having their shoes tied by a parent.

I recently read this lovely little passage from Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Dad:

“There is a great story about a young Spartan woman, Gorgo, who would one day become queen. Despite her royal status, like all Spartans she was raised to be self-sufficient, with no frills or needless luxury.

So imagine Gorgo’s surprise when she witnessed a distinguished visitor to Sparta have his shoes put on by a servant. ‘Look, Father,’ she said innocently to her father, King Leonidas, ‘the stranger has no hands!’

Sadly, for some of us, it could just as easily be deduced that our kids have no hands. And no brains. We put on their clothes for them. We make their decisions. We clear the road in front like a snowplow. We hover like a helicopter, just in case something goes wrong. We do everything for them.

Then we wonder why they are helpless. We wonder why they have trouble with anxiety or low self-esteem. Confidence is something you earn. It comes from self-sufficiency. It comes from experience. When we coddle and baby them—when we take away their hands—we deprive them of these critical assets.”

At times, it might seem like your teenager has no prefrontal cortex. (The prefrontal cortex is where focused attention, emotional regulation, and long-term planning happen.) But the reality is that this critical part of their brain is just underdeveloped. (It won’t be done until they’re about 25.) There’s no shortcut to developing it, but there is a way to slow down the process: doing too much for them.

The brain is like a bunch of muscles, and the ones we don’t use regularly don’t get strong. If you do all the work your child’s prefrontal cortex should be doing, you’re not giving them a chance to build that mental muscle.

Yes, you’re better at planning and organizing. Of course you are; you’re an adult.

But your kids need to practice these skills, so don’t do all the heavy lifting for them. The struggle will make them stronger.

A middle school student thinking hard about how to spend their time

It’s hard to stop overparenting and give your kids the freedom to fail. It’s hard to change the habit of micromanaging, even when you know it’s not helping. It’s hard to resist the urge to rescue your kids when they’re about to fall on their faces. It’s hard, yes, but it’s also essential.

Executive function, responsibility, self-efficacy, wisdom. These things don’t just happen. They’re learned, grown, and earned through experience, strain, and painful failure. Your kids won’t develop these things until they have to, until life forces them to.

So practice stepping back and doing less for your kids – giving them room to develop the skills they’ll need to thrive as adults.

Otherwise, they might grow up to be as helpless as someone with no hands.

Should You Make a To-Do List for Your Child?

A to-do list

Here’s something I’ve seen a lot lately:

  1. The parent checks their child’s online grades and is unhappy with what they see.
  2. There’s a bunch of missing work, so the parent makes a list of all the missing work on a piece of paper.
  3. They present this to-do list to the student saying, “Here are all the homework assignments you need to complete.”
  4. Then, to the parent’s dismay, the child does not do the tasks on the list.

What’s going on here?

Why You Shouldn’t Make a To-Do List for Your Child

The main problem is about ownership. If the parent makes the to-do list, they’re taking ownership of the child’s work. Thus, the student doesn’t have to. The parent is doing the hunting, sorting, recording, thinking, and caring, so the child doesn’t have to. The result? Passivity and inaction.

A teenager resisting parental lectures

Another response, very common with teenagers, is active resistance. People don’t like to be told what to do, and this tendency is particularly pronounced in teenagers. So, when you present your 15-year-old with a list of things to do, their response might be to deliberately ignore that list. They probably intended to do some of that work, but now they won’t because you’re nagging them to do it.

This is just another classic example of how micromanaging backfires.

What Should Parents Do?

The challenge is that many students genuinely need executive function support. They lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to handle it all on their own. So the answer isn’t to step back and do nothing.

There’s a middle ground between micromanaging and doing nothing called “scaffolding.” This means providing structure, support, and guidance without putting yourself in the driver’s seat.

With regard to to-do lists, parents can try the following:

  • Model list-making in your own life.
  • Provide the tools of list-making: paper, pens/pencils, sticky notes, sticky sheets, planners, calendars, etc.
  • Suggest ways to make their to-do list more organized or effective, and suggest a maintenance schedule, but don’t get upset if they ignore all of your suggestions.
  • Go through the list-making process together, with the student doing all of the searching and writing. You’re just playing the role of coach – helping them stay on task and decide what should be written down.

A parent providing support while the child makes her own to-do list

Whose Homework is It?

You can’t force your child to write a to-do list and expect buy-in. If you mandate that a list be written and written in a particular way, your child will see it as just another thing they have to do to avoid getting in trouble. They won’t put things on the list because they intend to do them. They’ll write things down just to keep you from getting upset.

A student’s to-do list should be theirs and theirs alone. If parents write the list for them or micromanage the list, then the student doesn’t see it as meaningful or valuable. If the parent is in charge of the to-do list, then it’s as though the homework belongs to the parent.

And just as students need to be the owners of their grades, they need to be the owners of their homework – responsible for tracking it, doing it, and turning it in. If you take on that responsibility, your child will never learn to become responsible for themselves.

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Why Parents Should Stop Micromanaging Their Kids

A mom micromanaging her daughter's schoolwork.

Helicopter parenting. Micromanaging. Overparenting

Call it what you want it, this parental behavior looks strikingly similar across millions of households:

It’s not fun for you. Your child probably hates it. And, despite your best intentions, it’s not having the effect you thought it would.

In fact, things appear to be getting worse. Your kid is getting older, so they should be growing more responsible, but they seem to need more micromanaging than they did before!

What on Earth is going on?!

Let’s unravel this mystery in order to see why you should stop micromanaging your kids and what you can do instead.

Why Do Parents Micromanage Their Kids?

Parents micromanage their kids because they feel like they have to. Here’s what your thought process (either conscious or unconscious) probably looks like:

My child is struggling. Therefore, I need to intervene. They don’t know how to manage their time, track their workload, or organize their things. I know how because I’m an adult, so I’ll take charge. My child will then see the value of time management and organization, and they’ll start doing it on their own. In the meantime, I will have saved them from failing by making sure they pass their classes.

A well-meaning parent intervening, taking charge of their son's homework.

This is totally understandable. When you see your kid struggling, you feel anxious, and a natural response is to step in and take control of the situation.1

Unfortunately, micromanaging never works out the way parents imagine it will.

How Do Kids Respond to Micromanagement from Parents?

Here’s your child’s thought process (either conscious or unconscious) that occurs in response to your micromanaging (three options):

Option 1: Mom (or Dad) is micromanaging my schoolwork, so I don’t have to. They’re keeping track of all my stuff, so why should I bother keeping track on my own? They seem to care a great deal about my schoolwork, so I don’t need to care.

Option 2: Mom (or Dad) is micromanaging my schoolwork because they don’t think I’m capable of managing it on my own. But I can do it on my own. I don’t need their help. Therefore, I should assert my independence by resisting their help and rejecting all of their advice.

A boy ignoring his father's judgmental advice.

Option 3: Mom (or Dad) is micromanaging my schoolwork because they don’t think I’m capable of managing it on my own. They’re right; I don’t know how to get things done, and I’m not smart enough to do well in school. Therefore, school isn’t for me, so I should stop caring about school. What’s the point of working hard at something if you’re just going to fail anyway?

Do any of these sound familiar?

And, more importantly, are any of these responses what you were hoping for?

At best, your kid sees your micromanaging as an annoyance. At worst, it does serious harm to their motivation, their self-esteem, their self-efficacy, and your relationship.

A mom and daughter arguing about schoolwork.

What Should You Do Instead?

Just as you have to use your muscles in order to grow them, kids have to use executive function in order to develop it. So don’t be their executive function; force them to use their own budding EF skills.

A student using their executive function skills to plan their time.

This doesn’t mean you just step back and do nothing. The middle ground is called “scaffolding.” You can scaffold their executive function by:

  • Maintaining a functional home study space.
  • Providing the tools of executive function (paper, pens, pencils, notebooks, notepads, calendars, planners, sticky notes, binders, folders, etc.) so they can choose to use those tools when they’re ready.
  • Talking with your kids about school, rather than talking at them.
  • Trying to get them to talk through their plans with you. Don’t judge or criticize their plans, and don’t butt in with your own ideas.

In addition, you can lead by example by actively modeling executive function skills at home. Let them see you using EF tools. Let them hear your own EF thought processes as you make plans and work through challenges.

Don’t expect them to start following your example immediately. They won’t. But eventually, when they’re ready, they’ll have a model to guide them.

How to Transition From Micromanaging to Scaffolding and Modeling

If you’ve been micromanaging, don’t just abruptly stop without explanation. Sit down and talk with your kid about it. Apologize. Explain why you think it’s not working and what you plan to do differently.

And don’t expect them to trust your new approach right away. Stick with it. Trust takes time.

A father and daughter talking about how she'd like him to support her schoolwork.

Let them know the things you’re now willing to do and not willing to do in order to support them. Put them back in the driver’s seat, but let them know that support is available if they want it. Tell them that you’re no longer going to force-feed them unwanted advice. Instead, you’ll only chime in if they ask for your ideas.

Ask them what type of support they’d like from you.

Be prepared for them to ask for too much – to request that you continue doing everything for them. If this happens, it’s because they feel incapable of doing it on their own. Stand firm, and make them take charge of their own schoolwork, but let them know you’re still around to help.

Also be prepared for the answer to be “nothing.” If they’ve been feeling suffocated by your overparenting, they’ll need to assert their independence.

Lastly, let them fail. (They’ll probably fail.) It will be okay. Actually, it will be good.

If your kid isn’t motivated to use executive function strategies and effective study techniques, they probably think they don’t need to. Failing a test or a class can be exactly the kind of painful reality check they need to become willing to try a new approach.

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1 Gillespie, Claire. “No really, stop micromanaging your kids: Why over-parenting is bad, and how to stop yourself from doing it.” The Week. January 28, 2020.