Helicopter Parents Can Limit Prefrontal Cortex Development in Children

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When parents do what kids can do for themselves, their brains don’t develop right.

Feb 14 2018, 2:44 PM

Parents who want their kids to grow up to lead happy and healthy lives might help them most by resisting the constant urge to help children in every situation. This seemingly — if not actually — comes courtesy of renowned neuropsychologist William Stixrud, co-author of The Self-Driven Child, haver of self-driven children, and guy who knows exactly what he’s talking about. According to Stixrud, it’s important to let kids take a trial and failure approach because it teaches them to understand and overcome their limitations.

“We know that when kids are required to make their own decision, they’re very honest with themselves,” Stixrud, who’s also the parent of two adult children, tells Fatherly. “We have all sorts of clinical data to back up that when you respectfully ask kids to make a decision, they really can make good decisions for themselves.”

In his over 20 years experience researching brain development, motivation, and mental health (also, being a father), Stixrud has learned that when parents solve kids’ problems for them, it alters the development of their prefrontal cortex, an essential part of the brain responsible for a variety of complex behaviors. Consequently, the best intentions can short-change children in a permanent way. Fortunately, Stixrud has a practical alternative that represents a practical and brain-building middle path.

Why do parents want to control their kids so badly? Where does this impulse come from and how can moms and dads recognize and limit it?

Parents love their kids, and everything we do as parents, even things that are wrong-headed in retrospect, it’s all done out of love. When kids are really upset we want them to feel better and it’s particularly hard for parents who are anxious themselves because solving their kids’ problems increases their sense of control. When you’re anxious, by definition, you’re experiencing a relatively low level of control. And when your kid comes home upset by something or has a problem, it makes the kid upset and anxious. One thing we try to do is solve the problem so we can feel less anxious overall.

In the book, you talk about how this control inhibits a child’s ability to develop internal motivation on their own. How does solving their problems keep them from developing this?

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