12 - 48 Months

Intensive Parenting: Why Take a Step Back?

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“If we never let them get through that phase of making the mess and being able to do it on their own, then they never develop that skill, and we always have to do it for them. That’s that cycle of dependence, which is going to increase our stress level and ultimately not be good for the child.”

Dr. Holly Schiffrin, Developmental psychologist and co-author of “Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood”

There is a lot of advice out there for parents. Not only are parenting books multiplying in number, they are increasing in volume. And there is certainly no shortage of online resources. Instagram now has so many parenting experts you can get an almost endless scroll of advice. 

The abundance of information can be helpful on the one hand. But it can also lead us to think we are not doing enough, making it is easy to slip into over-parenting. This hands-on approach is sometimes referred to as intensive parenting, and its benefits (to both parent and child) are up for debate.

For a closer look at intensive parenting and how we can recognize it in ourselves, Jessica Rolph speaks with Developmental Psychologist Dr. Holly Schiffrin. She discusses all-important parenting skills like how to stand back and allow your child to experience natural consequences.

Key Takeaways:

[1:20] Holly co-authored a study called Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes Of Intensive Mothering. What was her objective in studying this style of parenting?

[4:55] Is motherhood supposed to be joyful at every turn?

[5:18] The study compared moms working in the home versus moms who also work outside the home.

[6:16] Parents who stay at home with their kids often go without the kind of recognition customary in paying jobs. 

[6:53] The research suggests that mothers who rated particularly high on the idea of essentialism, that mothers are the essential parent, were less satisfied with their lives.

[8:00] Holly discusses the outcomes she’s observed in the children of intensive parents.

[9:56] What is the difference between intentional and intensive parenting?

[11:02] Has the pandemic made parents more or less intensive?

[12:35] What are the factors driving this intensive parenting approach?

[15:20] Holly talks about parental unhappiness.

[16:15] How does parenting in America compare to parenting in other cultures?

[17:15] Holly offers advice for parents of babies and toddlers.

[20:25] Jessica shares the highlights of her conversation with Dr. Holly Schiffrin.

Studying Intensive Parenting: The Objective

Jessica: You co-authored a study called Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes Of Intensive Mothering. At the time of the study, what was your objective in studying this style of parenting?

Holly: So I was the mother of young children at the time that I got the idea to do this study, and so was one of my colleagues that I worked with. We had become interested in this idea of intensive mothering that had been developed by a woman named Sharon Hays. Just seeing our friends, parents, children, and feeling this pressure as parents of young children to be so intensively involved in their lives. And so Sharon Hays’ book on Intensive Mothering was based on a series of qualitative interviews that she had done with women, having them describe their experiences as mothers.

And so what my colleague and I tried to do was take the words from the transcripts of those interviews and come up with some questionnaire items that we could ask mothers in a more quantitative fashion. To make it easier to get information from a lot of women about their experiences of parenting as opposed to an interview, which is very time-intensive to do. And then in a follow-up study, after we developed this intensive parenting measure, we asked women to complete that and also to fill out some information about their own well-being. How satisfied they were with their lives, as well as if they’ve been experiencing depressive symptoms or symptoms of anxiety, to try to look at how parenting in this really intensive style affects women’s well-being.

Intensive Parenting Characteristics

The four different clusters of questions that ended up coming out of our study was the idea, one, that mothers view themselves as the primary parent, and that women are sort of maybe biologically and evolutionarily predisposed to be the caretakers. And that we fundamentally do it better than men do, than the fathers do. And so that puts a lot of pressure on women to try to take on that role. 

The second characteristic is that we’re supposed to view having children as being joyful and fulfilling and sort of the ultimate goal in life, you know, as a woman. 

A third characteristic is that it is our responsibility to really stimulate our children. To work with them to help develop their physical skills, their cognitive skills, their language, all of these things. It’s important for us to be stimulating them to develop that early brain, the brain research, we know how important it is to provide stimulating environments.

A fourth characteristic is that everything should be very child-centered. So our kind of schedules and our lives should revolve around the needs of our child and making sure they’re getting these stimulating experiences, they’re taking classes, mommy and me classes and things like that.

Jessica: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, just so that I fully understand, we’re supposed to view happy children as the ultimate goal in life for point number two? Or is it more about that this whole thing is supposed to always be joyful for us?

Holly: I think more the second, the idea that, you know, having children is this wonderfully fulfilling experience, it should really be the goal in life for women to be mothers. And therefore we have some guilt if we feel tired or frustrated with our children, or it’s not joyful, because you know what, changing diapers, getting spit up on is not so joyful and fulfilling. But you know, then you have this guilt associated if you don’t feel that way, and that can be problematic.

Parenting Styles of Stay-at-Home Moms vs. Moms Working Outside the Home

Jessica: Did the study compare moms who are working in the home versus moms who also had work outside the home?

Holly: We did, we looked at both full-time stay-at-home moms, part-time working mothers, and full-time working mothers, and looked at how they addressed or answered the questions on these different characteristics. And interestingly, all types of mothers endorse some of these things. So I think just sort of as a culture, we are buying into this ideal of being an intensive parent, that that’s an important thing to do. But it did show itself slightly differently for stay-at-home moms versus non. And so generally, stay-at-home moms were rating things like seeing the mother as being the essential parent higher, you know, the born to be the parent mother. But also they were typically rating higher, I think, on it being more challenging also than the part-time working and full-time working mothers.

Jessica: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Parenthood is one of the most challenging jobs you can have, being a parent.

Holly: It is and you don’t get a lot of recognition or gratitude for it, you know. Like, when you have a job outside of the home, you might get a promotion or a raise that would sort of validate the hard work that you’re putting in. But when you’re a parent, you know, it’s just they just want to eat every single day, like three times a day, you know what I mean? And they don’t thank you for it, they just expect it, and so it’s hard, you know, to sort of do that endless task without a lot of recognition and appreciation.

Research Outcomes: Mothers

Jessica: So tell me what the outcomes that you’ve observed in this research, what happened? What do you discover?

Holly: So in the study where we looked at sort of the mental health outcomes of the mothers. We saw that especially people who were rating very high on this idea of essentialism, that mothers are the essential parent, that they were less satisfied with their lives. And then if the people who were saying that they viewed parenting in this fashion as being kind of difficult and challenging, were also suggesting that they had higher stress levels and had more depressive symptoms.

And one of the things that you see is with women having this view that they are the essential parent, they become this type of gatekeeper where they keep the help out. So even if they have maybe a spouse or a friend or family member who’s willing to help them because they buy into this essentialistic belief so much that they have to be the one to do it, they’re the best one to do it, and only they can do it. They won’t even rely on the social support that is available to them as much and that can exacerbate these problems.

Jessica: That makes so much sense. And then, can you tell me about some outcomes you’ve observed in the children of intensive parents? Like how does this affect the child?

Research Outcomes: Children

Holly: So I haven’t done as much with the children. I have one study where we did ask the parents about if they identified as, you know, higher on this intensive parenting scale, we were asking them questions about did they do things like solve problems for their children? Did they do things like enroll them in activities, and whether they’re physical activities or creative activities. Then we asked them questions about the child outcomes because the idea is, right, if you do all these stimulating child-centered activities, children are going to be smarter, or they’re going to develop more optimally. And so what we found is if you endorse these intensive parenting beliefs, you did tend to kind of solve their problems for them, you did tend to enroll them in these types of activities. But and again, this was just the parental report, we didn’t actually assess the children. But we asked them about their kids’ gross motor skills, their fine motor skills, their language, and their happiness levels. And those four outcomes did not correlate at all with any of these other behaviors.

So it didn’t matter how many activities you had them in, and it didn’t matter how intensively you parented them, the kids kind of looked the same in these four outcome areas. So it kind of seems like you’re not necessarily promoting these optimal outcomes that you’re hoping for, and at the same time, you’re generating stress for yourself. And so that’s not ideal.

Intentional Parenting vs. Intensive Parenting

Jessica: Yeah. And everything you’re saying sounds really logical. At Lovevery we promote independence for the child, we really want to help them feel capable and that also helps the parent because the child can do more for themselves earlier if you give them the chance to try. I’m trying to understand the difference between intentional parenting, which is very much something that resonated with me, versus when it starts to get into intensive parenting. Which ends up not being as healthy, at least definitely for the mother.

How To Support Your Child in a Healthy Way

Holly: One thing to think about is that there is a difference between just sort of wanting your child to be independent, meaning, they don’t need you versus wanting your child to be autonomous.

There’s this whole idea of autonomy support, and that is the idea that your child can make their own choices, but that you, as a parent, will support them in doing that. So you’re not kicking the bird out of the nest, necessarily, but you are helping them decide when it’s the appropriate time to leave and giving them the support they need to help them be successful when they do leave. And so I think that’s an area that’s helpful to think about, is, “How can I give them choices?” When you’re talking at the younger age group. “Do you want peas or carrots as your vegetable”? You give them choices you can live with, but to the extent that you can, you allow them that autonomy to make those decisions on their own, to the extent that it is developmentally appropriate.

Has the Pandemic Made Us More Intensive or Less Intensive? 

Jessica: That makes sense. It’s so helpful to hear you talk about this because I’m understanding it a little bit more every time you speak about it. So can we talk about what the pandemic has done for parenting, and in general. Like, has it made us more intensive or less intensive? You probably haven’t done a study on this yet, but I’d love to hear your professional insights on this.

Holly: No, I haven’t. And I could see it going either way. Parents are going to be home much more with their children, especially mothers. I mean, we’ve seen the research that says that women are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of having to leave the job market and come home to either help home-school children or just provide child care. So there is the possibility that if we have more stay at home mothers as a result of this. 

The prior research I had done has said that stay at home mothers do seem to buy into some of these beliefs more, which can make their mental health suffer more. But on the other hand, if you have women who are actually trying to work from home at the same time, they’re trying to provide these child care needs of homeschooling and etcetera, that they may not be capable of being a more intensive parent because they’re struggling with balancing these responsibilities of work and family life during the pandemic. And so I don’t know necessarily that those parents would become more intensive, but they certainly will become more stressed.

Jessica: Yeah, the latter is me. I’ve become less intensive but it’s been because there’s only so much you can do really with everything on our plates right now.

Factors That Are Driving the Intensive Parenting Approach

Holly: So I don’t think we 100% know, but people have looked at some different ideas on this.

Biological Factors

One of them is just going back to a biological factor of we tend to see this type of parenting a little bit more in parents who already have anxiety and depressive symptoms. And so one of the ways they try to control that anxiety is by parenting very intensively. But that also leaves you wondering if a child ends up then with anxiety and depressive symptoms, is some of that a biological predisposition they’ve inherited versus some of that being the environment that they’re being raised in with a parent who is parenting in this intensive and controlling manner. So I think that’s one piece of it.

Social Media

I think another piece of it has to do with the technology that we have now. The idea of social comparison on social media, and so that’s certainly a concern when we’re seeing people post the accomplishments their children have. And all that people are posting is sort of a highlight reel of their life; when their child is happy and looks clean and cute and is doing something adorable or looking very advanced. And we are comparing that to what is happening in our homes, which involves our children tantruming and melting down and not doing cute things. And although we may be posting ourselves those moments of happiness and wellness as well, we still are making a comparison of other people’s highlight reels to our own dirty messy lives. And that can certainly make us feel bad about ourselves and that our children are not where they should be, and so that can contribute to these problems.

Economic Factors

I think another thing that adds to the competitiveness or social comparison piece is economic factors. And so in our country where we don’t necessarily have things like universal Pre-K or free college education, there does seem to be more competition for resources. And so parents think that they need to be more involved, they need to enroll their kids in all of these activities so that they will have this advantage. They’ll be better at sports, they’ll have a musical instrument that they play, or do better in school, they have tutors for that, so I think all of these things contribute to making this more of a problem now than it used to be.

Jessica: And when you say problem, the problem is the parent unhappiness. Is that what I’m understanding, that we really know from research?

Holly: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think we have seen some research that shows that these types of behaviors are associated with the decreased satisfaction with life and the increased depression and anxiety in parents. But also as I’ve studied the older college age kids, seeing this type of developmentally inappropriate parental involvement has also been associated with those same symptoms in the college age students.

Parenting Styles in America vs. Other Cultures

Jessica: What you’re talking about, it’s definitely been circulating in the news, about how we need to just relax a little bit and let our children develop and be independent and grow their skills, and not do everything for them. Failure is important, and we’re getting a lot of those messages for sure. Have you seen any differences in the style of parenting in America versus in other cultures, and can you talk to that a little bit?

Holly: So I do think this type of intensive parenting is more common here in the US than other cultures, but it’s not completely absent. You sort of have the tiger parenting idea in some Asian cultures that is a similar type of idea of being that over-involved type of parent. But I think back to some of the economic indicators that I was talking about before that kind of speaks to why it’s more of a problem here than in maybe some European countries, where there is less income inequality and less competition about getting into and going to college because it’s more freely available. And maybe I would say the individualistic nature of Americans makes this kind of a competition also. But then again, the tiger parenting is more common in the collectivistic culture, so that might not be entirely the explanation.

Parenting Tips and Advice

Jessica: And so what advice do you have for parents? We’ve got a lot of parents of babies and toddlers listening, they might be first time parents. What advice do you have for them?

Support Your Child’s Autonomy

Holly: So I think going back to something I said earlier about trying to support your child’s autonomy and their ability to make decisions for themself is a really important idea. We’ve seen a lot of research on that, that contributes to children being happier and developing more optimally. So again, giving them choices that are developmentally appropriate that you can live with and allowing them to make them. And then also to have consequences of those choices within the safety of your family, not let them fall off the roof and break their necks. But if you’re giving them a choice that you can live with, and if they make a choice that has a negative consequence that they learn to live with that, but there are consequences for their actions.

Trust Your Children’s Organic Growth

There are some concepts of the idea of letting your children grow more naturally and develop more naturally rather than cultivating them and trusting in the organic growth of your children. So providing them with the nourishment, the love, obviously the food, shelter, those kinds of things, but the trusting that they’re going to grow and develop the way that they should. Following their lead in their development, seeing what they’re capable of, and being there as a safety net and support for them, but sort of letting them take the lead.

Allow Your Child To Develop Their Own Skills

And if they’re capable developmentally of doing something, allowing them to do that and supporting them in doing that, so that they can develop these skills and become competent. That will allow them to be less dependent on you, which will then, in theory, reduce your stress level. In the book, Balancing The Big Stuff, one of the things that Miriam and I talk about is this cycle of dependence, where if we are always doing things for our children, they cannot develop those skills and that confidence level. And then when they go out into the world, they’re not going to do well because they don’t have the skills, they haven’t had the chance to develop them.

And it can be hard to give children that type of freedom because, of course, when they first want to get themselves dressed or they first want to make their own snack, it takes twice as long. It makes a huge mess. And we’re just like, “Let me just do it. It’ll be faster, it will be easier.” But if we never let them get through that phase of making the mess and being able to do it on their own as quickly and efficiently as we would, then they never develop that skill and we always have to do it for them. So that’s that cycle of dependence I was saying, which is going to increase our stress level and ultimately not be good for the child.

Jessica: It resonates so much with the Montessori philosophy and the RIME method, and a lot of the parenting sort of approaches that are really popular now. Everything you’re saying is really resonating. So it’s very reassuring to hear that the approach that we can take with parenting will also help us feel a little bit better, a little bit more relaxed, a little bit less stressed.

Great, well, it’s been wonderful having you with us, Holly. We appreciate you taking the time.

Holly: Thank you for having me.

4 Episode Takeaways for Parents

Great insights from Holly here. Let’s go through them.

1. Avoid Gate-Keeping Mentality

Viewing the mother as the essential parent can lead to what Holly calls “gate-keeping”. This is the notion that no-one can do it better than Mom, and it has a tendency to increase our stress levels. If you find yourself slipping into this mode, consider asking for more help, when it’s available.

2. Give Your Child More Autonomy

Holly makes a distinction between independence vs. autonomy in which parents stand back, but offer lots of support. Look for ways in which your child can gain autonomy by making choices — ones that you can live with as a parent. Do you want peas or carrots?

3. Don’t Compare Yourself on Social Media 

Be aware of how technology has a way of luring parents into competition. The highlight reel on Instagram is not the standard by which you should compare your toddler’s milestones.

4. Let Your Child Experience Natural Consequences

Be the safety net for your child, while allowing them to take the lead when possible. If your child makes a choice that has a negative consequence — and it’s safe for your child to experience that consequence — give them an opportunity to do so. By allowing your child more autonomy, it will take some of the pressure off you, and it will give them practice with skills they need to succeed in the world later on.

You can find more parenting styles and support for parents on the Lovevery blog at lovevery.com.


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, 0 - 12 Months, Child Development, Parenting

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