Tuesday, May 14, 2013

When helping is not helpful

AMERICAN parents are more involved in their children's lives than ever: They schedule play dates, assist with homework and even choose college courses.
By ELI J. FINKEL And GRAINNE M. FITZSIMONS They know that all of this assistance has costs - depleted bank balances, constricted social lives - but endure them happily, believing they are doing what is best for their children. What if, however, the costs included harming the children? That unsettling possibility is suggested by a paper published in the American Sociological Review in February. The study, led by the sociologist Laura Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, finds that the more money parents spend on their child's college education, the worse grades the child earns. Another study, published the same month in the Journal of Child and Family Studies and led by psychologist Holly Shiffrin at the University of Mary Washington, finds that the more parents are involved in schoolwork and selection of college majors - that is, the more helicopter parenting they do - the less satisfied college students feel with their lives. Why would parents' help produce these negative outcomes? It seems that certain forms of help can dilute recipients' sense of accountability for their own success. The student might think: If Mum and Dad are always around to solve my problems, why spend three straight nights in the library during finals rather than hanging out with my friends? And there is no reason to believe that parents and children have cornered the market on these dynamics. Indeed, "helicopter helping" should yield similar consequences in virtually any relationship - with spouses, friends, co-workers - in which one person can help another. We tested this idea in a 2011 experiment, published in the journal Psychological Science, in which we randomly assigned American women who cared a lot about their health and fitness to think about how their spouse was helpful, either with their health and fitness goals or career goals. Women who thought about how their spouse was helpful with their health and fitness goals became less motivated to work hard to pursue those goals: relative to the control group, these women planned to spend one-third less time in the coming week pursuing their health and fitness goals. But before getting carried away on the risks of helping, it's important to highlight the obvious - helping others achieve their goals has vital benefits for both parties. Responsive, supportive relationships are the foundation of a healthy and productive life. And therein lies the problem: How can we help our children (and our spouses, friends and co-workers) achieve their goals without undermining their sense of personal accountability and motivation to achieve them? The answer, research suggests, is that our help has to be responsive to the recipient's circumstances: It must balance their need for support with their need for competence. We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient's efforts. The good news is that people seem to be adept at understanding when others need help, as shown in an observational study of bar-room brawls. This study, led by sociologist Michael Parks of Penn State and published online in March in the journal Aggressive Behavior, showed that bystanders are especially likely to intervene to end the brawl to the extent that the brawlers are intoxicated. That is, observers stepped in to help precisely when that help was most needed. Although appropriating recipients' self-control efforts can be essential when their self-control is compromised, as when they are drunk, a better approach in most situations is to calibrate one's help to complement the recipient's own efforts. Much remains to be investigated, but the findings suggest that providing help is most effective under a few conditions: when the recipient clearly needs it, when our help complements rather than replaces the recipient's own efforts, and when it makes recipients feel we're comfortable having them depend on us. So yes, by all means, parents, help your children. But don't let your action replace their action. Support, don't substitute. Your children will be more likely to achieve their goals - and, who knows, you might even find some time to get your own social life back on track. NEW YORK TIMES The first writer is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. The second is an associate professor of management and an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.