Finding the right balance when engaging with children is especially important around kindergarten, said Obradović, whose research examines how caregiving environments contribute to child health, learning and well-being over time. The onset of elementary school is an especially challenging time when kids are expected to manage their attention, emotions and behaviors without parents’ direct help.
“This is a really important shift, when parents have to learn to pull back,” she said.
For their research, Obradović and her co-authors – Michael Sulik, a research scientist at SPARK, and Anne Shaffer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia – brought together a diverse group of 102 children ages 4 to 6 and their primary caregivers in a Stanford lab.
For two and a half hours, the kids worked on a series of tasks that have been used by child development specialists for decades to measure self-regulation, as well as executive functions deemed either “cool” (when emotions don’t matter) or “hot” (when emotions are high). The children also participated with their parents in structured activities requiring different degrees of adult interaction.
In a novel approach, the scholars had each parent and child observed separately. Using video recordings, the interactions were broken down second by second and evaluated independently. This allowed Obradović and her team to identify subtle shifts in how parents engage with their children. During a 25-minute activity, for example, a mother might follow her son’s lead for 13 seconds, then withdraw for 5 seconds, then direct him for 35 seconds.
Typically, when researchers study a given aspect of parenting, they assign a single rating for the entire interaction. But that approach can be biased by the researcher’s overall impression of the parent-child relationship.
Most caregivers seem supportive and caring, said Obradović. “On average, you don’t see a lot of parents yelling at their kids or being intrusive or checking their phones,” she said. “But there is a lot of variability within those averages, and our goal was to discover more subtle differences among parents who are generally doing fine.”
These moment-by-moment shifts in parental engagement matter. “These are subtle things, but the message that children are getting may not be so subtle,” Obradović said.
For their analysis, Obradović and her collaborators created a measure of what they call “parental over-engagement.” They noted the moments when a child was working independently or leading an activity, and they calculated the ratio between times when parents intervened in ways that were meant to be helpful (not harsh or manipulative) and times when parents followed the child’s lead.
The researchers found a correlation between high levels of parent involvement when a child is focused on a task and children’s difficulties with self-regulation and other behaviors. This was most apparent for children’s “hot” executive functions.
When a child was passively engaged, the researchers didn’t find any link between parental over-engagement and children’s self-regulation. According to Obradović, this suggests that there is no harm in parents stepping in when children are not actively on task.
Obradović said the point of the study is not to criticize parents. “When we talk about parental over-engagement, we’re not saying it’s bad or obviously intrusive engagement,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with suggesting ideas or giving tips to children.”
But it’s important for parents to be aware that teachable moments have their place, she said. Helping a preschooler to complete a puzzle, for example, has been shown to support cognitive development and build independence. And guidance is important when children are not paying attention, violating rules or only half-heartedly engaging in an activity.
Sometimes, however, kids just need to be left alone or allowed to be in charge. This message may be especially relevant during the pandemic, Obradović noted, when parents may wonder how much direct involvement their children need, especially with everybody balancing new obligations.
“Have that honest conversation with yourself, especially if your kid is doing OK,” she said. “As stressful as this time is, try to find opportunities to let them take the lead.”