When Should Parents Step Back? Guidance From a Stanford-Led Study

Aline HuberChild Sleep Consultant, Educational Material

Today, I would like to share a personal story that relates to the lessons from a Stardford-led study that I frequently think of when interacting with my four-year-old daughter. It is about those moments when we have a strong desire to step in and solve our child’s problem.

Every evening as we wind down for the night, there are moments that serve as a valuable lesson for both of us. It happens when my daughter tries to button up her pajama top. The buttons are tricky, and it is easy for her small fingers to fumble. As the clock approaches bedtime, I can see her becoming frustrated, and a part of me just wants to reach over and do it for her to avoid trouble. But instead, I pause, and I encourage her to try again.

This idea of watching and waiting while my daughter tries things on her own matches what a study from Stanford University found in 2021. Published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the study highlights that while it is important to be there for our children and help them, helping them too much can actually make it harder for them to manage their own feelings and actions.

What does “too much” look like? Imagine a child who is constantly being told what to do and how to do it. The study found that these children often struggle more with controlling their feelings and they can’t wait patiently when needed. They also have a hard time choosing what to focus on. It is important for children to have the opportunity to make decisions and choices on their own in order to develop crucial skills. When constantly being micromanaged, children do not have the chance to practice self-control and decision-making, which can slow their development in the long run. 

Applying this knowledge at bedtime has not only helped my daughter become more adept at managing her own pajamas but has actually taught her perseverance and problem-solving skills. These are nights when she takes longer to get ready, but the pride she feels when she finally does it on her own is worth every extra minute.

On the other hand, we all know that it is very important for parents to look for moments when they can teach their children something new. There are many chances to do this. For instance, discussing the plot of a bedtime story can be a great way to help your child think more deeply about what they are reading. Another example is explaining the reasons behind certain rules, like why it is bedtime at 9 p.m. This helps children understand and learn from the situation. Research has shown that this kind of active involvement from parents truly helps children develop their thinking and emotional skills.

So, what should we take away from this? 

It is all about balance. Being there to help your child is crucial, but we also need to help parents understand that stepping back sometimes gives their child a chance to learn and grow on their own. 

It is not just about doing less – it is about being strategic. It is about parents asking themselves: “Is my child okay right now? Could this be a good moment to let them try on their own?”

I share this story to illustrate a point – as sleep consultants, we should encourage parents to find moments where they can let their children take the lead, even in small tasks. Whether it is choosing which pajamas to wear, deciding which book to read, or solving the puzzle of those tricky buttons, these moments build children’s confidence and independence.

Reference

Obradović, J., Sulik, M. J., & Shaffer, A. (2021). Learning to let go: Parental over-engagement predicts poorer self-regulation in kindergartners. Journal of Family Psychology, 35(8), 1160–1170. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000838