When it comes to being invovled in their child's every move, some moms just can't seem to help themselves—even when it's time to play. But what effect does all this hovering have on parent-child relationships? According to new research from the University of Missouri, young children with directive mothers (aka "helicopter moms") who overly instruct and interfere during playtime may be more likely to act out and display negative behaviors, including whining and crying, compared to kids with more easy-going mothers.
Should you say nothing the next time your tot decides to use the play kitchen as a rocket ship? In the study, researchers analyzed interactions among more than 1,300 pairs of mothers and children videotaped while the children were playing in 15-minute sessions. Play sessions were recorded several times between the children's first and fifth birthdays. At each age level, mothers were given a different group of age-appropriate toys and told the children they could do anything they wanted with the toys, but just had to play with each one.
When videos were reviewed, it became clear to researchers that "directive moms were more likely to make decisions about how to play, what to play and how quickly to play," says Jean Ispa, lead author of the study and professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri.
For example, while playing with her child, a highly directive mother might make her toddler put the plastic cow in the toy barn through the barn's door instead of through its window. Or if a child is playing with a play kitchen set, the mom might not let the child touch the fake burners on the stove. In response, researchers noted that children were more likely to negatively interact with their directive mothers, including throwing a toy away after a mother offered it to them, rejecting it outright, or whining or crying in annoyance.
What's the problem with telling kids how to play? As Ispa explains, "children flourish when they have opportunities to make choices about what they do, particularly in play situations. Mothers often think they are helping their children by correcting them, but they are limiting the children's creativity and possibly making their children enjoy being with them less."
There were a few other interesting pieces of information researchers detected while analyzing the videos. When moms were classified by race, white mothers were less likely than black mothers to show directive behavior. Hispanic mothers showed the steepest decline in being directive after the first play session. This came as a surprise to Ispa.
"I had thought that kind of directiveness wasn't working well in white families, but now we know it may not be working in other ethnicities, too," she says in a statement made to HealthDay.
Researchers may have also stumbled across a way to make hovering a little more tolerable for children: affection. "Even if mothers were very directive, if they were also warm, the negative effects of high directiveness lessened in every one of the ethnic groups we studied. If mothers were negative or seemed critical of their kids, then the negative effects of directiveness increased," Ispa notes, adding, "Children take in the meaning of what their mothers are trying to do, so if a mom is being very directive and is generally a very warm person, I think the child feels, 'My mom is doing this because she cares about me, and she's trying to do the best for me.' If that warmth is missing, then the child might feel, 'My mom is trying to control me, and I don't like it.'"
Is this going to change how you play with your child? Angie Thompson, a mom of two from Virginia, says she has "helicoptered" around her kids, but now takes a more relaxed approach to parenting.
"I knew I was hovering too much when my younger son would dump his blocks out all over the floor and I would feel an immediate need to start picking them up right away. It finally struck me that too much of my time was spent thinking about blocks, and so I re-evaluated," Thompson explains.
These days, Thompson still gets down on the floor when the blocks come out, but it's now so she can play with her son—and not just pick up after him.
"When I hear the blocks hit the floor, I ask him, 'What do you want to build?" she says, "and then let him lead the way."
What has this new approach taught her?
"When I stopped worrying about the blocks and started engaging with my kid, I realized how imaginative he is... Last week, his blocks became space robots. There's no way I want to stifle that kind of creativity."