'Intensive' parenting is on trend - and it's putting even more pressure on parents

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Are you an intensive parent? If you are not sure, then the answer is probably no.

Intensive parenting requires a lot of effort, it is child-centered and time heavy - and if you're rolling your eyes at yet another parenting label then you're not alone. 

Intensive parents want to be involved with their kids at all times - constantly playing with them at home, signing them up for multiple extra-curricular activities from a very young age and regularly asking them about their thoughts and feelings. It's being touted an even more extreme version of 'helicopter' and 'lawnmower' parents. 

Researchers say the study, published in the journal Social Forces, highlights just how stressful modern parenting has become.

"This points to exceptionally high standards for how parents should raise their kids," said lead author Patrick Ishizuka of Cornell University of the findings. "It suggests that parents are experiencing significant pressure to spend great amounts of both time and money on children."

As part of the research, more than 3,600 parents were questioned about what they considered "good parenting" using a number of different scenarios involving kids aged between eight and ten. Vignettes focused on extra-curricular activities, the way parents speak to their kids and how a family interacts with professionals in places like schools or a doctor's office.

Here's one example from the study. Which one would you choose?

Parenting situation: While Kim is busy getting things ready for her son's first day of school tomorrow, her son asks if she will draw pictures with him.

Response 1: Kim sits down to draw with her son. Then Kim says: "You're so creative! Should we sign you up for art lessons?"

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Response 2 : Kim tells her son she's busy right now. Then Kim says: "How about you work on some drawings and I'll try to look at them later?"

Response one is what researchers term "concerted cultivation" or an intensive parenting approach. This is characterised by:

  • Facilitating kids' participation in formal extracurricular activities and helping to develop kids' talents by participating in informal activities at home.
  • Asking children for their thoughts and feelings and encouraging them to elaborate.
  • Responding to misbehaviour with discussions, "allowing negotiation and emphasising explanations."
  • In institutional settings, parents encourage their kids' "sense of importance" and right to express their thoughts to adults. They also closely monitor their kids' lives.

Response two is what researchers term "natural growth" and is far less hands-on.

  • Parents establish rules for their children's safety but also give kids the flexibility to play on their own or with friends.
  • They're far less involved in kids' activities and generally decline requests to play with their kids.
  • Parents tend to be "brief and direct" when speaking with kids and don't generally ask them to elaborate.
  • They take a more deferential approach when interacting with professionals in institutions. For example, "You need to listen to what the doctor says and take the medicine," vs "Let's talk about the medicine with the doctor. You can ask any questions you have and learn how the medicine can help you."

The results show that the majority of parents rated the intensive approach as "very good" or "excellent," parenting, while only 32 percent of college graduates and 38 percent of non-college graduates rated the more relaxed parenting style as "very good" or "excellent."

"Findings provide empirical support for what social scientists have hypothesised to be exceptionally high contemporary parenting standards," writes Ishizuka.

"Concerted cultivation is demanding in terms of both time and money: parents are expected to enroll children in extracurricular activities, participate in children's play at home, elicit their thoughts and feelings, reason with children, ask questions and encourage children to express their opinions, and advocate for their individualised needs with teachers and other professionals."

As Ishizuka goes on to to explain, however, the problem is that such high standards are less compatible with some parents' resources. In other words, we don't always have the time or the money. He also notes that while concerted cultivation is viewed more positively than natural growth, most people still rate the more laissez faire approach as "good". 

All parents, he says, most likely aspire to an intensive parenting approach, "but in a sense 'settle' for natural growth, a style they generally regard positively, but one that is more compatible with their more time-and money-constrained circumstances." 

And that has to be the key takeaway. 

We won't always respond in an "ideal" way because it's simply not possible. We won't always have time to play with our kids, or to engage in long discussions about why they can't have chicken nuggets for dinner every night. We might not always be "very good" or "excellent" parents (how do we define this, anyway?), but as long as we're striving to be consistently "good enough", our kids will be just fine.