The findings, published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development, send home a poignant message. If parents intervene in a controlling way by issuing commands, by doing the assigned tasks for their kids or by rushing them, struggling children become disengaged. Such children may do even more poorly at school over time, said Eva Pomerantz, a professor of psychology at Illinois.
"When mothers respond to their children in a manner that supports autonomy, children doing poorly actually experience increases in their performance during their interactions with their mothers and the next day," she said. "Perhaps most importantly their school grades improve over time."
The first study involved 110 mothers and their elementary schoolchildren who took part in the research at a campus laboratory. The mothers' use of control and autonomy support as they assisted children with a simulated homework task was examined. When mothers assisted in a controlling manner, children who initially did poorly at the tasks became disengaged, showing a lack of concentration. In contrast, when mothers were autonomy-supportive, the performance of the struggling children improved.
An autonomy-support approach allows children to explore their environment independently. Parents may discuss a situation, but the children must decide for themselves what is important and generate their own problem-solving strategies. Such experiences may be especially likely to benefit children who are struggling, Pomerantz said.
In the second study, investigators examined the mothers' use of control and autonomy support in the context of responding to their children's real life failures. In this study, 121 mothers reported every night for two weeks on whether their children did poorly that day -- such as struggling with a school assignment, fighting at school, or not doing chores at home. The mothers indicated how they responded.
When mothers used controlling responses, such as punishing children or saying they were disappointed in them, children doing poorly in school performed poorly again the next day, and their grades decreased six months later. When mothers used the autonomy-supportive response of discussing failures with the children, the ones doing poorly in school improved the next day and their grades increased six months later.
"These two studies suggest that if parents want to help their low-achieving children improve their school performance, being autonomy-supportive rather than controlling is vital," Pomerantz said. "This may be of particular importance when interacting with low-achieving children, because they receive feedback in school that they lack competence."
As a consequence, she said, children may look to their parents to aid them in feeling competent. "When parents are controlling, they may inhibit children from developing important abilities and convey to children that they lack competence. In contrast, when parents are autonomy-supportive, they may aid children in building their competencies while also letting them know that they are capable of independent work."
In both studies, investigators found that children doing well were not affected in terms of their performance by their mothers' responses, regardless of the approach. However, Pomerantz emphasized that parents of high-achieving children should not avoid being involved in their children's lives. Current work in her laboratory suggests that when mothers are present to assist high-achieving children, their emotional functioning is boosted.
The co-authors of the study were Florrie Fei-Yin Ng and Gwen A. Kenney-Benson, doctoral students working with Pomerantz when the research was conducted.
The National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health funded the research.