WEDNESDAY, Feb. 13, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Even something as simple as play can be complicated: A new study shows that mothers who try to tell their young children how to play with their toys can turn their kids off, at least in the short run.
The happiest children had two things going for them, the study found. They had the least amount of interference from their moms as they used their toys, and their mothers demonstrated what the researchers describe as "warmth" -- a gentle voice, a big smile and a dash of encouragement.
Children with the more "directive" mothers tended to respond with anger, throwing a toy away after a mother offered it to them or rejecting it outright and whining or crying in annoyance.
The research shows the danger of being overinvolved in what a child is doing, said study author Jean Ispa, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. "We need to allow them to make decisions about what they'll play with, how they'll play and the pace of play," she said.
But Ispa cautioned that her research doesn't suggest parents should completely ignore a child who is playing. "If a child is doing the same thing, day after day, you might want to suggest something more complex, but do it in a kind and respectful way, so the kid still feels it's really [him or her] in charge."
The study, published Feb. 4 in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice, analyzed interactions among more than 1,300 pairs of mothers and children videotaped while the children were playing in 15-minute sessions.
The children were 1, 2, 3 and 5 years old, and the mothers whites, blacks and Hispanics (Mexican-Americans) -- were all participants in a federal study on Early Head Start. At each age level, the mothers were given a different bag of toys and told the children could do anything they wanted with toys, but the kids had to play with each one.
The study noted such factors as the mother's education level, the child's gender, and whether the mother became pregnant as a teenager, to be sure they didn't interfere with the results of the study.
The researchers found that white mothers were the least likely to direct their children, and black mothers were the most likely to do so. Hispanic mothers showed the steepest decline in in being directive after the first play session.
Ispa admitted she was surprised to see a high level of interference in the children's play by black mothers. "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 said.
Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, said the study "meticulously analyzes some nice data and then tells us what we already knew."
He went on to explain that when it comes to parenting, less is more.
"Children are sometimes happiest when parents are less directive in terms of their play," he said. "Children often enjoy playing in ways we might not understand and what may seem inappropriate or illogical from a parent's perspective."
Adesman pointed out that while the study identifies some real differences between parenting styles among different ethnicities and how those factors may affect children, studying play is just a snapshot of what occurs in a household on a daily basis. "But that said, I don't think the study conclusions are artifact," he added.
Ispa recommends that parents provide children with toys like blocks that allow kids to use their creativity and imagination. "Show them some things you can do with them, but then really let them guide what's going on. If a kid is having difficulty, suggest something, but then always move back and let them take over," she advised.
Could this study and Ispa's suggestion about stepping back and letting children ultimately take the reins apply to older kids? Ispa said she is concerned about parents not learning to let go and not permitting their teenagers and college-age kids to fail. "It's not a great thing in the long run," she said. "It really doesn't strengthen them."
While this study only goes as far as kindergarten, a new study sheds light on how a high level of parental hovering may affect children as they get older.
Research published Feb. 9 in the Journal of Child and Family Studies showed that college students with controlling mothers and fathers -- often referred to as helicopter parents -- are less satisfied with their lives and more likely to be depressed.
To learn more about child development and independence, see the U.S. National Library of Medicine.