How come parenting advice sometimes seems contradictory?

For example, parents of babies are advised to talk nonstop to the little guys in order to foster language and cognitive development. Parents are also told to be closely involved with their child's teacher and school so that nothing about the child's progress falls through the cracks. They are also advised to let children take responsibility for homework: bringing it home, getting it done, and turning it in.

I believe all of that is true - depending on the age of the child

But it is apparent that parents are first told to hover over the child and then told not to hover. How can a parent best sort this out?

Know the person who is giving the advice as well as that person's credentials. Determine what age child the advice refers to. And figure out what your own child needs based on temperament, personality, likes and dislikes.

"When Helping Hurts," an article published May 10 in The New York Times, dealt with the downside of parental help. Noting that many American parents today are overinvolved in their children's lives, researchers Eli M. Finkel and Grainne M. Fitzsimons found evidence this may actually hurt.

The first study showed that the more money parents provide for their children's college education, the worse grades the children get. Findings of the second study? The more parents are involved in their child's schoolwork and selection of majors, the less life satisfaction students report.

Some parents are truly overinvolved with their children's schoolwork and literally hover to make sure each task is done right - hence the term "helicopter parent." Yes, we remind first- and second-graders to do their homework. But as the child progresses in school, we should back off.

In my experience there are two kinds of helicopter parents.

Some convince themselves that their child must get into a highly selective college to succeed in life. They meet their children at the door every day, sit them down and supervise all their homework and school projects.

Others have been told their child is not progressing in school, or has a learning problem. These parents are rightfully concerned but take the wrong path. By hovering over the child's work and asking anxiously about it each day, they give a message that is harmful to the child: I don't trust you to do your own work or bring up your grades. How does the kid feel? My mom thinks it's hopeless, so why should I even try.

Finkel and Fitzsimons wisely point out that helping others reach their goals can confer benefits to both the giver and the recipient. So help is a good thing. But how should we help? "The answer, research suggests, is that our help has to be responsive to the recipient's circumstances: it must balance their need for support with their need for competence."

To feel good about themselves, children must feel that they are both loved and competent. Hovering parents may demonstrate lots of love and concern, but their actions and anxiety may give a negative message. Not being able to do something by yourself is the very antithesis of competence.

The authors conclude, "So, yes, by all means, parents, help your children. But don't let your action replace their action. Support, don't substitute."

What does this mean in a practical sense? Help by making sure the child has a quiet place to work and the necessary tools. Tell the child you are confident in his or her ability. Be available if the kid gets stuck. Remind children that it is important to check all work. Making a mistake, catching it, and correcting it by yourself is an important pathway to competence.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email for a professional, personal, and private answer to your questions.