Welcome to the Age of Overparenting
All illustrations by Larry Ruppert.
WHEN BOSTON WAS HIT by last winter’s barrage of blizzards, my two oldest kids, then ages eight and five, spent their snow days lounging around the house in their pajamas, occasionally dabbling at the computer. “Mom,” they said, “we’re bored.” Finally, I suggested they go outside — but not too far and not for too long and they should remember to wear layers or they’d surely end up in the hospital receiving treatment for frostbite. Oh, and did they need a snack or have to go to the bathroom first? As they trudged out the front door, I was simultaneously relieved to have them out of the house and terrified that they would be kidnapped or hit by a bus. I opened our living room window and sat beside it, working on my laptop. Every 20 minutes I’d crane my neck and yell, “You guys all right out there?”
[sidebar]I went outside an hour later and found them looking at me plaintively from our tiny garden, where they’d built “forts” that were really just shallow ditches in the snow. “We’re cold,” they said. “Can we come in now?”
My heart sank. How times had changed. I still remember the time my two older brothers built an igloo in our front yard. It had a domed roof and arched entrance, and they strung an overhead work lamp from the ceiling and laid out a small rug so we could all sit in it for hours. Witnessing my children’s paltry fort-making skills, I thought, Is this what our kids will remember of winter — digging little holes in the snow as their mother hovered nearby? Where has the childhood I once knew gone?
In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.
I know that if I continue on this path, not only will my kids never have the wherewithal to build an igloo after a snowstorm, they won’t even have the freedom or imagination to try. Watching them play halfheartedly in their meager little forts, I knew I had to change.
I’M NOT SURE when I decided that I was going to be a better parent than my own parents had been. The truth is my mother and father did great by me and I love them dearly. But like a lot of kids in the ’70s and ’80s, my childhood was marked by divorce, latchkey-kid-dom, and a nonstop diet of Twinkies and television. Today, I marvel at the freedom I enjoyed — walking alone to the bus stop, roaming my neighborhood unattended, hours at home with no one asking me what I was doing. But much of the time back then, I also felt disconnected, like no one was looking out for me.
When my mother wasn’t working or out with her friends, she kept to herself — making crafts, gardening, or listening to music. She was there but not there. After the divorce, a series of moves had me in and out of five different schools in the span of four years. And so I vowed that if I ever had kids, I would never get divorced and uproot them. They would have one home, with two parents in it. And from there, a notion of how I would parent began to take shape. Where my own parents had espoused us being seen and not heard, I would engage. Where they were laissez faire about helping me develop my talents, I would take charge. Where they epitomized the “good enough” model of parenting, so common at the time, I would be extraordinary.