Welcome to the Age of Overparenting

We seemed aware that we were rewriting the rules in order to create rich childhoods for our children. But at what cost? I decided to find out.

Illustration by Larry Ruppert

See Jane. See Jane walk downstairs. Clap, Mom and Dad, clap! See Mom and Dad clap, clap, clap. For everything Jane does (Illustration 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?”

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.

By the time I was ready to start having kids, the era of extraordinary parenting had already begun. Many in my admittedly privileged cohort had studied up on the attachment theories of William Sears and Penelope Leach, who held that parents, particularly mothers, should bond with their babies and toddlers through near-constant physical contact. We slept with our infants, nursed around the clock, and wore BabyBjörns everywhere we went. Our kids grew, and when we weren’t driving them to soccer games and Kindermusik, we were slipping love notes into their lunchboxes. At times, I felt caught up in a collective consciousness. We seemed aware that we were rewriting the rules in order to create rich childhoods for our children. But at what cost? I decided to find out.

“We’re in the midst of a giant social experiment,” child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd tells me when I visit him in his cozy Harvard office. Weissbourd is the author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, and I’ve come to him for advice on how to regain some sanity in my own parenting. “Historically, parents have been concerned with things like obedience, manners, and respect for authority. We’re the first parents in history who really want to be their kids’ friends. Some parents even talk about wanting to be their kids’ best friends.” Parents today, he says, are so focused on bonding with their children that it can undercut their authority and derail normal development. Treating kids as equals doesn’t allow them to idealize their parents and learn to adopt their values. Parents need to let their children separate in adolescence, of course, but that’s much harder if Mom and Dad have come to depend on them for close friendship.

I think of how I ask my kids how they feel more times in a day than my own parents asked me in a year. “What’s wrong?” I say at any look of discomfort on their faces. “How do you feel?” I calmly intone over their cries. Lately, my son, who’s now nine, has responded to my queries with “I’m not trying to be mean, but could you please leave me alone?” And the other day, when I tried to break up a fight between him and his nearly six-year-old sister, she said, “Don’t worry, Mama. We’re fine.” Even our toddler sometimes squirms from my embrace. Maybe I’m the one who’s not fine.

My friends experience a similar yearning for engagement. One mom told me that she once berated her daughter, a first grader, in the car on the way home from school for not telling her about her day — yelling, “I don’t see you all day and now you’re not going to talk to me!” And when I was out with a group of friends last summer, someone told the story of how her mother had spent the weekend with her and her two young daughters. At the end of the visit, her mother asked, “Do you always talk to them so much?”

We all laughed: “Of course we always talk to them so much! That’s what you’re supposed to do!”

But are you? And who decides? I posed the question to Weissbourd.

“The need for closeness can be more about you than about your kids,” he replies, and I suddenly find myself slinking down in my chair. The question we have to ask ourselves when it comes to interacting with our kids, he says, is “When is this about me, and when is it about you? And that’s a hard thing to do.”

Yes it is, and I need help.

 

My quest to untangle has led me to an Arlington middle school cafeteria, where I’m surrounded by about 80 parents who have come to hear author Michael Thompson talk about his forthcoming book, Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow. It’s not lost on me that all of us here tonight are so wrapped up in the lives of our offspring that we’ll set aside an evening to hear a parenting sage impart some child-rearing wisdom. And his basic message? That what we really need to do as concerned moms and dads is…disengage a little from our children.

Thompson works as the supervising psychologist at the Belmont Hill School, and tells us that he set out to write his book after noticing that parents were refusing to let their kids go on school-sponsored overnight trips. He explains that we’re so determined to make our children happy that we’ve come to think that the only way we can do so is if we’re with them all the time. “This is an incredibly dedicated generation of parents,” he says. “But we think we can make them happy and we can’t. We can love and cherish them, but we can’t make them happy.”

In the course of his research, Thompson continues, he discovered a huge drop in summer-camp attendance, and learned that an increasing number of parents are instead choosing weeklong skills-based camps. And those parents who do opt for a longer overnight scenario are struggling to say goodbye to their kids. In response, some camps now provide a constantly updated stream of online photos for these “child-sick” parents. One even hired a full-time staffer to cull hundreds of photos each day, posting only those in which every child is smiling.

I saw the effects of this firsthand last summer, when my husband and I had dinner at our friends’ house a few days after their son, who was 10, had gone off to overnight camp. Throughout the evening, the mother kept leaving the room to scan her inbox for updated photos. Toward the end of dinner, she yelled, “It’s here! Come see! He has a weird look on his face.” We huddled around the screen deciphering their son’s grimace, then spent dessert debating what should be done.

The truth, Thompson tells us, is that kids who go to camp often thrive. “When kids are away from their parents, their achievements are their own,” he says. Time apart allows them to develop independence and character, and it also bolsters their self-esteem. And then, to drive the point home, Thompson asks us to think back to the childhood moment when we were the happiest. “Okay, now raise your hand if there was an adult with you in that moment,” he says. Only a few hands go up. The room is silent, a nervous realization dawning.

“Eight out of 80, about 10 percent,” Thompson says. “That’s pretty typical. Here’s the thing: Modern parents feel that more time with Mom and Dad is always a positive — this is the single biggest change in American childhood — but the truth is that more time with you isn’t always a positive. In fact, it’s annoying.”

I flush with recognition. So that’s why my son’s been telling me to leave him alone?

“The modern parent thinks he or she is always value added,” Thompson says calmly, then delivers the shiv: “But you aren’t. At some point you realize you’re a burden to your kids.”

 

Before that evening in the cafeteria, I’d never considered myself a burden. I’d bought into the self-esteem dogma — the idea that bathing our children in good feeling and positive reinforcement arms them with the confidence they need to lead better lives. Which is why my husband and I have been so hopped up on doling out praise that the first time our son was able to walk down the stairs, we stood at the bottom like courtiers awaiting their king. The child paused mid-flight, clapped, and said to us, and I guess to himself, “I’m so proud of you!”

But according to Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, all of this praise can be counterproductive. Dweck says that when we tell kids that they are gifted, rather than hard-working, they can develop a fear of failing that leads to an unwillingness to take the risks necessary for true learning. Kids who are told they’re hard workers, in contrast, are more willing to take on challenges and better able to bounce back from mistakes. The psychological community now holds that incessant praise actually works against parents’ intentions. You don’t gain self-esteem first, then achieve great things. You work hard, fail, pick yourself up, try again, accomplish something new, and then feel pretty good about yourself.

And yet so much of our efforts go toward positive reinforcement. “When your kid has trouble with homework and you jump in right away, you’re worried about your kid’s experience with failure,” says Harvard’s Richard Weissbourd. “The irony is that, rather than securing self-esteem, that level of micromanaging usually undermines it.”

I cringe as I think of all the times I’ve done exactly what he mentions. The many times I’ve told our daughter how smart she is in an attempt to brush a strong sense of self onto her, as if painting on a thick ceramic glaze. In fact, in our house, the phrase “Good job!” is so pervasive that it has lost all meaning. I have uttered it to our kids for getting themselves into the car, eating dinner, and brushing their teeth. Our community is all too happy to pitch in: Our son has so many YMCA basketball trophies that he’s taken to giving them to his little sister. Recently, when surveying his completed math homework, I told him: “That’s amazing.” He replied, “No it’s not. This was easy.”

Chastened, I tried for one day not to say, “Good job!” to anyone in our house. I failed by mid-afternoon.

 

According to University of California at San Diego economists Valerie and Garey Ramey, between 1990 and the early 2000s, college-educated mothers came to spend an average of nine hours more per week with their children than their own mothers had spent with them; fathers spent an average of five more hours. But what were they doing during all that extra time? The Rameys found that the bulk of it involved coordinating their kids’ extracurricular activities in a mad dash to get them into good colleges.

I know this all too well. Our kids are in so many activities that we’ve taken to scheduling swaths of “downtime” on weekends. The wife of my husband’s colleague stopped working temporarily because she was overwhelmed by the private school application process. One mother told me, “When it was time to find a kindergarten for my daughter, I put as much or more effort into it as I put into finding a college for myself.” These examples may be extreme, but they’re hardly uncommon. Our willingness to invest so much effort into what the Rameys call “The Rug Rat Race” stems in part from genuine worries about the future. Are our children destined to tough it out through high school and college only to end up jobless and occupying Wall Street?

Margaret Nelson, a Middlebury College sociologist and the author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times, makes the point more personal when I ask why we’re all so frantic: “What are you going to do if your three children don’t turn out to be professionals?” she asks me. I don’t really have an answer for her. We’ve come to lavish so much attention on our children, she explains, because we’re fearful that they’ll fail. “You probably don’t even know what your children should be to secure the same lifestyle that you’ve been able to provide them with. So you have to stay on top of those kids. And that’s a lot of work.” Sweet relief! Maybe, I think, I’ve simply been worrying too much about worrying.

But then I read a study by Columbia University psychology professor Suniya Luthar. It turns out that pushing kids can be just as bad for them as attending to their every desire. Luthar found that the children of upper-class, highly educated parents in the Northeast are increasingly anxious and depressed. Children with “high perfectionist strivings” were likely to see achievement failures as personal failures, Luthar wrote. And, she found, being constantly shuttled between activities — spending all that time in the SUV with Mom or Dad — ends up leaving suburban adolescents feeling more isolated from their parents.

  • R

    Thank you SO MUCH for putting into words some of the conflicts I have myself experienced in navigating my way through the world of new millenium parenting. Great piece!

  • Tracy

    I fear in my house we are a mashup of Organic Mom and Kumbaya Dad. But in all seriousness, great article. Bottom line is hard to strike a balance between caring too much and caring too little.

  • Kathryn

    I work full time and often feel like my kids are slipping through the cracks. In a way, this made me feel much better about my lack of attention to certain details (love notes in lunches, etc. – normally I feel guilty that I’m the mom NOT doing this). GREAT article!

  • Karen

    [Good job! wink] This piece resonates with me on so many levels, and thank you, as always, for framing it with your own, frank personal experiences. I think I sense a New Year’s resolution taking shape.

  • carol

    What happy memories I have of you and my daughter getting in the onionsack,like bag our Xmas tree came in.It still makes me laugh. So proud of this work. I just wish my grandchildren could grow up in a safer world

  • myrsini

    In my 17 years of parenting this is the best article I have ever read.
    Thank you!!

  • Rachel

    Lived the slideshow! If I hear “Good Job!!!” as a term for encouragement sone more time…. What ever happened to honest appreciation for and in a moment? Can the phrase “Good Job” really substitute true excitement for an accomplishment? It certainly isn’t believable after the third time a kid makes it to the bottom of a slide.

  • Brian

    As a special educator, I’m convinced that some (NOT all) of the increase in AD/HD and developmental disability diagnoses are due to over-parenting. I had student in Kindergarten who had had no prior traumatic experiences yet was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and exhibited PTSD-like symptoms. And parents called me nearly daily. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

  • Ted

    Thanks for the great article on parenting. I wish I could say it gets better as kids get older but schools generally just pile on a bad situation. They speak for every minute of a kids’ week, drill them and bore them to tears, and micro-manage their agenda. A country that should be fostering bold innovative young adults is doing the exact opposite.

  • amy

    I loved this piece, it hits home. You do your best to be the best you can be but the best has chaged. You want happy healthy kids with imagination creativity and confidence. But he system feels broken, with the world seemly more dangerous that it was in our childhood we end up depriving them of freedom and subsequently squashing their creativity. Didn’t life seem so much simpler when we were the kids?!

  • Elise

    Anxious overparenting is evident in schools, too, and I think many school policies–smaller class size, more adults, more controlled curricula and activities–are shaped by this anxiety. Montessori schools, in which the environment is well-designed and structured, but the children are free and independent, might be part of the answer!

  • linda

    I loved this article. Having recently moved to a new neighborhood, I have seen first hand what happens when you let your children just play. My former home was fenced and gated for our child and pets. A great place but more a fort than a play area. Now my son has tons of kids to play and ride bikes with and he is so happy. They invent games, play tag, hide and go seek and ride and run around endlessly. Just like I used to do.
    It is taking some getting used to, not having eyes on him all the time but I am getting over it and remembering when my Mom would leave paper cups and kool-aid by the back door and tell us to come back at lunch time.

  • Linda

    I loved this article. Having recently moved to a new neighborhood, I have seen first hand what happens when you let your children just play. My former home was fenced and gated for our child and pets.

  • tom

    It seems obvious, let kids be kids. Why are so many parents so worried about things that they cannot let go. My kids (except for the handicapped one) all did day camps by 7, overnights by 8, week long

  • Peggy

    great article! Oops, is that too heavy on the praise?

    I enjoyed the article and think it should be required reading for new parents.

    Appreciated the author’s openness about her own parenting, especially about her baby’s big head.

  • Jessie

    To the person concerned about ADHD. I do not believe you can simply “cause” it on a child. More likely, people freak out over every little thing and don’t wait things out to really see.

  • Kim

    I’m not a big fan of saying, “good job.” Or so I thought. Upon returning home from a roller skating party last Sunday, my 6-year-old turned to me and said, “You know, you didn’t have to tell me ‘good job’ when I tried to skate on my own. It wasn’t work. I was just having fun.”

  • Paul

    I enjoyed reading your article, finding glimpses of my wife and me throughout the text as we figure out how best to bring up our little one-year-old boy in this dangerous world. But my mom, who has enjoyed sitting back and watching us struggle with the boundaries of parenting vs. overparenting, is quick to remind me that while parents may have changed, kids have not. Just the other day she was reminiscing about how she would have to spend an hour bundling 3 kids up to go out in the snow only to find us 10 minutes later, banging on the door and complaining about being cold. But as far as overparenting is concerned, she is quick to remind me: relax a bit and let the boy explore the world. I guess I turned out ok.

  • Anne

    I thought I’d be considered a “lazy mom” but telling my kids to get out of my hair, making them spend unsupervised time alone every day to do whatever suits their fancy, sending them the $%^& outside when they need to run off steam, saying “nice work” only when they really did kick butt, and letting them sled down the driveway. Turns out I’m a genius.

  • Rebekah

    Several commentators have mentioned how unsafe things are now – WHY? In fact it’s safer now overall (of course individual neighborhoods not withstanding), this point has been established and reiterated over and over, yet people ignore it and carry on with their assumptions.
    I am not my kids best friend I am her mother. I expect her to do her best, whatever her best may be, nothing more nothing less. I have a life of my own and don’t need to live through my kid – I’m sure she will grow up fine with some guidance and doesn’t need me to drag her through life to ensure she make it.

  • safia

    I always try to encourage creativity in my kids by leaving them to work it out for themselves. I refuse to constantly entertain them, plan every hour of their day, and gasp at every ouchie. I also refuse them too much TV time – nothing like TV to kill the creative bug. I dont ask them what they want for dinner; instead its a ‘take it or leave it’ situation in our house. I try to teach them to believe in themselves, take a chance, have fun, and be kind. And most importantly, I give them lots of hugs and kisses and show genuine interest in what they have to say.

  • Greg

    That was my answer to my mother when she asked what I’d been doing. Similar response to “where were you?”

    Now I cringe or seethe at kids wearing helmets as they do, oh anything. Guess they’re

  • anna

    This is a great article. Well researched, great insights, and the topic greatly needs to be addressed!

  • Brett

    Very thought provoking. Couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from Catcher in the Rye…

    Then the carrousel started, and I watched her go around and around. There were only about five or six other kids on the ride, and the song the carrousel was playing was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It was playing it very jazzy and funny. All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.

  • Emily

    My son is only 15 months old, and yet I still feel as though I’m often not paying him enough attention. I work from home, so he’s often playing quietly (or standing in the middle of the living room shouting at the dog) while I attempt to get my articles finished. Someone mentioned to me that part of good parenting is getting out of our children’s way. That, and this article, help me to feel as though I am doing right by him when I let him play by himself. Quality time may be the buzzword of parenting, but I know he’ll have lovely memories of his childhood, even if I’m not spending every minute with him.

  • R

    To me this is just the pendulum of popular opinion swinging back and forth. Before anyone pats themselves on the back too hard, I was raised by a “good enough” parent. I was sexually abused by a babysitter, bullied at school, and witnessing my sister’s drug use at age 8. I never talked to my mother about any of it because we never talked about personal things with each other, and I didn’t dare to tell her. My mother still thinks she was a great parent and gloats about how “hands off” she was.

  • Light

    I do not have kids but have been a teacher and this is exactly what I have noticed: children are overprotected and have no childhood anymore. The types of overly protective parents you describe are ACCURATE to the bone! Bravo for putting words to my sentiments on the topic!

  • Moana

    A recent scientific study also shows that people who grow up without experiencing any distress tend to have a harder time coping when things get tough. I wrote some personal thoughts up about this here:
    http://gettingbetteratthings.com/2011/12/learning-bravery/

    Hope that kids learn in spite of all the help we give them!

  • Cori

    We attachment-parented our only child. Family bed, breastfeeding into toddlerhood, dad stayed home so the kid never had to go to day care. Theory was that if you were there for them when they were little, they would feel comfortable enough to spread their wings later. He’s almost 16 now and that has turned out to be absolutely correct. Figured out the city bus system all by himself, goes to coffeehouses and libraries and bookstores and theatrical performances and concerts (teen discounts) and has a blast, and we don’t worry about him while he’s out there. It’s wonderful.

  • jamie

    over parenting? your instinct to constantly know your children’s where abouts indicates that your maternal nature is still in tact though i question if you ever really listen to it after reading this article. life is about balance and parenting is about knowing your child, their strengths and weaknesses, their wants and needs and guiding them to become responsible adults. yes we have certainly lost perspective as a society on the goals we have for our children. but over parenting isn’t the problem. misunderstanding is. relating to your children gives them the respect they deserve. a good parent tries to meet the needs of everyone and find balance.

  • jacob

    I can’t believe that there are so many ninny parents out there. My usual response to either one of my daughters when they fall down is to lovingly say “toughen up. you’re okay.” And that’s what they’ve learned. “I’m OK” and “That’s OK” and “It will be OK.” because it will. I am an outpatient orthopedic physical therapists and my wife is in healthcare research so we have a good understanding of what the risks out there are, but we also understand that most injuries are not that serious and the serious ones do not occur often and can usually be avoided with reasonable caution. I choose to teach my daughters to be bold, be strong, have fun and don’t be afraid to fail or get hurt.

  • Mary

    Am I the only one who remembers the 70s fondly? My parents weren’t on my case 24/7. They expected me to manage my own schoolwork and NEVER contacted the school on my behalf. I had mobility to roam the neighborhood, they just expected me back in time for dinner.

    I have a 12 year old and a 7 year old, and while the younger son still needs supervision, the 12 year old has earned some free range privileges. She earns about $11 a week in pocket money by babysitting, and for the most part can spend it as she pleases. Oh, and I make her do chores, too. People need to lighten up and let their kids grow up.

  • Kerry

    Two years ago, I wrote a book called “How to Have Your Second Child First”…in attempt to get first-time parents to lighten up and give themselves a break, as you learn to do when you have multiple children. I will be passing this article on! Best, most insightful view of the current state of parenting I’ve read in a long while. Thank you!

  • Elizabeth

    … and I’m teaching the college-aged results. Not pretty. So I’ve been joking for years that I’m practicing “Detachment Parenting.”

  • Sean

    This is something I have been contemplating for a few months now. Thank you for quantifying some of my own thoughts & giving me some starting points for more research.

  • Mary

    I am a teacher, and it’s so very hard to help kids learn to take a critical approach to their work, when parents step in and sugar coat things, OR rail at me because I “wasn’t nice” when I offered a critique of a child’s work. These students CAN take it, and they can use that to make their work better. They handle these critical evaluations better than their parents, but when they know they can get away with less than their best, they tend to become less apt to perform at the top of their game. You are spot on that kids need to learn to take their own risks. Not many kids die from a little dirt or cuts and scrapes, and a little freedom to make mistakes becomes character building over time.

  • Amiejo Walker

    Thank you for this insightful article! It was definitely a must read for me. I feel it will relieve some pressure of parenting and allow some guilt free, me time :)