Welcome to the Age of Overparenting
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.