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.
If it’s true that our kids are depressed and anxious, maybe they’re learning it from us. Overparenting takes a toll, particularly when you consider the steady stream of nerve-rattling information we get hourly, from toy recall notices to Amber Alerts. Richard Weissbourd tells a story about how, years ago, his 11-year-old daughter and several of her friends were planning an overnight campout with some younger neighborhood kids in his backyard. Before the big night, the parents of the younger kids began scouring his lawn for nails and shards of glass. “It just seemed like, Whoa, what is going on with this anxiety?” Weissbourd recalls. The problem wasn’t just the parental anxiety itself — it was how it was actually reshaping the experience for those kids: “I felt like these 10- and 11-year-old girls were so conscientious and these parents came and undermined them.”
It’s nearly impossible to keep abreast of all the hidden dangers out there just waiting to hurt your son or daughter, not that I’ve let that keep me from trying. After our first baby was born, I found myself hanging out in the dark corners of the Web where all the hypochondriacs congregate. When our pediatrician commented on how fast our baby’s head was growing, I spent hours Googling “big baby head” and got a crash course in a rare disorder called hydrocephalus. After a night of fretting about “water on the brain,” my husband and I agreed to an ultrasound. We huddled over our infant as the technician ran the goopy wand over his feather-soft hair. As it turned out, all our baby had was a big head.
In the years since his birth, technology has only helped me discover more things to worry about. Last month, for example, I noticed a baby-product recall alert for our jogging stroller on my Twitter feed. I found the notice online and discovered that a label on the stroller’s canopy could be detached and choked on. No baby had actually choked on one, but plenty had come close. I’ve become an expert at digging up these kinds of notices, and I always make sure to read the various warnings that adorn toys and baby equipment. I’ve bought the lead-test strips and run them across my children’s lunchboxes (clean), purchased a radon detector to suss out conditions in our basement (fine), and installed car seats with the focus and determination of a NASA engineer (secure).
But all this hand-wringing is making our kids more fearful and less inclined to take risks. Consider one study of playgrounds in North Carolina, which found that kids were 45 percent less likely to be active when a parent was present, meaning they were less apt to engage in the sort of vigorous play psychologists believe is important for proper development — to say nothing of the lost opportunity for good old-fashioned exercise.
All of which gets me worried all over again about my kids’ inability to build a proper snow fort. So I call Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at Boston College who edited the spring 2011 issue of the American Journal of Play. Gray explains that free, unstructured play helps children learn how to get along with others and control their emotions, and it also lets them develop their imagination. But since the 1950s, he says, there’s been a steady decline in the time American children spend playing on their own. He points to a study by the University of Maryland’s Sandra Hofferth, which found that from 1981 to 1997, American kids ages six to eight spent 25 percent less time engaged in free play, this while their time in the classroom was up by 18 percent. Meanwhile, their homework time increased by 145 percent, while time spent shopping with parents was up by 168 percent. When Hofferth updated her research in 2003, free time continued to decline, while study time increased another 32 percent. Why does this matter?
“If you think of this from the viewpoint of natural selection,” Gray says — which I haven’t until this moment — “free play is a marvelous biological solution to the big problem that human beings have, which is that we are both selfish and social. We depend on cooperating with other people, and yet we are also looking out for number one. Children are constantly negotiating that balance in their play.”
The key for parents, he says, is backing off and letting kids play among themselves. Kind of like we used to do.
In the Arlington middle school cafeteria, Michael Thompson asks if anyone wants to share their sweetest memory from childhood. I raise my hand and tell the group how, when I was eight, my friends and I discovered a frozen pond way back in the woods. We raced home to get our ice skates and laced them up in the hollowed-out trunk of a towering tree. And then, accompanied only by the sounds of our voices, laughter, and the scratching of our blades, we skimmed the ice, unsupervised, for hours.
“Why,” Thompson asks me in front of all the parents, “is that memory so sweet?”
Without thinking, I say, “Because my parents didn’t know where I was.”
“Your parents didn’t know where you were. So that experience was wholly your own,” he says. Then: “Would you let your own children do that?”
“I don’t even let my kids out of the house,” I blurt.
Everyone laughs, including me. (I do let them out of the house, by the way.) It’s a funny line, but the truth is our kids have but a shred of the freedom we enjoyed growing up. They have other things, of course. For example, my children know how to play team sports. They’ve gone to science camp and studied still lifes at the MFA. They compost and take educational family vacations to Washington, DC. At night, the older two like to laze about and ask my husband and me things like who the first person was and what happens when you die. We’re always there with some answer.
But what calling up my sweetest memory made me realize is that while today’s middle- and upper-middle-class children have an unprecedented array of opportunities, their experiences are often manufactured by us. For them, ice skating takes the form of 30-minute lessons at a city rink. Playing with friends involves checking calendars and pre-set finish times. Nearly everything they do is orchestrated, if not by their parents, then by some other adult — a teacher, camp counselor, or coach. But their experiences aren’t very rich in the messier way — in those moments of unfettered abandon when part of the thrill is the risk of harm, hurt feelings, or struggle. In our attempt to manage and support every moment of our children’s lives, they become something that belongs to us, not them.
Nine years into this parenting gig, I’ve begun to see that maybe our generation doesn’t have it all right and our own parents didn’t have it all wrong. Maybe it’s just time for some middle ground.
After a recent snowfall, my husband and I took our kids out to a huge hill on a Saturday afternoon to go sledding. When I saw that the hill was lined with trees, I confess I envisioned a concussion in our immediate future. And as our two oldest children wedged themselves onto our thin plastic toboggan, I wanted more than anything to climb aboard and steer them to safety. But I reminded myself of my quest to change. And so, without speaking, I crouched down and gave them a shove. Then I stepped aside and let them go.