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 Dick throw the ball to jane. “Careful! Playing ball can be dangerous.” (Illustration by Larry Ruppert).

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.


  • 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:

    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 :)