Welcome to the Age of Overparenting
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.