Welcome to the Age of Overparenting

By Katherine Ozment | Boston Magazine |

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 :)