Welcome to the Age of Overparenting
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.