Welcome to the Age of Overparenting
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?