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.

By Katherine Ozment | Boston Magazine |
Illustration by Larry Ruppert

See Jane. See Jane walk downstairs. Clap, Mom and Dad, clap! See Mom and Dad clap, clap, clap. For everything Jane does (Illustration by Larry Ruppert).

When Boston was hit by last winter’s barrage of blizzards, my two oldest kids, then ages eight and five, spent their snow days lounging around the house in their pajamas, occasionally dabbling at the computer. “Mom,” they said, “we’re bored.” Finally, I suggested they go outside — but not too far and not for too long and they should remember to wear layers or they’d surely end up in the hospital receiving treatment for frostbite. Oh, and did they need a snack or have to go to the bathroom first? As they trudged out the front door, I was simultaneously relieved to have them out of the house and terrified that they would be kidnapped or hit by a bus. I opened our living room window and sat beside it, working on my laptop. Every 20 minutes I’d crane my neck and yell, “You guys all right out there?”

I went outside an hour later and found them looking at me plaintively from our tiny garden, where they’d built “forts” that were really just shallow ditches in the snow. “We’re cold,” they said. “Can we come in now?”

My heart sank. How times had changed. I still remember the time my two older brothers built an igloo in our front yard. It had a domed roof and arched entrance, and they strung an overhead work lamp from the ceiling and laid out a small rug so we could all sit in it for hours. Witnessing my children’s paltry fort-making skills, I thought, Is this what our kids will remember of winter — digging little holes in the snow as their mother hovered nearby? Where has the childhood I once knew gone?

In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.

I know that if I continue on this path, not only will my kids never have the wherewithal to build an igloo after a snowstorm, they won’t even have the freedom or imagination to try. Watching them play halfheartedly in their meager little forts, I knew I had to change.

I’m not sure when I decided that I was going to be a better parent than my own parents had been. The truth is my mother and father did great by me and I love them dearly. But like a lot of kids in the ’70s and ’80s, my childhood was marked by divorce, latchkey-kid-dom, and a nonstop diet of Twinkies and television. Today, I marvel at the freedom I enjoyed — walking alone to the bus stop, roaming my neighborhood unattended, hours at home with no one asking me what I was doing. But much of the time back then, I also felt disconnected, like no one was looking out for me.

When my mother wasn’t working or out with her friends, she kept to herself — making crafts, gardening, or listening to music. She was there but not there. After the divorce, a series of moves had me in and out of five different schools in the span of four years. And so I vowed that if I ever had kids, I would never get divorced and uproot them. They would have one home, with two parents in it. And from there, a notion of how I would parent began to take shape. Where my own parents had espoused us being seen and not heard, I would engage. Where they were laissez faire about helping me develop my talents, I would take charge. Where they epitomized the “good enough” model of parenting, so common at the time, I would be extraordinary.

By the time I was ready to start having kids, the era of extraordinary parenting had already begun. Many in my admittedly privileged cohort had studied up on the attachment theories of William Sears and Penelope Leach, who held that parents, particularly mothers, should bond with their babies and toddlers through near-constant physical contact. We slept with our infants, nursed around the clock, and wore BabyBjörns everywhere we went. Our kids grew, and when we weren’t driving them to soccer games and Kindermusik, we were slipping love notes into their lunchboxes. At times, I felt caught up in a collective consciousness. 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.

“We’re in the midst of a giant social experiment,” child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd tells me when I visit him in his cozy Harvard office. Weissbourd is the author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, and I’ve come to him for advice on how to regain some sanity in my own parenting. “Historically, parents have been concerned with things like obedience, manners, and respect for authority. We’re the first parents in history who really want to be their kids’ friends. Some parents even talk about wanting to be their kids’ best friends.” Parents today, he says, are so focused on bonding with their children that it can undercut their authority and derail normal development. Treating kids as equals doesn’t allow them to idealize their parents and learn to adopt their values. Parents need to let their children separate in adolescence, of course, but that’s much harder if Mom and Dad have come to depend on them for close friendship.

I think of how I ask my kids how they feel more times in a day than my own parents asked me in a year. “What’s wrong?” I say at any look of discomfort on their faces. “How do you feel?” I calmly intone over their cries. Lately, my son, who’s now nine, has responded to my queries with “I’m not trying to be mean, but could you please leave me alone?” And the other day, when I tried to break up a fight between him and his nearly six-year-old sister, she said, “Don’t worry, Mama. We’re fine.” Even our toddler sometimes squirms from my embrace. Maybe I’m the one who’s not fine.

My friends experience a similar yearning for engagement. One mom told me that she once berated her daughter, a first grader, in the car on the way home from school for not telling her about her day — yelling, “I don’t see you all day and now you’re not going to talk to me!” And when I was out with a group of friends last summer, someone told the story of how her mother had spent the weekend with her and her two young daughters. At the end of the visit, her mother asked, “Do you always talk to them so much?”

We all laughed: “Of course we always talk to them so much! That’s what you’re supposed to do!”

But are you? And who decides? I posed the question to Weissbourd.

“The need for closeness can be more about you than about your kids,” he replies, and I suddenly find myself slinking down in my chair. The question we have to ask ourselves when it comes to interacting with our kids, he says, is “When is this about me, and when is it about you? And that’s a hard thing to do.”

Yes it is, and I need help.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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