Did Helicopter Parenting Bring Down Jonah Lehrer?

According to Judith Warner, the new must-read parenting book, Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well, is “a cri de couer from a clinician on the front lines of our battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences.”

Levine, a psychologist in Marin County, Calif., for the past 30 years, has treated the finest fruits of our helicopter-parenting labors: teens who are stressed out, depressed, angry, and depleted from an upbringing in which they’ve been constantly pushed to be and do more. Every day she treats adolescents who, in her words, resemble trauma victims, leading her to conclude that, “Our current version of success is a failure.”

To cope with the pressures of the academic and extracurricular arms race, some kids cheat, take drugs, and lie, while others simply keep up appearances while going dark inside. Reading the review, I couldn’t help but think of literary wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker writer whose spectacular downfall yesterday after it was learned that he made up quotes by Bob Dylan for his book Imagine, has shocked the publishing world. People are wondering how such a brilliant guy could be so stupid. But it wasn’t stupidity that got him in trouble. It was his desire the appear to be the best no matter the reality, or the cost, the very character trait our no-holds-barred parenting culture instills in our kids.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the Atlantic: “we live in a culture where … the pose of the argument is more important than the actual pursuit of the truth.” Our kids learn to be good talkers and pretenders, but where will that get them in the end?

Just this week, I found myself paralyzed by a small decision that suddenly felt big: Do I sign my six-year-old daughter up for a Wednesday afternoon swimming lesson with her friends, thus ensuring that three out her five weekday afternoons are booked with some structured afterschool activity — some world in which she is performing, yet again, for adults?

I know she needs to learn how to swim better, and there’s the constant drumbeat of “everyone else is doing it.” I want her to be included with these friends, and it would be one more box on my parental to-do list to check off. Knows how to swim? Done. But I also want her to have more afternoons than not in which she can stare at some clouds and poke around in the grass — you know, as in childhood? So last night I decided enough is enough. I opened up the email chain from all the moms angling for various swim teachers and times slots — and deleted it.


Katherine Ozment
Katherine Ozment Katherine Ozment, Contributor at Boston Magazine kozment@gmail.com