Parents Are Bit Players in a Larger Drama

When a majority in a society notice an increase in tension, uncertainty, or malaise, they search for a reason. Americans are especially prone to implicating the improper behaviors of parents as the culprits. The term “overparenting” implies that parents are doing something wrong. These presumably incorrect practices are by and large limited to educated parents and are found less often among those who are marginalized or living in poverty. If most Americans felt that the country was headed in the right direction, they would not be concerned with the parents who are pressuring their children for high grades, preening their sense of confidence, permitting violations of family norms, and treating them as if they were princesses or princes.

Parental behaviors are usually reactions to conditions in the society that they did not create. Most Americans believe that there is too much selfishness and too little cooperation, too many betrayals and insufficient loyalty, and no clear ethical standard that a majority feel must be honored under all circumstances. Conscientious parents try to guess the traits and values that will maximize the happiness of their child when he or she enters the adult years. If the average parent decides that self-interest will increase the odds of a better adjustment, they naturally promote it in the child.

Parents do influence children, but they are bit players in a larger drama acting out a script history’s muse. The family makes a contribution to the narrative by supporting self-aggrandizement in their children. But they do so because they believe that a hypertrophied concept of self will be required when their children confront the competitive, individualistic ambiance of the society. The parent’s practices are well intentioned, but have the undesirable consequence of tempting children to assume that their welfare and interests assume precedence over the interests of others and their community. This state of mind makes betrayal of a friend or lover easier than it was a century earlier.

College educated parents also encourage a broadly tolerant attitude toward all value systems because they believe it will be adaptive in a diverse society and because they sense it is morally right. However, a flat ethical landscape leaves youth reluctant to commit, with passion, to any moral position. This state makes it more difficult to choose a career requiring sustained hard work that will, in the end, permit the adult to whisper “Well done” and to feel they accomplished something worthy.

The more potent parental contribution to children’s beliefs lies with the personal behaviors the child sees every day, rather than the parent’s protectiveness, permissiveness, and excessive praise. All youths rely on each parent’s persona to construct their values. Because many parents appear to be uncertain about their ethical position and fail to honor in action the values they promote, youths are deprived of a model representing an ideal to attain. If any blame for the current mood of dissatisfaction belongs to parents it lies, I believe, with actions and values that have little to do with overparenting.

The members of a community can be likened to passengers on a ship being tossed about by forces they cannot control and do not fully understand. Each passenger can only contribute to the righting of the ship if the other passengers cooperate. Unless politicians, media, schools, and commercial institutions join with families in promoting a more civil and harmonious society, a parental decision to “under-parent” will have a small effect on the next generation.

Jerome Kagan is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has studied many aspects of human development for 57 years with an emphasis on temperaments since 1979. He is member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received distinguished scientist awards from the American Psychological Association, the Society for Research in Child Development, and the Child-Mind Institute.