'Tis the Season to Overparent

Theories abound about why our generation of parents has become a generation of control freaks. Here are two interesting takes from interviews I did while researching this month’s feature story, “Welcome to the Age of Overparenting.”

According to Susan Linn, director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:

“There’s concern among people who work with children that there’s this combination of infantilization and adultification going on.” One minute, children aren’t allowed to play outside on their own or walk around the block, and the next, they’re catapulted into premature adolescence, “in terms of what they’re exposed to in the media and how they dress and the language and behaviors they pick up.”

According to Linn and others, it makes sense that today’s parents often take to hovering. Linn says that one big factor contributing to this early “adultification” of children is their taking in so much media — 32 hours a week of screen time, according to Nielson, making media-consumption by kids a veritable full-time job. Parents know that sex- and violence-infused images lurk around every corner on those screens, and therefore kick up the hyper-vigilance to try to keep the worst of it at bay.

I admit that when a TV or computer is on in our house, I’m on high alert — and, often, for good reason. Case in point: While writing this post, I left my five-year-old daughter, who’s now home from school on winter break, in front of an episode of Nickelodeon’s “Bubble Guppies.” The show was on Comcast’s On Demand library of archived shows, so we selected it and pressed “play.”

A few minutes ago, when I returned to the TV room, the show had ended, and in its place was a music video featuring several bikini-clad women shaking their stuff directly into the camera. Mesmerized, my daughter hopped up from the couch and asked, “Why are those women going like this?” and started mimicking their grinding stripper-moves. (Thanks, Comcast!)

But does it have to be this way? Couldn’t Comcast splice in a child-friendly place-holder for the benefit of those parents who can’t get back to the TV before the kid show ends? How hard would that be?

According to Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a Lesley College professor of education and author of Talking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids, parents hover because they feel alone.

“When I interview people, many parents say they feel like they’re pushing against the culture—that there are all these messages coming into their kids that they don’t want their kids to see. Polls show, for example, that parents don’t like violence in the media and they don’t like marketing to kids. So I think some of these trends that we see in society feel anti-family to parents. And part of helicoptering comes from not feeling all that safe and wanting to keep an eye on your kids.”

Which is an empathetic way of explaining why so many of us have starting acting like grown-up versions of that annoying — and ubiquitous — Elf on the Shelf. It does take a village to raise a child, and preferably not one that teaches stripper moves to our daughters over breakfast.