Overparenting: It’s not a new topic for me, but it certainly is a favorite one! I think that’s because I was guilty of it in its earliest and more benign form more than three decades ago – long before the term was coined or equipment such as baby kneepads or “Hi Mom” webcams were invented.
It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of viewing parenting as a type of product development, a 21st century phenomena that sort of crept up on us because of our best intentions! In part, that’s because 30 years ago, it was the job of parents to expose their children to the outside world, and today it is their job to protect them from it, explains anthropologist Mary Pipher.
“Fear is a kind of parenting fungus: invisible, insidious, perfectly designed to decompose your peace of mind,” muses Nancy Gibbs, a Time Magazine columnist. And that fear is doubled-edged: we’re talking fear of failure as well as of physical danger.
The culprits, I believe, from anecdotal evidence, are also two-sided: post 9/11 angst in conjunction with technologies, such as cell phones and texting, that are conducive to a parent-child tether. I didn’t have to contend with either of these, which is why I think my overparenting tendencies fell short of the coveted obsessive category. Frankly, unless I was willing to be housebound Monday through Friday, I couldn’t know if my child had gotten sick or injured at school. I know it sounds incredible – like in the olden days before there was air – but there were no cell phones! The liberating thing about that so-called limitation was that my children learned to navigate on their own; they had to rely upon their own choices and suffer the consequences of any poor ones. I couldn’t smother them if I wanted to. Today, with the best of intentions, parents are dodging the snowballs of life for their kids, rendering those children risk-averse and incapable of fending for themselves.
I’ve discussed this phenomenon before – snowplow parents says Hana Estroff Marano in “A Nation of Wimps” – who figuratively drive their snow removal SUVs down the road to clear the path of any snowbanks or other obstacles. The problem, of course, is that their children don’t have the opportunities to build resilience, because there is no adversity for them to overcome!
And there’s another issue: unintentional abdication of responsibility on the part of the parents, who in their zeal to plot a course through their child’s world, hire so-called experts to make decisions on their behalf! Enter the Pre-Baby Planner, for example, who decides how the nursery should be arranged, what should be in it, and how the prospective parents should mentally and emotionally prepare for this arrival. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Parenting Movement, opines, “…It’s good to remember that humans have been raising mini-humans for hundreds of thousands of years, and until now we managed to do it without hiring someone to pick out the perfect rocking chair.”
So is it any wonder that when these children go off to college they are labeled “teacups” and “crispies” because of their fragility?! The term “helicopter parent,” so designated because of the hovering penchant of parents, has rendered metaphorical stalled engines in their offspring. If you need evidence, consider the new generation of “stealth fighter parents,” who no longer float overhead constantly but “can be counted on for a surgical strike just when the high school musical is being cast or the starting lineup chosen,” observes Gibbs.
Interestingly, as a direct result of the 2009 economic downturn, families have had to make forced choice decisions about extra-curricular activities, and they have found unexpected positive outcomes of their children picking up “leisure” time for play.
(By the way, summer camp is definitely not one of those “discretionary” choices! It is a vital component of a child’s total educational package, proffering life skills that cannot be gleaned elsewhere. You could even say it’s an antidote to overparenting, because children are learning to find the way on their own in a community created for them to practice growing up.)
Mea culpa. As a mom of the ’70s who also raised her children to give them every “emotional, intellectual, and material advantage”(Motherlode’s Lisa Belkin), I get it, though I stopped short of kindergarten tutoring or calling the high school guidance counselor to protests grades. But now, as a camp professional who works with children and families and who has a different perspective on the end result of these best intentions, I advocate for “letting go.” As psychiatrist Gail Saltz observes, that is not the same as “letting down.”
Become a fan of Slow Parenting, the antithesis of overparenting. Let them learn by doing, by making mistakes, by bouncing back, by making choices for which they are accountable. Trust that you have salted the road by instilling values that will inform healthy choices.
Hey, you might even purchase a baby T-shirt at Honestbaby.com that says, “I’ll walk when I’m good and ready.”