Monday, December 14, 2009

Paranoid Parenting

A couple weeks ago, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled "The Case Against Over-Parenting". (,8599,1940395,00.html) Most Friday afternoons when I pick up the mail, I quickly toss out the junk mail, (pretty much anything without a first class stamp), look futilely for anything personal, file away the bills and glance at the cover of Time. The cover story is usually some hot button political issue that rarely draws me in immediately. (I have become such a news junkie that I am often on overload by the time Friday afternoon comes around.) But this headline grabbed me. I dropped everything and immediately read the entire essay, which was excellent. It is a well-written expose of the current generation of "helicopter parents" who hover constantly around their children. Most of us are all too familiar with this phenomenon and probably guilty of it to some degree. The focus of the article, however, is on the emerging backlash against over parenting, a growing rebellion against the "almost comical over protectiveness and over investment of moms and dads". Time received more letters on that story than on any other story posted that week and the responses ran ten to one in favor of the article. It's about time!

Like most Americans of my generation, my six siblings and I grew up in a household with a very different parenting dynamic than that which our children are experiencing. Make no mistake about it, my parents defined with painstaking clarity the limits of acceptable behavior and there were swift and significant consequences for our errant ways. But we were given the opportunity to prove ourselves within fairly wide physical boundaries that we navigated independently. However, we clearly understood that our personal freedoms were a function of our personal responsibility. As most of our peers had even greater latitude, we thought our parents were hovering too much.

When Emily was a newborn and we were preparing to leave the hospital, I anxiously looked around for the supervisor who would assess our abilities as parents and authorize us to take her home. I was sure we could not just leave and take her without some kind of permission slip. But our only parting words came from a lovely German nurse named Helga who offered this profound advice: “Love the baby. You cannot spoil the baby with love.” As simple and obvious as it seems, we took it to heart. We made a lot of mistakes but we seemed to have enough wins to offset them. Of course, we also got caught up in the whirlwind of sports, school and social activities and our kids have far less control over their daily lives than we did as children. But we are ever mindful that ultimately our goal is to not raise children but to raise adults, to not only deliver them safely from their childhood but to release upon the world three amazingly talented, resourceful and responsible individuals.

Shortly after the Time article ran, Al and I were chatting with a young couple expecting their first child. They are everything you could hope for in future parents. They have a strong marriage and an obvious respect for one another. They are smart, personable, fun and responsible. They both come from in tact families of origin and have great childhood memories. They made a thoughtful decision to have a child and they are very excited about beginning this new chapter of their lives. They are also terrified. She has a stack of books on her bedside table, mostly gifts from well-intended friends and family, outlining everything she needs to learn about being a “good” parent. She felt the challenge seemed almost insurmountable. My only advice to her was to put the books away and use them as occasional reference rather than for daily consultation. Yes, there are those who need real instruction to be effective parents. But two loving people with common sense and good intentions should not be shamed into adopting a parenting style that is finally being called into question. Over parenting takes child rearing to a logical extreme and risks delivering into adulthood a generation that is ill prepared to fend for themselves.

In 1981, David Elkind published "The Hurried Child" in which he warned of the dangers of accelerating a child's academic learning in advance of the development of his cognitive abilities. Parents were undeterred. As more and more children started dazzling us with their seeming academic brilliance at younger and younger ages, the fear grew that our children would be left in the dust if we did not push them toward the same early successes. Perhaps in our effort to foster scholastic achievement and how it reflected on our own parenting prowess, we relaxed our expectations on the development of personal autonomy and responsibility. "You just focus on school, sweetheart, and we'll take care of everything else." We handpicked our children's friends and scheduled and supervised their play dates. We arbitrated their interpersonal conflicts and made sure every child had equal access to resources, often negating the need to negotiate, compromise and share. Our children never went anywhere without a responsible adult -- with the appropriate background paperwork in order -- and we armed them with cell phones with GPS so we could track their every move and always be in touch with them. No one stayed after school any more to play with friends and we closed rank against those reckless parents who allowed their children to walk home alone. Clearly, the best parents were the most protective parents who sacrificed everything for their kids. The peer pressure among parents can be intense, leading to a gradual cultural shift from raising responsible adults to forever managing children.

So, join the rebellion and stand up to the forces that dictate that we supervise and manage every waking moment of our children’s lives. We have to learn to distinguish between when they really need us versus when we are obstructing their development. Our kids can learn perhaps even more on their own than they can with us hovering over them.

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