We are living in a strange time for parenting. It seems every month another book comes out about over-parenting and its consequences. In short, over-parenting involves micro-managing your child’s life, hovering, and attempting to prevent your child from any physical or emotional discomfort. It has been made more complicated by the phenomenon known as “mom shaming,” where choices a parent makes for his or her child are openly judged by so-called friends, acquaintances and others, both in private groups and over the Internet. Their opinions are often unsolicited, and make you feel guilty or ashamed for choices you make as a parent.
In her book How to Raise an Adult, author Julie Lythcott-Haims cites the convergence of four key factors, each of which arose in the 1980s, that has led to over-parenting:
- Stranger danger–Fear of childhood abductions rose with increasing awareness of the possibility of such abductions. A made-for-television movie, Adam, about a horrendous childhood abduction, was watched by millions. Milk cartons featured the faces of missing children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was created.
- Academic achievement anxiety–Around the same time, Baby Boomers became concerned that American children were not doing as well in school as children in other countries. This resulted in more homework, more after-school academic programs, more emphasis on achievement on standardized tests, and a premium on getting excellent grades.
- The self-esteem movement–More and more, Boomer parents focused on the self-esteem of their children. They encouraged every tiny act and praised every minor achievement. “Participation certificates” and trophies boomed, and everyone became a winner.
- Play-dates–Play was no longer a casual, unsupervised, spontaneous event. Rather, play was scheduled as dates, and children’s play behavior was observed, directed, and controlled. Parents began “social engineering” their children’s lives.
These four factors, together, have created a parenting style that in an effort to do what is best for their children inadvertently results in taking independence away from growing children and stunts their emotional and social growth. This leaves many older children and young adults too dependent on their parents, unable to make decisions, and often fraught with anxiety and depression. Elementary schools, colleges, and even workplaces have seen its sad effects, and it has only gotten worse over time.
Over-parenting is the real and present risk to our children, more than the strangers lurking in the dark. The world is generally safer today than when we grew up, and your child is not likely to ever be abducted by a stranger. (Check the stats for yourself – it’s hysteric fear).
At school, your children will learn and succeed at their own rates. Unrealistic academic expectations cause anxiety and get in the way of learning.
As for self-confidence, the self-esteem craze has produced a generation of people unsure of themselves, averse to failure, and afraid to take risks – all of which also gets in the way of life success; and when children are not permitted to play freely and work out conflict among themselves, they are deprived of the opportunity to develop social skills, problem-solve for themselves, and learn how to compromise. Children need to learn how to become resilient, as it is a necessary skill to get through life’s inevitable challenges.
When we swoop in to save our children from every misstep, hurt, disappointment, failure, or loss – what we are really communicating is that we don’t trust them to be able to cope; we lack confidence in their ability to get up again; and we instill fear that any hurt or disappointment must be really awful. Many times, parents don’t even allow their children to have age-appropriate social conflicts. They blame the other child for being mean, and avoid the opportunity to teach their own child a valuable lesson.
The college admission scandal that broke two weeks ago should be a wakeup call for all of us. Besides being illegal, the messages communicated were horrific. They include that it is okay to break the law to get ahead. I don’t trust your ability to get into college or to be successful anywhere else. You cannot take care of yourself. You are not good enough unless I assist. And again, imagine the anxiety around school. Now, many of you believe you would never do something like that. Maybe not to that extent. But how many of you know parents who had their child diagnosed with a learning struggle to get extra time on exams? You would think every child from an affluent family had a disability. And what really gets to me, much of this pushing, manipulating, and unnecessary pressure on children is, for the most part, for nothing.
The data is clear for those who want to see it – there is little to no long-term advantage to going to an elite college. And, further, in the years ahead, for many of our children, college will be less necessary as new and innovative credentialing programs will develop, even at the colleges themselves for the future jobs our children will have.
Finally, with all due respect to some parents, much of this craziness begins at the time parents hire tutors for their children in elementary and middle grades because the parents decide the child is either behind or the parents are already looking for an advantage. Most parents are not actually trained to even know what is developmentally appropriate. Just as a parent wouldn’t expect a two-year old to learn how to ride a bike of hire a coach to teach him, why should we push our children to do tasks that they are not ready for yet? There is, of course, value to tutors when there is an identified gap, and the professionals believe tutoring would be beneficial. However, some parents are reluctant to patiently mind the natural range that exists when children are developing skills.
The end result of over-parenting is that we raise anxious, risk-averse children who turn into co-dependent adults. We rob them of their childhood, their true, authentic self-worth, and their ability to flourish as they should when they reach adulthood. While there are many causes for the spike in childhood and adolescent anxiety and depression, this ranks very high among them.
Sadly, we see too much of this kind of parenting at Hillel. If you place little faith in your children, they will have no faith in themselves. Place age-appropriate trust in your children! They are capable. They will grow up healthier if they are allowed space to play, explore, make mistakes, problem-solve, struggle, fail, and then get up stronger than before, in order to grow. Provide them guidance and support and then love them enough to trust them!