The high cost of invasive parenting advice

A striking new book argues that ‘invasive parenting’, ‘hyper parenting’ and even ‘death-grip parenting’ are turning out a nation of wimps: young adults who can’t cope without having mommy on call. Is it true – and how did it happen?

Nancy McDermott

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I recently had the somewhat surreal experience of watching a mother try to ‘steal’ my son’s toy bulldozer when he wouldn’t share it with her son who was playing in another part of the sandbox. Perhaps not surprisingly, my three-year-old went berserk within milliseconds of the theft. The other boy’s mum looked around frantically for The Parent while I watched from a nearby bench where I was reading my book.

‘Are all of these his?’, the mother asked when I finally acknowledged my son.

‘Yes.’

‘And he’s not going to share?’

‘No.’

There followed an awkward pause and an uncomprehending stare, so I added: ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to micromanage the sandbox.’ More incomprehension, and then indignity. ‘He’s not going to share!’ the woman announced to anyone in earshot and then went to supervise her son’s trench digging.

In another time and another place, sandbox disputes would have been all but invisible to adults, and certainly not a source of tension between them. The child who wanted the sand toy would have found some other way to amuse himself, and the child who wouldn’t share would have got his comeuppance at the hands of a larger child or learned in time that making friends requires a willingness to share stuff.

Welcome to the age of intensive parenting, where adults do not so much put away childish things as take charge of them, and, indeed, where children never have ‘childish things’ to begin with, at least not without supervision. Whether you call it ‘intensive parenting’, ‘invasive parenting’, ‘hyper-parenting’, ‘helicopter parenting’ or even ‘death-grip parenting’, there is a growing recognition that it is not a good thing.

Parents experience it as being perpetually ill at ease about any decision they make concerning their children’s lives – from schooling and food to sleep and discipline. The consequences of their choices hang heavy over them, even affecting the very words they use. ‘Good job’ for ‘good girl’, or the tortured ‘I’m really curious about the spit wad incident. I’m wondering how you feel about it?’ (1)

The excesses of modern parenting are even more obvious to parents with grown children or to those familiar with child psychology. Hara Estroff Marano, a psychologist and author of books and advice columns about the social development of children, falls into both categories. Her new book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, attempts to get to grips with the phenomenon of excessive parental involvement and its consequences for a new generation.

The book, which grew out of a 2004 article in Psychology Today, is a mix of professional insight and exasperation. Marano makes some useful points about the impact of intense parental involvement on child development, the value of play, trial and error, and education versus ‘schooling’. But the main thing that comes across is her frustration with parents.

The book is chock full of horror stories about what parents are doing to their kids. There are sorry tales of children pushed so hard in sports that they display stress injuries usually seen in professional athletes; parents who pressure schools into allowing their children to take untimed exams because of supposed disabilities like ‘difficulty with Gestalt thinking’; students who phone mom and dad four or five times a day from college; graduates whose parents attend job interviews with them; and so on. It seems there are no depths these crazy parents will not plumb to obtain the very best for their precious offspring, no matter what the cost might be to anyone else.

The result, we’re told, is a generation of feeble, neurotic, risk-averse adults with no grit. In fact, for Marano, ‘death-grip’ parenting borders on abuse. The book is peppered with section titles such as ‘Child Abuse By Any Other Name’, ‘My Child, Myself’, ‘Bringing Out the Worst’, ‘Hand-Me-Down Dread’, ‘A Competition of Needs’, ‘The Ties that Bind… and Bind… and Bind’. You get the picture; parents are bad news. But why?

Marano offers a laundry list of explanations, including: parents’ economic insecurity, fear of new technology (which might lead to economic insecurity), globalisation (leading to economic insecurity), affluence (leading to fear of economic insecurity), the 1980s’ ‘unabashed emphasis on making money and material success’ (that is, the quest for economic security, aka greed), women’s newfound career and management skills applied to the home, and even (perhaps she includes this one half-jokingly) the assimilation of the archetype of the Jewish mother into mainstream American culture.

None of these theories is particularly convincing on its own. For instance Marano doesn’t explain why earlier periods of economic insecurity or technological innovation did not precipitate intense parental involvement, nor can she say why women’s entry into the workforce should necessarily lead them to be more focused on their children’s achievements rather than on their own. The result is that Marano’s book is not so much an explanation of the phenomenon of intensive parenting as a long exposition of what parents are doing wrong.

It seems that the understanding of psychology that serves Marano well when it comes to explaining the positive side of risk for children’s development ultimately blinds her to making sense of modern parenting culture. She is so focused on parental behaviour that she misses the social context in which it takes place. It isn’t individuals’ fear that drives intensive parenting, but the shared belief, across all of society today, that people are defined by their vulnerability, and children more so than anyone else.

When every social experience children and young people have, from play dates to higher education, is structured around the assumption that they are ‘at risk’, it is not at all surprising that they react with distress when the going gets tough. Parents’ behaviour isn’t a cause of, but a reaction to these contemporary problems. For all her praise of play-based learning and risk taking, Marano, too, shares the broader assumption about risk and vulnerability – except that, for her, children are ‘at risk’ from their parents’ own good intentions.

The paradox of A Nation of Wimps is that its focus on parents’ behaviour as problematic is likely, if anything, to make the situation described by Marano even worse. Marano paints a bleak picture of what the world is like for children who aren’t allowed the freedom to develop into autonomous beings. Intense parental involvement diminishes childhood, but it diminishes adulthood, too.

While it is tempting to try to set parents straight – and Marano tries to do just that at the end of her book – it is important to understand that today’s climate of intensive parenting is a direct result of the politicisation of childrearing. That is to say, there is so much emphasis on the importance of parenting and so much advice on how to do it well (most of it contradictory) that parents can’t help but be minutely aware of every action they take in relation to their children’s upbringing. It is the avalanche of advice and public scrutiny of parenting today that drives parents to do the things they do.

Meanwhile, back in the playgrounds of America, parents watch parents watching their children. I watched the mother I encountered at the sandbox following her son around the play equipment and leading him down the slide, until she finally pleaded: ‘Please, honey, we need to get going. Mommy needs to leave.’ (He refused.) Seeing this made me crazy – not just because it was hard to watch, but because in another situation it might have been me. Finding the confidence to let children be children – which is really the confidence to be an adult – is a constant struggle today, even if you do share Marano’s concerns about over-parenting, as I believe most parents do. But the solution cannot lie entirely with individuals. To be fair to Marano, she does understand that this issue needs to be addressed systemically, but without a better analysis of the origins of the problem her reasoning leads tautologically back to parental behaviour itself.

Of course, what we do as individuals can make a difference, but only if we refuse to take problems at face value, or in the terms in which they are discussed. Not every parent will get out of the sandbox, but some of us can step away from the sandbox, and we can support parents who want to do the same. We can say ‘no’ to things like homework for our children that requires parental participation and encourage teachers and other parents who agree with us to do the same. Perhaps most importantly, we should stop evaluating other parents’ decisions and just support their right to make them.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, by Hara Estroff Marano is published by Broadway Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See Positive Discipline

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