Why Is It So Hard for Us to Stop Overparenting?

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK

We live in an age of "too much." Whereas for most of human civilization, people have had to scrabble just to exist, in the past 100 years or so the pendulum has swung-at least for those privileged few of us who live in first world countries. Now we have too much food, too much entertainment, too much free time, and too many possessions. (Of course we also have too much pollution, too much debt, and too much chronic illness, but that's a discussion for another day.) But can you have too much good parenting? Psychologist Lori Gottlieb writing in
The Atlantic says yes, and it's a problem of epidemic proportions.

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Of course too little parenting is a problem-we call that neglect and will land you in court or get you your own reality show-and we know that too much parenting in the form of overbearing, controlling or "helicoptering" is bad too, but Gottlieb is talking about the parents in the middle, the ones who do pretty much everything right. Just the fact they are so competent makes their children less so because, well, they haven't had to overcome challenges. A few years ago she began seeing a large number of her clients that suffered from a strange emptiness, ennui or "unhappiness" despite having absolutely everything that we are told will make us happy. After speaking with these (generally) young adults characterized by their common inability to make decisions, hold a steady job and maintain close interpersonal relationships, Gottlieb asks, "Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we're depriving them of happiness as adults?"

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No one wants to see their child hurt or bullied or fail, and yet these are precisely the types of events that teach kids how to be resilient. Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist interviewed by Gottlieb, explains that we need to stop sheltering our kids from hardship. "Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is 'I can fix this.'" I know the instinct he's talking about quite well. At the end of the school year, I offered to drive two of my kids rather than having them ride the bus after a fight with some older kids. To my surprise, my boys told me no, that they wanted to stay on the bus. I was kind of relieved as I wasn't sure how I would juggle our schedules anyhow to fit in a daily pick up and drop off.

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Quite honestly, in our family, I have too many kids to protect them from every slight and catch them after every fall. I had five kids in eight years, one of whom died as an infant-a fact much discussed both with and amongst our remaining kids-and sheer logistics require that I just let some of this stuff go. It's a weird place to be. I'm so proud of my kids for how independent they are (problem solvers every last one!) and yet also a little sad that their lives require them to be so self-reliant, often beyond what most of their peers do. For instance, my 8-year-old does his own laundry because he got tired of waiting for me to wade through the piles and get to his stuff. I love that he can do this-I know college students who haven't mastered this skill yet-but it also makes me feel guilty that he had to figure it out because of my inability to keep up with the housework.

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As parents we're always trying to find the best balance for our kids. I don't know a single mom or dad who wants anything but happiness for their children-but maybe we need to rein in that impulse and let them suffer a few more of the slings and arrows in life if we truly want them to be happy. Of course, this is easier said than done, even Gottlieb herself admits she hasn't quite found that sweet spot yet with her son.

How do you strike a good balance between catching your child when they fall and letting them pick themselves up?

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a mom of five and the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and the blog of the same name.


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