Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic
Overparenting: Are We Raising Entitled, Dependent, Neurotic Kids? Or Are We Just Attentive?
My name is Stefanie and I’m an overparent. Admitting it is the first step, right? Up until recently I was smugly standing in judgment of other overparents—you know, the ones who are crazily overprotective, handicapping their kids’ development by doing everything for them for fear of their ever having a skinned knee or a hurt feeling, leaving them sheltered and neurotic and living in their parents’ guesthouse at thirty? Yeah, those parents. I wasn’t like them at all.
Then one day, my almost-ten-year-old asked me for a bagel, and like Pavlov’s dog I jumped up from my desk, ran to the toaster oven, popped a bagel in, and then sat back down to work. When the toaster dinged, she came to get me. “Mom. My bagel’s done.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, jumping back up to finish the bagel-making process despite being right in the middle of something. But suddenly, a genius plan formulated in my brain—a plan that would enable me to not have to get up—a plan that I could hardly believe I hadn’t thought of sooner. I decided to put that plan right into action. “Honey, why don’t you just go ahead and put the cream cheese on it yourself?” I suggested. And then I waited.
“Okay,” she said. Sweet Jesus, I’m so golden! I thought. This is the start of a new era! Think of all the work I can get done while my child is off doing stuff for herself! Of course she should be doing her own bagel prep. It’s about time! I mentally patted myself on the back for teaching my child independence and helping bring out her inner resourcefulness. This would be a real turning point! Future bagel-making opportunities would be endless. I mean, hell, we’re Jews.
Four minutes later my kid came back to me.
“Mom, I put the bagel on the plate but I’m not that good at spreading cream cheese. Can you please do it?” It was at that moment that I realized things were way worse than I thought. My kid was completely helpless, and it was my own fault. My daughter wasn’t lazy; it’s just that by always spreading her cream cheese—either to be helpful or out of my own form of laziness (it was just easier to do it myself), I’d robbed her of confidence in her cream-cheese-spreading abilities.
When I was a kid I could spread cream cheese on a bagel like a motherfucker. Not only that, but by the time I was six I was buttering up bread and popping it into the toaster all on my own, letting the sparks fly where they might and then pulling it out with a fork. I didn’t even know that having someone else do it for me was an option—mainly because it wasn’t. If I wanted bread I had to climb up on the counter, using drawer handles as toeholds, and pull it down myself. My kids wouldn’t dream of doing something as strenuous as climbing up on the countertop. We have step stools. In fact, there is so little physical exertion going on in my house it’s like I’m raising veal.
It was a little shocking when I realized that I am part of the overparenting problem, but I can see why I was in denial. It was too easy to compare myself to parents around me and feel like I’m way ahead of the game!
I’m definitely not as bad as one mom I know who texted me while I was driving her eight-year-old daughter to an activity with my daughter. The message said: “If you stop for a snack, please make sure Penelope washes her hands first!” Really? It felt wrong on so many levels. I mean, first of all, I don’t believe that kids should be washing their hands all the time. How are their bodies going to learn to fight off germs on their own if we’re crippling their immune systems by doing all the heavy lifting? Stop rinsing off all the bacteria and let the immune system do its job! But second, if you’re going to let your kid go off with someone else, you’ve got to let them go and assume it won’t be a smoking, drinking, no-booster-seat-using free-for-all. I mean, you’re leaving them with another parent, not Lindsay Lohan.
That wasn’t an isolated incident either. I’ve run into lots of situations that made me feel “not that bad” in comparison. We’ve all seen the parents who roll their kids around in a stroller until they’re practically tweens. I don’t get that. You ever see a giant kid in a stroller who can brake Fred Flintstone–style because their feet are dragging on the ground? What’s their plan? Are they going to keep the kid in there until they can transfer them to a Rascal scooter when they’re seventy? And these are the same parents who chase their kids around with snacks every fourteen seconds even though the kids aren’t hungry—I guess it’s tough to work up an appetite when you’re pushed around in a stroller all day. Then there are the parents who can’t part with the sippy cup. I once attempted to serve a seven-year-old some lemonade in a glass and the mom reacted like I’d just handed her kid a hunting rifle before she’d had the requisite safety training. “Oooh, I don’t think she’s ready to drink out of a glass yet.”
So yeah, although I wasn’t as bad as some, after Bagel-gate I knew I needed to make some changes. If you, like me, are attempting to give your kids a little more freedom and expecting a higher level of functioning, be warned: not everyone will be on board.
One of the roadblocks you might meet if you’re on this trek is the Parenting Police. These are the people who are “only trying to be helpful” by pointing out when you are being a neglectful parent. At best, these types of people can shame you into keeping a better eye on your kids or happily point out a possible consequence for your reckless behavior; at worst, they can call the cops on your ass.
One of my first acts of Operation Independence was allowing my kids to wander around a big room at the Museum of Natural History. There was one entrance to the large space and I positioned myself near it, but I let all three kids wander from animal to animal reading about each one’s natural habitat and its predators all by themselves! Educational on so many levels! It wasn’t super daring since I could eyeball all three of them the entire time, but I still felt confident it was a step in the right direction. Apparently some other people didn’t agree. Less than five minutes in, an alarmed-looking mother approached me with a baby strapped to her chest, a toddler on a cute little fuzzy monkey leash, and her free hand on the shoulder of one of my twins. “Is this your daughter?” she asked, in a way that would imply she’d just managed to botch a kidnapping attempt.
“Um, yes,” I said.
“She was just wandering around and she started talking to me! I asked her where her mom was and she said she didn’t know! So we walked around until she saw you!” I didn’t quite know what to say to that, so I just thanked her a little too profusely. And then she added, “You can’t be too careful.” Of course I immediately felt like a bad mommy.
But then I thought, Isn’t it enough that I took my kids to the museum? Can’t I count that as a parenting win for the day? Plus, she was in one contained space. It’s not like I let her loose at the dog track and told her to meet me back at the door at six.
Even though I felt defensive, at least that mom was just trying to be helpful. I was kind of lucky. These days there are actual cases where well-meaning parents have been reported and even arrested for things like allowing their kids to spend a few hours at a park alone or play outside on a scooter. In one case, a mom got arrested for simply letting her seven-year-old walk to a park that was a few blocks away by himself, mainly because the neighbors complained that known child molesters lived in the neighborhood. Although this happened in Florida, so . . . yeah. But when you read stuff like that it makes you realize what a giant cultural hurdle we have to jump in order to allow our kids to develop some autonomy, experience failure, and make mistakes.
Unfortunately, it’s not just other parents who want to squelch our impulse to give the kids more freedom. My kids don’t seem all that psyched by my change in attitude either. The other day I suggested my nine-year-old walk about five blocks through my quiet neighborhood to get to the house of a friend. She wouldn’t have to cross any busy streets, and I could practically see her the whole way. She looked at me like I had suggested she juggle knives. “You want me to just walk alone?”
“Yes. I do!” I said. “I think I’m ready.”
Of course, being ready doesn’t mean I don’t struggle. Once at a big crowded Los Angeles park, I left one of my twins playing on a seesaw while I took the other twin a few yards off to the bathroom. I tried to get the first one to come with us but she was happily playing, so I looked around, saw a ton of other kids and parents, and decided she’d be fine hanging out for five minutes. A few minutes later I walked back and scanned the sand for her red Angry Birds T-shirt, but I couldn’t spot her in the sea of kids. I thought about how I told her I’d be right back and then started to fully panic and wondered if someone could’ve overheard me tell her to stay put and thought that would be a great opportunity to steal her. I suddenly remembered that John Walsh’s son was only five when he was taken from a department store thirty years ago. It was at that moment that I really missed Xanax. Then, of course, I spotted her happy as a clam playing right where I’d left her and I realized, quite clearly, that I really really need to cut down on my Dateline intake.
It’s hard not to be paranoid in our age of information and the Internet. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s actually on the saner side about this and she agreed, saying, “Every time I get the guts to let my kids do something a bit more daring like, oh, swim at the pool without me being in with them, I come across some crazy story on Facebook about dry drowning—this phenomenon where kids breathe in water and then die of drowning later in the day seemingly with no symptoms!” Um, yeah! Read it! Googled it! Freaked out over it! Another friend said, “I have to take twenty minutes deciding if I should put toxic sunscreen on my kids or let them be exposed to dangerous sun rays because Huffington Post linked to two different articles about each subject this week.” I’d read that too and became so paralyzed I almost didn’t send my kids to camp that day. Almost. I’m neurotic, not insane.
All of this attention to overparenting has given birth to an equally annoying phenomenon: the people who go the complete other way with it—the ones who glorify parenting in the seventies as the best time ever! It seems like every day I see some blog post or another about how much better the seventies were because we all just ran around unsupervised and used our imaginations! We didn’t have electronics! None! We made up games! We played kick the can! Our parents just told us to go play and not to come back until the streetlights were on! I’m sorry, but this sentiment is starting to get played out. I lived through that time and it wasn’t all that fucking groovy. It was the underparenting of the seventies that has led to a lot of the overparenting a generation later!
I was a latchkey kid who walked home every day with a key around my neck on a piece of yarn. I had to let myself into an empty duplex after school, make a snack, and do my homework. It was lonely. Trust me, my mood ring was black all the time. And sure, we went out to play in vacant lots and random people’s backyards with just the reminder “Don’t forget your poncho, and stay away from panel vans!” But it wasn’t safe! Shit sometimes went sideways and the adults in our lives were too busy watching All My Children and trying to heal their inner child to help us out. Growing up in the seventies is why Paxil is so popular now!
Some people are taking this whole concept really far. There’s an adventure playground in Wales where they are trying to re-create the vacant-lot feel of playgrounds from decades ago. They supply the kids with old broken-down chairs, and a fire pit with cardboard and wood so kids can actually light stuff on fire. There’s a creek and tire swing to get across it so kids can play just like they did in the good old 1970s. Apparently there are a few playground workers but parents are not welcome.
I’m not saying this is a horrible idea, but it’s not exactly real life. If they really want to make it authentic, they should add a few bullies to terrorize the younger kids, helping to create lifelong generalized anxiety disorders, and a few “weird older brothers” to hang around providing what will only be described as “inappropriate touching” years later in therapy. I’m sorry, but shit like this makes me appreciate kids’ staying in and playing Minecraft.
I guess the bottom line is I realize that I’m a little overprotective of my kids. I own it, and yet I’m trying to work on it. I know that kids are going to get lost. They will get scared. They will get sad and angry and fail. They’re supposed to. It’s our job to get out of their way and let them live a little. That’s how kids develop grit, which is the most accurate predictor for who will do well in life. So I’m working on stepping aside. When my kids fight, I try to let them work it out on their own (unless I see blood). I refuse to schedule every moment of their day, which forces them to go outside and find stuff to do (provided I can still see them), and if they want a snack I tell them to just go get one! But every once in a while I still spread some cream cheese on my daughter’s bagel. I’m only human. And plus, like I said, I’m motherfucking good at it!