Is overparenting becoming passé?

The NYT’s Lisa Belkin thinks it might be:

Perhaps you know it by its other names: helicoptering, smothering mothering, alpha parenting, child-centered parenting. Or maybe there’s a description you’ve coined on your own but kept to yourself: Overly enmeshed parenting? Get-them-into-Harvard-or-bust parenting? My-own-mother-never-breast-fed-me-so-I-am-never-going-to-let-my-kid-out-of-my-sight parenting?

There are, similarly, any number of theories as to why 21st-century mothers and fathers feel compelled to micromanage their offspring: these are enlightened parents, sacrificing their own needs to give their children every emotional, intellectual and material advantage; or floundering parents, trying their best to navigate a changing world; or narcissistic parents, who see their children as both the center of the universe and an extension of themselves.

But whatever you call it, and however it began, its days may be numbered. It seems as though the newest wave of mothers is saying no to prenatal Beethoven appreciation classes, homework tutors in kindergarten, or moving to a town near their child’s college campus so the darling can more easily have home-cooked meals. (O.K., O.K., many were already saying no, but now they’re doing so without the feeling that a good parent would say yes.) Over coffee and out in cyberspace they are gleefully labeling themselves “bad mommies,” pouring out their doubts, their dissatisfaction and their dysfunction, celebrating their own shortcomings in contrast to their older sisters’ cloying perfection.

‘Slacker parenting’ confessionals seem to be a fashionable theme these days; Salon has a similar piece discussing two new books on the subject by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Lewis, and the differences between how The Father and The Mother react to the expectations placed upon parents these days. Though, as the article points out, at least Waldman now has plenty of company in the blogosphere, most notably that of Lenore Skenazy, author of the book and blog Free Range Kids. And if you haven’t yet taken a gander at the blogs and books listed at Underground Moms – represented by the green-and-white badge at the lower left column of this blog – please do.

While I would like to think this backlash against overparenting spells its death knell, I’m afraid that once introduced, the beast will be very hard to overcome, especially in a society based upon keeping up with the Joneses in all other areas of life – the biggest house, the neatest tech gadgets…the most intense (i.e., “caring”) parents. I suspect that it’ll be with us, in its various forms, for a while yet. Especially since many of the articles railing against it talk more about “overscheduled” preschoolers and elementary schoolers, and neglect the overparenting done, often for the sake of “attachment” (as if Mommy has to put her life completely on hold in order to ensure this!), to babies and toddlers. And all too often, mothers find the overprotective habits hard to break.

Which, incidentally, was what amused me quite a bit when Katie Allison Granju, author of a rather insufferably preachy book about AP*, railed a while back over at Babble.com against overparenting. Apparently, obsessing over whether your child’s future is Ruined! Forever! if she is allowed to cry herself to sleep at 8 months, or worrying about her possibly lost forever IQ points because you ‘didn’t try hard enough’ to breastfeed, is healthy; teaching said child to eat with a spoon by herself? Over-parenting. It seems to me that there is more than one way to overparent, and overscheduling your child’s day with extracurricular activities is only one of those ways.

Not too surprisingly, now Katie is slightly backpedaling: turns out she’s a wee bit uncomfortable with the Cult of the Bad Mother, as she puts it:

I find myself asking whether we have we gone too far in de-stigmatizing parenting lapses. Because if everyone is a “Bad Parent,” then where is the line between reasonable and unreasonable maternal imperfection? Blog commenters forgive the mother who wittily posts about losing her temper and swatting her child in the grocery store. But does this mean we also forgive the mother who has no blog, but who loses it and swats her child really hard in the grocery store, leaving a nasty red mark? Because, after all, they are both simply being “bad parents.”

I think most of us can still say that we know it when we see it as regards truly abusive or neglectful parenting. Some of these folks even regularly show up trying to look like the “Good Mothers” over at mothering.com (yes, she was a member). But it would help an awful lot if society stopped listening to said “Good Mothers” when they attempt to attach the bad parent stigma to any behavior they don’t endorse, like formula feeding, CIO, stroller use and even (believe it or not) vaccinating your kids on schedule. Like the word “empowement”, “child abuse” is on its way to becoming devoid of meaning thanks to some self-styled uberparents.

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*To remind you, she was the one who called cribs “spacewasting babycages“…even while using them with her own kids.

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15 Responses

  1. I hope it is, but I still see a lot of it around the park. I’m actually kind of surprised to see them at parks. I mean parks are so dangerous *eye roll* and their bubble child could get hurt.

  2. Obviously, there are trends in parenting and accompanying backlashes, but I suspect the tanking economy will hasten the demise of overparenting simply because a lot of related practices are expensive.

  3. I was volunteering for the overnight graduation party at the high school. I was made painfully aware of overparenting by many of my fellow volunteers who are “Good Mothers.” So damn good that they spend all their time volunteering. One of the kids got sick (too much vodka will make you puke!) and we could not get a hold of her parents. One of the volunteers said “You would think these parents would be home while their children are out!” Funny that, some folks actually have a life besides being a parent.

    • That is too funny. I feel one of the most important things to know as a parent is to know when. When to say no, when to ignore, when to pay special attention, when to put your foot down, when to let it slide…….just when. And even though books can help, each situation, child, and parent is different, just study the “when”.

  4. I can’t find it, but there was an interesting essay at Babble.com about the “mother confessional.” Some moms get together and almost compete for “worst mother.” I feed my kid M&Ms. I don’t care what people say, my preschooler’s sleeping with me. I don’t care what people say, I let him cry himself to sleep. I don’t care what people say, my kids go to bed at 10 o’clock. At 7 o’clock. They drink juice — straight. I don’t brush her teeth yet … blah, blah, blah. And now, the latest: I don’t “hover” around the kids at the playground. Though I don’t recall that the article delved much into the psychology of it, it was interesting to mull over. In the high-stakes “game” of modern parenting, do more parents have a need to “unburden” themselves? Is it a way of releasing the tension? Some sort of passive-aggressive response to it all? No matter what you do, it’s wrong. Fine then! I’m a bad mommy! Or a fishing for approval. People aren’t really saying, “I’m a bad mom,” they’re asking, “Do you think I’m a bad mom for this?” (Or, “Don’t you dare criticize me for being a bad mom about this.”) It’s a way of commenting wearily/aggressively on the culture, the pressure.

    To some extent this backlash against “overparenting” seems to fall into that category for me. Less a backlash and more an unease? Not totally, but to some extent, it seems that way to me. Thoughts?

    • MW, Yes, absolutely, there is an element of “please tell me I’m normal” in the backlash. It’s a sad commentary on how you can’t say certain parenting-related things in our society directly for fear of censure. But I think some of it is a genuine thumbing of the nose at those contemporary mores.

  5. Yes and no. What there is, is a backlash against parents. We supposedly screwed up our kids by not doing enough now we’re supposedly screwing them up by doing too much. It’s still contesting who is fit to be a parent. It’s not about the kids at all.

    There are people who get it. Lenore Skenazy stands out in my opinion because for her, it really is about the kids not about blaming parents. Subtle difference, but an important one.

    I do think there are people who want things to change for all the right reasons but it’s going to take real struggle not just a change in style to make a difference.

  6. I hate the “bad mother confessional” genre. It’s this silly, oh-look-at-guilty-little-me tone. If you really didn’t care what people thought, and thought it was all OK, you wouldn’t do the little confessional thing. It reminds me of nothing so much as the perennial dieter who has to tell you about the piece of cake she ate.

    More importantly, it doesn’t redefine what it means to be a “good” parent. You’re still defining yourself in opposition to a standard you supposedly disagree with, rather than redefining the standard. There is an element of defiance in it, but the faux-guilt ruins it for me. If you really disagree with “overparenting”, don’t be confessional and apologetic.

    On top of that, I hate most NYT parenting/lifestyle articles on principle. 20 people on the West Side do not make a trend, except in the Times.

  7. I keep waiting for these “free range parenting” people to go after homeschooling. To me, that’s the ultimate in narcissistic “helicopter parenting.” There are some valid reasons to homeschool–like maybe you live at the top of a mountain and the nearest real school is 100 miles away–but everyone I know who homeschools does it because they think they can do a better job than a “real” teacher, and because they’re afraid their child won’t be nurtured properly in a room full of other kids.

    • I’m of two minds about homeschooling, really. Chances are most kids benefit from the one-on-one interaction with the parent (emotionally as well as academically), assuming the parent is a competent teacher. However, sometimes, that’s not a correct assumption. When I see women who can barely spell or express themselves coherently online claiming to homeschool their children…I wonder what kind of an education they’re getting. And yes, sometimes it does smack of overparenting.

      • What about teachers that send home notes with spelling mistakes? Or teachers that allow kids to cheat? Or schools that give credit for fund raising? Or teachers that teach subjects that they were not trained for? Or teachers that simply don’t care or worse – hate their jobs and/or kids?

        I homeschool my daughters. I cannot sing or make origami. I cannot play flute. I cannot swim freestyle. English is my second language. Yet, my daughters speak, read, and write fluent English. They both sing beautifully. One taught herself to make complicated origami ornaments that she sells at a great profit. She also plays flute very well. Both swim like fish. Just because a mother makes spelling mistakes or some of her posts end up being incoherent, it doesn’t mean that she is not an effective teacher to her children or that her children won’t learn despite her occasional ineffectiveness. Other mentors might be involved, too. You don’t know the whole picture.

        I see it the same way as parenting. Just because we all make some parenting mistakes, it doesn’t mean that our children won’t grow up to be, on the whole, decent or even excellent human beings.

    • I homeschool my kids. And I sometimes wonder if homeschooling equals overparenting. I know parents that homeschool and neglect (ignore) their kids, though. I also know parents that don’t homeschool and definitely practice “helicopter parenting.” Neither lifestyle is for everyone. It really should be about the kids.

      By the way, our main reason for homeschooling is to give the kids more time to be kids. We see no reason to rush things.

  8. You’re a smart one, LAB. Astute observation.

  9. I don’t know, couldn’t there be some sort of middle ground when it comes to things? Folks are a bit extreme when it comes to this parenting thing in either direction.
    Though I still do not believe in CIO because studies have shown it can be unhealthy if used in an extreme way and it definitely should not be used on newborns.

    • Of course there’s a middle ground. I’d even guess most people (including myself) inhabit it. But to read Dr. Sears, Mothering.com and other AP ‘resources’, you’d get an impression it’s all-or-nothing.

      And studies have not shown anything of the sort about CIO, at least in the manner usually recommended by sleep experts (I’m assuming you mean unmodified extinction when you say ‘extreme way’). And no expert is suggesting it be used on newborns, either. You might want to look at the ‘infant sleep’ category of this blog to read about the actual research regarding the CIO method.

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