The rise of overparenting.
Weâ€™ve all been thereâ€”that is, in the living room of friends who invited us to dinner without mentioning that this would include a full-evening performance by their four-year-old. He sings, he dances, he eats all the hors dâ€™oeuvres. When you try to speak to his parents, he interrupts. Why should they talk to you, about things heâ€™s not interested in, when you could all be discussing how his hamster died? His parents seem to agree; they ask him to share his feelings about that event. You yawn. Who cares? Dinner is finally served, and the child is sent off to some unfortunate person in the kitchen. The house shakes with his screams. Dinner over, he returns, his sword point sharpened. His parents again ask him how he feels. Itâ€™s ten oâ€™clock. Is he tired? No! he says. You, on the other hand, find yourself exhausted, and you make for the door, swearing never to have kids or, if you already did, never to visit your grandchildren. Youâ€™ll just send checks.
This used to be known as â€œspoiling.â€ Now it is called â€œoverparentingâ€â€”or â€œhelicopter parentingâ€ or â€œhothouse parentingâ€ or â€œdeath-grip parenting.â€ The term has changed because the pattern has changed. It still includes spoilingâ€”no rules, many toysâ€”but two other, complicating factors have been added. One is anxiety. Will the child be permanently affected by the fate of the hamster? Did he touch the corpse, and get a germ? The other new elementâ€”at odds, it seems, with such solicitudeâ€”is achievement pressure. The heck with the childâ€™s feelings. He has a nursery-school interview tomorrow. Will he be accepted? If not, how will he ever get into a good college? Overparenting is the subject of a number of recent books, and they all deplore it in the strongest possible terms.
Most of us have heard of people who pipe Mozart into their childâ€™s room. In â€œA Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parentingâ€ (Broadway; $23.95), Hara Estroff Marano, an editor-at-large at Psychology Today, writes that Baby Einstein, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, will sell you not just a Baby Mozart CD but also a Baby Beethoven. Both are available on DVD as well, with the music supplemented by puppet shows and other imagery. These DVDs, Baby Einstein says, are for the three-months-and-older age group. Since, at three months, babies cannot sit up, parents will have to hold them in front of the monitor, and since these infants have only just learned to focus their eyes, it is hard to know what they will make of the material. (Nothing at all, Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told the Chicago Tribune: â€œThe baby video industry is a scam.â€)
The DVDs are intended to provide you with a head start on the academic-achievement front, but there is also the environmental-hazards problem. Hovering parents, Marano says, see lethal bacilli on every surface. To thwart them in the supermarket, you can buy a Buggy Bagg, a protective pad that you insert into the front of the grocery cart before you put the child in. According to Buggy Baggâ€™s literature, this will guard against â€œviruses, bacteria, and bodily fluidsâ€ left on the cart. In a survey that Marano cites, a third of parents reported that they sent their offspring to school with antibacterial hand gels. Who trusts soap?
Once the child goes to nursery school, the academic pressure begins. Gone are the finger paints. Even preschools, Marano tells us, have replaced playtime with reading- and math-readiness training. As the child progresses, the academic load becomes heavier, and his ability to carry it is now regularly measured by standardized tests, as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Because the test results are rendered in numbersâ€”and can thus be compared with the norm, the ideal, and the neighborâ€™s kidâ€”ambitious parents may, at this point, begin hiring tutors. According to Marano, there is now a four-billion-dollar tutoring industry in the United States, much of it serving elementary-school children. (Some of the coaches sent out by Princeton Review, a leading tutor-provider, charge close to four hundred dollars an hour.) If tutoring doesnâ€™t do the trick, enterprising parents can argue with the school that their children, because of special needs, should not be held to a time limit in taking standardized tests. In 2005, according to Slate, seven to nine per cent of students in Washington, D.C., were given extra time on their S.A.T.s. Their scoresâ€”which were sent out to colleges, with no notice of the dispensation, alongside the scores of students working against the clockâ€”were, on average, well above those of others.
Overparented children typically face not just a heavy academic schedule but also a strenuous program of extracurricular activitiesâ€”tennis lessons, Mandarin classes, ballet. After-school activities are thought to impress college admissions officers. At the same time, they keep kids off the street. (In the words of one book, â€œYou canâ€™t smoke pot or lose your virginity at lacrosse practice.â€) When summer comes, the child is often sent to a special-skills camp. Extracurricular activities and camps are areas where competition between parents, thought to be a major culprit in this whole business, is likely to surface. How do you explain to the other mother that while her child spent the summer examining mollusks at marine-biology camp, yours was at a regular old camp, stringing beads and eating sâ€™mores?
Finally comes the Last Judgment: college applications. Admissions officers, it is said, donâ€™t know what to make of application forms these daysâ€”many of them have so clearly been filled out by someone other than the applicant. If the parents donâ€™t feel up to the job, they can turn to IvyWise, a service that, for a fee ranging from three thousand to forty thousand dollars, gives students a course in how to get into college. IvyWiseâ€™s offerings include â€œApplication Boot Camp,â€ on how to complete the forms, and â€œEssay Writing Workshop,â€ on how to get the application essay into â€œoptimal shape for submission.â€ Careful parents donâ€™t have to wait for application time, however. IvyWise will also advise high-school freshmen and sophomores on which courses and extracurricular activities to choose, so that two or three years later, when the application process begins, they wonâ€™t make the awful discovery that they have been spending their time on classes and clubs that will not please admissions committees.
When the student goes off to college, overparenting need not stop. Many mothers and fathers, or their office assistants, edit their childrenâ€™s term papers by e-mail. They also give them cell phones equipped with G.P.S. monitors, in order to track their movements. In Maranoâ€™s eyes, the cell phone, by allowing children to consult with their parents over any problem, any decision, any â€œflicker of experience,â€ has become the foremost technological adjunct of overparenting. Some parents, she adds, are not content with calling. They buy a second home in their childâ€™s college town. According to a recent report on this trend in the Times, the child may protest, at the start. A student at Colorado College told the Times that when she found out that her parents, Maryland residents, were buying a four-bedroom house fifteen minutes from her school, she thought, â€œAre you kidding me? Youâ€™re following me across the country?â€ But then she came to like the arrangement: â€œI found myself not doing my laundry until my mom was in town.â€ I wonder if it was actually she who did the laundry.
Students provided with such benefits may study harder and, upon graduation, land a fancy job. On the other hand, they may join the ranks of the â€œboomerang children,â€ who move straight back home. A recent survey found that fifty-five per cent of American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, and fourteen per cent between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, live with their parents. Among the reasons cited are the high cost of housing, heavy competition for good jobs, and the burden of repaying college loans, but another factor may be sheer habit, even desire. Marano and others believe that, while hovering parents say that their goal is to launch the child into the world successfully, the truth lies deeper, in some dark dependency, some transfer of the parentâ€™s identity to the child.
One cause of the overparenting trend, Marano says, is the working mother. That seems paradoxical: if Mother is at the office, how can she hover over the child? Well, she can hover at night and on weekends. The rest of the time, she can hire someone else to do itâ€”and secretly install a â€œnanny camâ€ (one model is disguised as a smoke detector), to make sure itâ€™s being done right. Marano believes, however, that the risk of overparenting is greater for a woman who quits her job in favor of full-time mothering while her children are young. Such a woman faces a huge loss of incomeâ€”one source says a million dollars, on average, over the course of her career. It is no surprise that she might want child-rearing to be a project worthy of that sacrifice.
Another causeâ€”and Marano stresses it over all othersâ€”is insecurity bred of the global economy. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, in 1957â€”the first unmanned spacecraft, ever, and not oursâ€”American school curricula shifted dramatically toward math and the hard sciences. â€œHow are we ever going to beat the Russians?â€ people asked. Likewise, Marano says, the overparenting phenomenon got going in the seventies, in response to â€œstagflationâ€ and the oil crisis, and has been nourished, ever since, by the rise of the global economy. No Child Left Behind: that sounds like the expression of a democratic wish. More likely, it was the product of an economic wishâ€”that America not be left behind by India and China.
A third development that pushed people into overparenting, Marano and others believe, is the â€œbrain plasticityâ€ research published in the nineteen-nineties. This research said that, while the infant brain is, in part, the product of genes, that endowment is just the clay; after birth, it is â€œsculptedâ€ by the childâ€™s experience, the amount of stimulation he receives, above all in the first three years of life. That finding prompted many programs aimed at stimulating babies whose mothers, for whatever reason (often poverty), seemed likely to neglect them. Social workers drove off to homes deemed at risk, to play with the new baby. But upper-middle-class parentsâ€”and marketers interested in themâ€”also read about the brain-plasticity findings, and figured that, if some stimulation is good, more is better. (Hence Baby Einstein.) Later research has provided no support for this. The conclusion, in general, is that the average babyâ€™s environment provides all the stimuli he or she needs.
Marano thinks that the infant-stimulation craze was a scandal. She accepts the idea of brain plasticity, but she believes that the sculpting goes on for many years past infancy and that its primary arena should be self-stimulation, as the child ventures out into the world. While Mother was driving the kid nuts with the eight-hundredth iteration of â€œThis Little Piggy,â€ she should have been letting him play on his own. Marano assembles her own arsenal of neurological research, guaranteed to scare the pants off any hovering parent. As children explore their environment by themselvesâ€”making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustrationâ€”their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated, Marano says. â€œDendrites sprout. Synapses form.â€ If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems â€œliterally shrink.â€
Such atrophy, Marano claims, may be undetectable in the early years, when overattentive parents are doing for the child what he should be doing on his own, but once he goes off to college the damage becomes obvious. Marano sees an epidemic of psychological breakdown on college campuses: â€œThe middle of the night may find a SWAT team of counselors calming down a dorm wing after having crisis-managed an acute manic episode or yet another incident of self-mutilation.â€ Overparented students who avoid or survive college meltdowns are still impaired, Marano argues. Having been taught that the world is full of dangers, they are risk-averse and pessimistic. (â€œIt may be that robbing children of a positive sense of the future is the worst form of violence that parents can do to them,â€ she writes.) Schooled in obedience to authority, they will be poor custodians of democracy. Finallyâ€”and, again, she stresses thisâ€”their robotic behavior will threaten â€œAmerican leadership in the global marketplace.â€ That was the factor that frightened parents into hovering. And by their hovering they prevented their children from developing the very traitsâ€”courage, nimbleness, outside-the-box thinkingâ€”that are required by the new economic order.
Marano gets a vote of agreement from â€œUnder Pressure: The New Movement Inspiring Us to Slow Down, Trust Our Instincts, and Enjoy Our Kidsâ€ (Harper One; $24.95), by Carl HonorÃ©, a partisan of the so-called â€œslow movement,â€ which is aimed at persuading us all to abandon the fast track. HonorÃ© is not from the United Statesâ€”he was brought up in Canada and lives in Londonâ€”and he therefore looks beyond his own national boundaries. You might have thought that the United States, with its susceptibility to child-rearing fads, would be worse off than other countries in the matter of overparenting. Not so, HonorÃ© says. Look at East Asia, where tutoring and testing constitute a sort of religion. In international comparisons, he says, East Asian youngsters â€œscore near the top in math and science, yet rank near the bottom for enjoyment of those subjects.â€ And where the joy of learning has vanished, HonorÃ© argues, so have its ethics. He feels that test-driven schooling has contributed to what is apparently a recent surge in cheating, so much easier, now, with the Internet: â€œNearly three-quarters of Canadian undergraduates recently admitted to serious acts of cheating on written work while in high school. . . . In 2007, officials revealed that five per cent of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge had embellished their application forms with material taken off the Web. Explaining why they wanted to study chemistry, two hundred and thirty-four applicants cited word for word the same example, â€˜burning a hole in my pajamas at age eight,â€™ as a formative experience.â€
As for childrenâ€™s safety, HonorÃ© makes what will no doubt be the controversial recommendation that we stop fretting about it. He quotes Samuel Butler on the subject: â€œYoung people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.â€ Allergy rates in children are rising throughout the industrialized world. HonorÃ© blames this on oversanitized environments: â€œJust look at what happened in Germany. Before unification, allergy rates were much higher in the western part, even though the Communist-run eastern half had much worse pollution and more children living on farms. After the countries reunited, East Germany was cleaned up and urbanizedâ€”and allergy rates soared.â€
Finally, HonorÃ© takes on domestic psychology, in particular the â€œself-esteem movementâ€ born of the nineteen-seventies. To him, as to other writers on overparenting, this is a matter of disgust. â€œEvery doodle ends up on the fridge door,â€ he says. According to the research heâ€™s read, such ego-pumping confers no benefit. A review of thousands of studies found that high self-esteem in children did not boost grades or career prospects, or even resistance to adult alcoholism. If I am not mistaken, however, there is something about the self-esteem movement that strikes HonorÃ© at a level deeper than the question of our childrenâ€™s competence. Marano, as the title of her book tells us, is worried that we are producing a nation of wimps, people who wonâ€™t â€œmake it.â€ HonorÃ© is worried that the Stepford children produced by overparenting will make it, and turn the world into a rude, heartless, boring place.
Heâ€™s not the only one. Sooner or later, all critics of overparenting get to the problem of moralsâ€”the sheer selfishness of these parents and of the children they produce. Even the pragmatic Marano makes this point. Why, she asks, arenâ€™t parents â€œmanning the barricades,â€ demanding benefits for all children? Why do they care only about their own? And doesnâ€™t it bother them that the extra help they can buy for their childrenâ€”the college-admissions courses, the tutoringâ€”is tilting the playing field? Hovering, as most of these books acknowledge, is largely the preserve of upper-middle-class parents, and these people want their children to prosper as they did, fairness be damned. The socioeconomics get special attention from Madeline Levine, whose 2006 book â€œThe Price of Privilegeâ€ is now in paperback (Harper; $13.95). Levine is a clinical psychologist, specializing in the treatment of adolescents, in Californiaâ€™s Marin County. In other words, she spends her days ministering to rich children, many with ambitious parents looming over them. She seems inured to the girlsâ€™ tales of giving blow jobs behind the gym, but she describes with real dismay her patientsâ€™ lack of any â€œconscience, generosity.â€
The focus of Gary Crossâ€™s â€œMen to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturityâ€ (Columbia; $29.50) is specifically the current generation of young men, compared with those of the post-Second World War period (Crossâ€™s fatherâ€™s generation) and those of the sixties (his own generation). According to Crossâ€™s statistics, this new breed takes much longer to get jobs, marry, and have childrenâ€”that is, to grow up, by his definition. Instead, these boy-men, as he calls them, hang out with their friends and play video games. They donâ€™t even have girlfriends anymore, Cross says. Theyâ€™re content with â€œhook-ups,â€ casual arrangements. A professor of history at Penn State, Cross has done a lot of research. He seems to have watched every episode of â€œFather Knows Bestâ€ and â€œSeinfeld.â€ His conclusion, that the fathers of yesteryear did know best, or betterâ€”that the patriarchy wasnâ€™t so bad, after allâ€”is disappointing, but it should be said that what he admires in the old-time dads is not so much that they knew how to wield power as that they looked out for someone besides themselves, an interest not popular with the boy-man crowd.
These booksâ€™ concern with altruism probably stems, in part, from â€œpositive psychology,â€ a new movement that stresses fulfillment and affiliation as primary measures of mental health. But, like positive psychology, the moral emphasis is clearly related to the values of the sixties and the early seventies, the world that we left behind in the buckle-down eighties. The writers are shocked by the materialism of the new generation. (You should hear HonorÃ© on the subject of todayâ€™s high-end birthday parties.) They also note with alarm the rising indifference to any species of idealism. Levine describes a 1998 study at U.C.L.A.:
When asked about reasons for going to college during the 1960s and early seventies, most students placed the highest value on â€œbecoming an educated personâ€ or â€œdeveloping a philosophy of life.â€ A minority deemed â€œmaking a lot of moneyâ€ as the main reason to attend college. Beginning in the 1990s, a majority of students say that â€œmaking a lot of moneyâ€ has become the most important reason to go to college, outranking both the reasons above, as well as â€œbecoming an authority in my field,â€ or â€œhelping others in difficulty.â€
In view of these writersâ€™ reversion to the values of the sixties, they are strangely reluctant to cite the thinkers of that period. You could read most of these books without finding out that there was a progressive-school movement in the fifties and sixties, or that R. D. Laing ever talked about â€œinauthenticity,â€ or Abraham Maslow about higher-order needs.
On the other hand, some writers do address the sixtiesâ€”and give it poor marks. â€œMy generationâ€™s obsession with youth,â€ Cross writes, â€œstands out in the history of human vanity.â€ He thinks that todayâ€™s layabout young men are the inheritors. Another book that indicts the sixties, though from a different perspective, is â€œJudging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authorityâ€ (2003), by Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University. It was in the sixties, Arum tells us, that the studentsâ€™-rights movement began, as an effort to protect minority children from unfair treatment. The resulting lawsuits won the right of due process for all children threatened with expulsion or, in some cases, merely suspension. And this, Arum says, resulted in a new, worse kind of unfair treatment for minority students. The due-process requirement intimidated teachers, discouraging them from imposing discipline. The students ran wild. Furthermore, school administrators became sitting ducks for aggressive parents seeking preferential treatment for their children. In one of Arumâ€™s sources, a teacher is quoted as saying, with regard to discipline, â€œIt all depends on who you grab. Grab the dumb onesâ€”they donâ€™t know what the hell to do. Donâ€™t grab a lawyerâ€™s kid.â€ Of course, the ones who donâ€™t know what to doâ€”or whose parents donâ€™tâ€”are the poorer children.
Arumâ€™s conclusions are the product of long research. Other writings on the connection between the sixties and current child-rearing practices sound more like the product of fogyism. A good example is an article, â€œThe Kindergarchy,â€ that the conservative commentator Joseph Epstein recently contributed to The Weekly Standard. â€œMy mother never read to me, and my father took me to no ballgames,â€ Epstein writes. They took no photographs, avowed no love, of him. This, he says, was the general approach to child-rearing in the nineteen-forties and fifties, when he grew up, and children benefitted: they developed into regular people, â€œgoing about the worldâ€™s business.â€ As for the steamy devotion shown by later generations of parents, what it has produced are snotty little brats filled with â€œanger at such abstract enemies as The System,â€ and intellectual lightweights, certain (because their parents told them so) that their every thought is of great consequence. Epstein says that, when he was teaching, he was often tempted to write on his studentsâ€™ papers: â€œD-. Too much love in the home.â€ As his essay suggests, critics of overparenting have political concerns as well as moral ones. The politics go both ways, however. The conservatives are afraid that weâ€™re turning our children into pampered ninnies (that is, Democrats); the liberals that weâ€™re producing selfish, authoritarian robots (Republicans).
The literature on overparenting raises a number of sticky questions. For example, is it really wrong for us to push our children to excel in areas where they are talented? HonorÃ© relates how his seven-year-old sonâ€™s art teacher told him that the child was a truly gifted artist. So the next morning HonorÃ© suggested to the boy that he take an art class after school, and got the following response: â€œI donâ€™t want to go to class and have a teacher tell me what to doâ€”I just want to draw. . . . Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?â€ HonorÃ© backed off, ashamed of what he now judged to be his opportunism. If the fathers of Mozart and the Williams sisters had done the same thing, the history of human achievement would have been different.
Another discomforting matter in these books is the role of feminism in todayâ€™s child-rearing follies. According to Gary Cross, one reason that young men are refusing to grow up is that the womenâ€™s movement has eliminated the rewards for doing so. In return for putting on a suit every morning and going to work, men used to be the boss both in the office and at home. No more. So why grow up? Cross acknowledges that patriarchy and slackerhood are not the only available choices. As he notes, some people are saying that our society, by discarding sexism, can produce a new kind of man, one who is â€œnurturing and emotionally expressive,â€ and who â€œabandons his old patriarchal privileges and embraces equality in private and public roles.â€ Cross is not looking forward to such a development, however: â€œHow many men (or women) can distinguish this approach from the stereotypical wimp?â€ I can, but there are other matters to consider as wellâ€”for example, Maranoâ€™s claim that if a woman, before having children, holds a high-powered job, this may predispose her to overparenting whether or not she quits the job to stay home with the kids. Iâ€™m sure Marano doesnâ€™t believe that women who plan to have a family should not be given responsible jobsâ€”Iâ€™m not so sure about Crossâ€”but, if what she says is true, this raises the old problem that, if you improve some element in a system, another element may break down in response. Adjust the carburetor, and the transmission goes out of whack.
final question that one has to ask is whether the overparenting trend is truly the emergency that these authors say it is. In the manner of popular books on psychology, the commentators tend to forget that they are talking, for the most part, about a minority. (Recent surveys have found that todayâ€™s teen-agers are volunteering for community service at a rate unequalled since the nineteen-forties.) And the writing is very pushy. Maranoâ€™s book is endlessly repetitive; you could read every third paragraph and not miss anything. Also, what about the sensationalism? Are there really SWAT teams of therapists descending on college dorms in the middle of the night? HonorÃ©, too, beats us over the head. In almost every chapter, he (1) isolates the baleful trendâ€”standardized tests, overcoached sports, and the like; (2) reports that some brave folk are now bucking the tide; (3) visits a site of their revisionist activityâ€”the experimental school, the back-yard ballgame; and (4) reports on how the children thrive under the new regime. In one progressive school that he inspects, â€œthe mood is pure sunshine.â€ The students stampede to class; they tell HonorÃ© how much they love homework. Never, in any of these wholesome environments, is any child starting a fight or picking his nose.
To get some perspective, look at â€œHuckâ€™s Raft: A History of American Childhoodâ€ (2004), by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia. Mintzâ€™s story begins with the beginning of the United States, and therefore he describes children with troubles greater than overparenting: boys dispatched to coal mines, and girls to textile mills, at age nine or ten. As for the current outbreak of worry over the young, Mintz reminds us that America has seen such panics beforeâ€”for example, in the nineteen-fifties, with the outcry over hot rods, teen sex, and rock and roll. The fifties even had its own campaign against overparenting, or overmotheringâ€”Momism, as it was called. This was thought to turn boys into homosexuals. For the past three decades, Mintz writes, discussions of child-rearing in the United States have been dominated by a â€œdiscourse of crisis,â€ and yet Americaâ€™s youth are now, on average, â€œbigger, richer, better educated, and healthier than at any other time in history.â€ There have been some losses. Middle-class white boys from the suburbs have fallen behind their predecessors, but middle-class girls and minority children are far better off. Mintz thinks that we worry too much, or about the wrong things. Despite general prosperityâ€”at least until recentlyâ€”the percentage of poor children in America is greater today than it was thirty years ago. One in six children lives below the poverty line. If you want an emergency, Mintz says, thereâ€™s one.