Overparenting

As children explore their environment by themselves–making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration–their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated, [Hara Estroff] Marano says. “Dendrites sprout. Synapses form.” If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”

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: “The 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.” 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. (“It may be that robbing children of a positive sense of the future is the worst form of violence that parents can do to them,” she writes.) Schooled in obedience to authority, they will be poor custodians of democracy. Finally–and, again, she stresses this–their robotic behavior will threaten “American leadership in the global marketplace.” That was the factor that frightened parents into hovering. And by their hovering they prevented their children from developing the very traits–courage, nimbleness, outside-the-box thinking–that are required by the new economic order.
. . .
As for children’s safety, [Carl] Honoré makes what will no doubt be the controversial recommendation that we stop fretting about it. He quotes Samuel Butler on the subject: “Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.” Allergy rates in children are rising throughout the industrialized world. Honoré blames this on oversanitized environments: “Just 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 urbanized–and allergy rates soared.”
. . .
As for the steamy devotion shown by later generations of parents, what it has produced are snotty little brats filled with “anger at such abstract enemies as The System,” and intellectual lightweights, certain (because their parents told them so) that their every thought is of great consequence. [Joseph] Epstein says that, when he was teaching, he was often tempted to write on his Students papers: “D-. Too much love in the home.” 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 we’re turning our children into pampered ninnies (that is, Democrats); the liberals that we’re producing selfish, authoritarian robots (Republicans).
. . .
As for the current outbreak of worry over the young, [Steven] Mintz reminds us that America has seen such panics before–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 overmothering–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 “discourse of crisis,” and yet America’s youth are now, on average, “bigger, richer, better educated, and healthier than at any other time in history.” 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 prosperity–at least until recently–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, there’s one.

The Child Trap: The rise of overparenting.” By Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, November 17, 2008

. . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

Posted in: Caught Our Eye

Post a Comment