Welcome to the Age of Overparenting” by Katherine Ozment. This was not the first anti-overparenting piece I’d ever read, but it really hit a nerve. Perhaps because her perspective was humble. She comes from the position of someone who’s read all the parenting books like I did, and realized she was still kinda messing it up like I feel like I've been.
One of the problems Ozment presents in the article is that the focus of parenting these days is way more on bonding with our children than actually being the parents of our children. That focus on bonding is usurping parental authority. Now, I don’t think that we need to deal in extremes here. I don’t think our choices are between being our kids’ best friend OR being a complete totalitarian. But, I do think there is something to the idea that if we are too concerned about bonding with our children, we may forget that it is our job to parent them. And, for real, is the bonding for them or for us? I submit that it’s not as much about them as we like to think it is.
Because the thing is, children aren’t necessarily happier under our thumbs. At least, they can’t possibly have the self confidence they really need to get through life if we are constantly next to them, over them, prodding them, etc… This reminds me of an experience with Thing 1 (one that I’ve blogged about before, but I can’t remember which post and didn’t feel like scouring for it just to reference back to it.). He was, once upon a time, playing with his blocks. We were all sitting together in the living room, but he was in his own world putting things together. At one point he lifted a conglomeration of blocks and proclaimed, “I built a robot!”. There are a few things you should know about this: 1. I didn’t know he knew what a robot was. 2. The thing really did look like a robot. 3. I was genuinely impressed with what he’d done on his own. So, when I exclaimed, “John! That looks so good! That’s such a great robot!” it was sincere. (Unlike all of the other times
And, also, I realized that I need to stop praising them all the dang time. This is another thing Ozment talks about in her article. She actually says she set a goal to go a whole day without saying “Good job!” once. She failed, but I can’t point any fingers. I’ve tried several times since reading her article and failed each time. The thing is, we want our kids to have great self esteems and so we’re always telling them how great they are. But, getting praise actually doesn’t create self esteem. Trying something, failing, trying again, and learning how to succeed—finding out that you can do hard things—THAT creates self-esteem. That it was gives a person the confidence to move forward and accomplish things in life.
But the thing is, my children will never experience that if they never fail. And as much as I want to protect my precious Things from all sadness, I’ve come to terms with the fact that this would be a total disservice to them. There was a day when, if John was playing with his blocks and getting frustrated if a stack fell over or something of the sort, I would sit down with him and help him accomplish whatever structure he was going for. And I don’t think it was a terrible thing for me to do. But, when I started, instead, saying, “It’s okay John, just try again.” I think we just brought things to a whole new level. Both Thing 1 and I.
In short, we can’t always be focused on helping them to succeed. We need to focus on their development. Which means sometimes we have to let them fail. It’s a natural part of any developing process, and it’s where the learning really happens.
Besides, making sure they never experience that sense of failure is exhausting. Am I right, or am I right? It’s just not good for the mental state and stress level of the parent. And it’s bad for the children. Hovering the way we overparenters do is only going to teach our children to be afraid of everything—and at least less willing to try new things. In the article (seriously, read it) Ozment points to evidence that children at play are less active and less engaged when their parents are present. I know this to be true. I put the things in our backyard to play every day. I usually leave them out there alone. I know people who think I’m nuts for doing that, but I figure at least it’s a fenced in yard. Sometimes I do go out there and play with them, but when I do the focus is always on me. They center around me and want to interact with me. It’s lovely, to be sure, but it’s not really “free play”. I’m fond of telling people about the time that Thing 1 was playing in the backyard and came inside to tell me about how he and the snake went looking for the dragon in the bear’s cave. (For the record, there are no snakes, dragons, or bear caves in our backyard.) That kind of play doesn’t happen when I’m with them. (Also for the record, I’m sure Thing 2’s adventures in the backyard are magnificent as well. He just only uses about 15 words these days.) Free play is so essential for the growth and development of kids. And it’s not just that, but their self esteems as well. Sometimes it’s just better for them if we go away.
There is really only one complaint I have about Ozment’s article, and that is that she kinda presents the issue as “attachment parenting” methods versus “free range parenting” methods. I actually don’t think these two styles are at odds with each other. Sure, attachment parenting focuses on bonding with and being in tune with your children (especially beginning when they are babies). BUT, what attachment parenting really is, is learning to respond appropriately TO your child. Over-parenting is not responding appropriately. Free range parenting is, in many ways, attachment parenting. So, really, it’s not attachment parenting that has it wrong, it’s just we parents who have twisted attachment parenting into something that serves us more than it serves our children. We should totally stop doing that.