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The Perils of Over-Parenting

An Interview with Dr. Wendy Mogel

When I was 12, I drove my 8-year-old sister to our Los Angeles elementary school on my bike. As parents, my wife and I allowed our sons, ages 7 and 3, to play outside with other kids who lived on our block in the town of Port Washington, N.Y.

In those days, neighbors kept an eye on the kids; these days, they call the cops at the sight of an unguarded child.

Permitting children “free-range” freedoms has subjected a growing number of parents to charges of child neglect. In one case, a McDonald’s employee lost custody of her 9-year-old son for leaving him at home alone while she worked.

A concurrent trend is the increasing busyness of children, keeping them occupied with tasks and activities meant to give them an advantage in the race to get into a good college.

How things have changed!

I asked Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, to explain what’s behind this shift in parenting strategies.

What’s driving so many parents to wall in their children?

Fear. Our worry-first perspective is fueled by silly news sources pumping out daily, non-stop “clickbait” about low probability but highly sensational dangers. We also face genuine macro-level concerns about problems over which we feel helpless and hopeless: rapidly melting glaciers, ever-rising college competition and tuition, and an insecure and unpredictable job market. Parents displace their anxieties about looming threats onto a more manageable micro-level by becoming hyper-vigilant. In reality, according to an article in the Washington Post by Christopher Ingraham, there has never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

What are the health and development implications of over-protective parenting for children?

The celebrated urban planner and activist Jane Jacobs points out that every child is by nature an explorer and adventurer. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she writes that children benefit greatly from “loitering with others, sizing people up, flirting, talking, pushing, shoving, and horseplay.” She laments the ever-increasing percentage of children who are deprived of the opportunity to be out of an adult’s view for even 10 minutes.

Lenore Skenazy, who runs the website and blog Free-Range Kids, once offered to hold a class for kids in New York’s Central Park. Parents would pay $250 tuition, and in exchange, she would not watch the kids.

What do you say to parents who push their children to “achieve” early on?

I tell them that the practice of maximizing children’s every potential skill and interest and over-focusing on performance – what sociologist Annette Lareau, (Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life) calls “concerted cultivation” – essentially turns children into their parents’ “projects.” When this happens, the quirky talents or passions of the children fade. And while some children become naches (pride) machines, others rebel by going on work strikes, thereby undermining their future opportunities.

Another dark side of the pressure to excel is the growing trend towards overmedication. One Jewish camp director told me that one summer, he noted that every 8- to 12 year-old boy in his camp – without exception – took stimulant medication for attention-deficit problems.

Parental insistence on success can also lead to self-imposed perfectionism. For example, a majority of the girls at another Jewish camp refused to swim in the pool because they didn’t want the boys to see that they didn’t have so-called perfect bodies. The waterfront counselor came up with a creative solution – a night swim for the girls – and they all went.

What can Jewish tradition teach us about slowing down the pace of our goal-driven lives?

In our increasingly rushed and anxious world, fewer than half of middle and high school students eat meals with their families. Welcoming in the Sabbath with blessings, candles, and challah and an unhurried meal is a wildly countercultural and profoundly effective way of consecrating time – and it’s catching on. In Silicon Valley, tech thought leaders call a period of enforced limitation on the usage of electronics (e.g., none at the table or when lying in bed) an “Internet Sabbath.” They know better than the rest of us how easily digital devices can become an extension of our nervous systems and isolate us from each other and from nature.

Can Jewish summer camps play a role in counteracting the pressures of the social culture of the 21st century?

Absolutely. In addition to offering a respite from overly demanding parents, camps provide essential opportunities – deep water, campfires, tall trees, tricky bunkmates – for kids to experience the kind of danger that paradoxically makes them less phobic and more savvy about safety. And at camp, a child’s experience of time can be fundamentally changed. A month can feel both like a minute and a lifetime. Camp activities lead to what I call “good tiredness,” in contrast to the weary exhaustion born of overscheduling, overprotection, and too much time spent indoors.

What can parents do to become less overprotective and help their children become more resilient?

On my website, you’ll find “Overparenting Anonymous,” my 26-step program for “good parents gone bad.” Here are three of the steps:

  • Encourage your child to play or spend time outside using all five senses in the three-dimensional world.
  • Remember that kids are hardy perennials, not hothouse flowers. Let them be cold, wet, or hungry for more than a second and they’ll appreciate the change to be warm, dry, and fed.
  • Be alert but not automatically alarmed. Stop and reflect: Is this situation an emergency or a new challenge?

What’s the subject of your next book?

It’s called Voice Lessons: The Art of Conversation in an Age of Digital Distraction. Chapters will cover talking to your baby, children, teens, spouse/partner (or ex), parents, and other adults, including teachers, coaches, and folks in the admissions office. Visit my website to vent or share your communication stories, frustrations, and/or triumphs.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large.