Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Over-Parenting Crisis

The Over-Parenting Crisis
by Katie Allison Granju
Recently, a coworker and I were looking at some old family photos she had lying on her desk. Several of them were of her grandmother, tending to various household chores for the camera.

The photos looked to be from sometime in the 1950s, or possibly the early '60s. There she was, dressed in her June Cleaver-fresh, shirtwaist dress, standing at her spotless formica kitchen counter, preparing a meal. In another shot, she was perfectly coiffed, and dressed in pressed capris as she weeded the front garden.
"That's how I remember her," my friend said. "She was obsessed with having a perfect house and yard. Her casseroles looked better than they tasted, and I don't recall ever seeing a speck of dust or dirt anywhere in their house."
She went on.
"God, it's so ironic. She was so consumed with being the perfect homemaker that she didn't realize no one was actually comfortable in her home."

Those of us with pre-women's lib mothers and grandmothers remember women like this. They were the obsessive, vaguely dissatisfied homemakers Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. They were the women whose worlds had become so narrowly focused on one facet of their lives — homemaking — that all the joy had been sucked right out of them.
Thank God we aren't those women. Right? Right?

Or are we? In recent years, I've encountered a disturbing trend among my current mothering peers. While we no longer pore endlessly over the grout-cleaning tips and curtain-sewing patterns in Ladies Home Journal, we've replaced this pre-feminist housewifery-porn with postmodern parenting-porn in the form of Fit Pregnancy and PARENTS magazines.

We may not stay up nights worrying about how to keep our whites whiter, but you can bet we're losing sleep over why little Jasper isn't yet out of diapers. We may no longer feel the need to compare the firmness of our jello salad with that of the other women at the church potluck, but we're not-so-secretly frantic over why little Ella from playgroup can already tie her shoes when our own five-year-old Ruby can't yet do the same.
In other words, we may no longer be "professional homemakers," but whether we stay home with our kids, or work outside the home, we've turned parenting into its own, highly stressful, endlessly demanding, often joyless undertaking. In fact, a recent study by research group Public Agenda found that seventy-six percent of American parents describe raising kids today as "much harder" than it was during their own childhoods.

But are we making it a lot harder than it has to be? I think so.
Last week, I was eating a meal with the parents of a lovely one-year-old child, their first. As the very cute baby played with her food, I noticed she was managing to get quite a bit of her mashed peas into her rosebud mouth with her small spoon.
"Wow, she's really getting the hang of that spoon," I commented with a smile.
"Yes," her mother replied, "I've been working really hard with her on it all week. It's kept me pretty busy."
Working really hard on teaching her to use a spoon? All week? Kept her pretty busy?

I shouldn't have been surprised. Hearing this intelligent, accomplished woman with a master's degree in biology tell me how consuming she's found teaching her toddler to use a spoon is just one more example of our current culture of hysterical parenting. I mean, really, when did parenting become this difficult? When did the admirable quality of involved parenting become this?

While it's one thing to be pleased — even proud — over baby's ability to connect spoon with mouth, it's quite another for her mother to become that invested in it, logistically or emotionally.

Wait, wait, you may be asking. Aren't you that same Katie Allison Granju who wrote a parenting book telling people to give their children more attention? Well, yes, and no. I did write the book Attachment Parenting (for which Dr. William Sears wrote the introduction), and I do believe strongly that infants and very young children thrive best with a high-touch, responsive style of parenting, but I'm also that mom who encouraged her two-year-old to play in the mud — some of which he certainly ate — and her five-year-old to climb trees. Yes, my kids slept with me as infants — because I found we all got the most sleep that way — but the kids were enjoying sleepovers with family and friends by kindergarten.

These days, I let my youngest kid enjoy his growing collection of pocket knives, and I expect my children to ride their scooters out of my eyesight in our urban neighborhood. And I frequently tell my children that since I already completed elementary school, and have no intention of repeating the work, they will need to do their homework without me hovering nearby.

I have often described my parenting philosophy as "benign neglect." Responsive parenting means just that: we respond to children's needs. It's not the same as over-parenting, in which we anticipate, preempt, or take control of our children's needs and developmental tasks.

Of course, like all parents, I have my worries. In my case, I fret that they are watching too much TV and not developing a strong enough work ethic. I worry that the fact that their parents are divorced will leave them irrevocably damaged. And like everyone else I know, the primal fear of stranger abduction is always hovering at the edge of my motherbrain.

But I can say honestly that I don't obsess about the minutiae of my parenting, and as I get ready to give birth to child number four with husband number two, fifteen years after becoming a mother for the first time at age twenty-three, I am increasingly finding that this puts me in a distinct minority. In the past decade and a half, the parenting zeitgeist has shifted . . . into overdrive.

While there have always been obsessive, overbearing parents, they used to be the exception, rather than the norm. They were the kinds of hyper-involved parents no one wanted to become; because as they lived their lives solely through the prism of their parenting, it was believed they produced the archetypal "mama's boy," the child who was never allowed any activities outside his parents' watchful eye, and who was coddled and protected from all conceivable risk. This type of childhood, we have always believed, ultimately produced individuals who were stunted in their ability to make bold moves or take leadership roles — or even function independently.

Until recently, the essential tasks of parenting were seen as nurturing and socializing children. Today, however, this simple mandate seems criminally neglectful. Now, parenting requires constant vigilance, unflagging attention to every detail of our children's lives, and ever present monitoring of their every activity.

This over-parenting has become an epidemic. Legions of well-intentioned mothers and fathers, urged on by popular media and the marketplace, are frantically striving to create an endlessly controlled, bubble-wrapped childrearing environment. From neuroses with regulating our babies' sleep habits, to insistence on antimicrobial everything, to the attempt to continue "babyproofing" our homes until our babies are well into elementary school, our current parenting zeitgeist is competitive, market-driven . . . and exhausting.

But as hard as we are on ourselves, we are even harder on our parenting peers. In its study of parenting attitudes, Public Agenda found that six in ten of us rate other parents only "fair" or "poor" in raising their children.

And these days, one big way we try to out-do these "fair" and "poor" parents is to buy better stuff. Our parental anxieties now include the belief that without the hippest, newest parenting swag, successful childrearing is no longer possible.

In fact, we no longer choose a stroller, but a parenting identity. Are you a trendy Bugaboo Frog kind of mom or perhaps a Mclaren traditionalist? God forbid you show up at the playground with a straight-from-Baby-Superstore Graco. How tacky! One mother I spoke to for this article sheepishly confided to me that she had gotten a new credit card for the sole purpose of paying for her $1,000 Stokke Xplory stroller, saying it made her feel like there was at least one thing she was assured she would do "better than anyone else at playgroup" for her son.

Peggy O'Mara, publisher of Mothering magazine and a keen observer of American parents for the past two decades, says she believes the commercialization of parenting masks our insecurities.

"I think people think they need a lot of baby gear because so many people use their children as social collateral, and judge one another by what they have for them," says O'Mara.

Don't get me wrong. I know that active, involved parenting matters . . . a lot. For those of us who take it on, raising a kid is certainly among the most meaningful and important tasks we'll ever do. In fact, I happen to agree with Jackie Kennedy, who famously said, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much." The question becomes, however, whether the hovering, obsessive, all-consuming parenting style that has become de rigeur is actually serving our children — or us — very well. In our hyperfocus on all things parenting, are we bungling the very thing we seek to perfect?

Nearly ten years ago, author Judith Rich Harris made the cover of Time magazine with her wildly popular book, The Nurture Assumption, in which she argued that parents should stop worrying so much. But Harris took her argument several leagues further with her assertion that the reason parents should stop worrying is that ultimately, what mothers and fathers do — or don't do — has little impact on how children turn out.

But Harris was dead wrong. Parents have a huge impact on how their children turn out, and that's precisely why we need to take a hard look at the obsessive, controlling, perfectionistic parenting culture we're living in. In fact, facilitating children's ability to function independently, to figure things out, and to grow into themselves without excessive interference is in itself an essential task of parenting.

Parents' increasing obsession with creating a totally germ-free environment for children offers an instructive example of the way over-parenting is counterproductive. Fifteen years ago, when I brought my first baby home from the hospital, his father and I were instructed to keep him away from obviously sick people during the newborn period. After that, our pediatrician told us that exposure during infancy and childhood to household and environmental germs was part of building a healthy immune system.

Fast forward to 2007, as parents now attempt to create an artificially germ-free childhood. Not only do they avoid exposing their kids to sick people, they surround their children with antibacterial soaps and washes. They buy toys and baby gear coated in space-age, microbe-resistant surfaces, and trips to the grocery store require a specially made "shopping cart cover" meant to prevent little Liam or Ava from encountering anyone else's bacteria.

But medical experts are pleading with parents to stop with the anti-germ hysteria because rather than preventing illness in children, it's actually causing it, encouraging the growth of treatment-resistant strains of bacteria, and preventing kids' exposure in the healthy doses required to grow a strong immune system.

Yep, that's right, it turns out that regular, old, everyday germs are good for kids. So is regular, old dirt, disappointment, boredom, frustration, conflict, and the occasional playground accident. All of these help children to develop their own coping skills, creative and spiritual core, and sense of self.

When parents micromanage children's lives, overly investing themselves in their kids, everyone loses. Mothers and fathers lose themselves in their roles as parents, while kids never find themselves.

So here's my unsolicited advice to parents: take a step back. Relax. Enjoy. Your baby will sleep without an expert consultant coming to your house. Your toddler will eventually leave diapers behind. I promise. The Graco stroller won't mark your child — or you — as a loser.

Let your preschooler play in the dirt.

And for God's sake, let the baby figure the spoon out for herself.

1 comment:

LannaM said...

Dude. That was a cool article. "Hysterical parenting" is totally the right description. And here I only freak out when my 5yo manages to find the pruning shears and trims a tree before I notice. *sigh*