This past week, Time magazine's cover story addressed the phenomenon of "overparenting" (or helicopter parenting, or pushy parents, or whatever you want to call it). Writer Nancy Gibbs chronicles the backlash against a perceived tendency toward too much hovering and protectiveness, and treating even grown children as if they were babies.
I had a few thoughts on the piece. First, Gibbs does a good job of bringing up some nuances to all this that don't normally get addressed. One is that Americans in general have a real problem with statistics. We worry more about potential predators lurking on the half mile route between home and school than, say, an aunt's somewhat creepy boyfriend, even though statistically, the latter is far more likely to be a problem. Crime rates in places like New York City are at 1960s levels, and yet few parents let their kids wander alone around city neighborhoods, which 1960s parents were far more comfortable with. She also acknowledges that if you have a choice between an overinvolved or an underinvolved parent, you are probably better off with the first.
But then she doesn't really follow through on this thought. The reality is that some small number of children do have overbearing, hovering helicopter parents -- some small percentage of generally well-to-do children (whose parents read Time magazine). Unfortunately, though, far greater numbers of children don't have the advantage of parents who can do a lot for them. Various studies have put the percentage of children who aren't involved in any extra-curricular activities at 40-50%. A stunning number of children spend their non-school hours in something researchers charmingly refer to as "self-care." This generally involves watching a lot of TV because mom or dad aren't home, and that's the safest thing around to do. While some children get headaches and symptoms of anxiety because their academic work is too strenuous, the vast majority aren't being challenged nearly to the extent of their abilities.
I find overparenting as funny as the next person -- I like nothing better than making fun of parents who put hygienic gloves on their babies' hands so they never touch the dirty world. But there's also a problem with having this mocking and disapproval become the cultural narrative, especially in the context of gifted children.
Here's why. Few schools are really set up to handle the needs of highly gifted kids. This means that parents who have such kids are going to have to advocate for their children. They will have to get involved in the classroom, see what the children are learning, and step in to suggest various accommodations. Gifted kids also often need lots of outside-school stimulation as well. Many have amazing talents for music or art or things like that, and to develop their talents, these kids need lessons, coaches, etc. Often they need to travel to different towns, or go to special camps or what have you in order to interact with other students of similar abilities.
So -- if you're not into gifted education, which a great number of schools and educators, alas, are not -- what do you call a parent who is constantly advocating for her child, signing her up for violin and piano lessons at age 6 and setting up a math league so she can participate? A pushy parent, that's what. But I'd argue that that parent is simply doing what her gifted child needs. That's not pushy parenting, that's good parenting of a pushy kid.