Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time: The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting

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.

13 comments:

Annie said...

Excellent post. Well said.

As with most things, parenting requires a degree of balance. If you are only acting out of your own fears, you may be overparenting. However, if you are focused on what your child needs to become a healthy, well adjusted adult, you are simply doing the job of parenting. The problem is that each child's needs are different, and the best parenting for each child will vary. What may look like overparenting to some may in fact be exactly what is needed for that child.

Jeremy said...

Agreed, great post. Some of the backlash smacks of bitterness from parents who have largely chosen to let daycare centers, schools and television raise their kids...or jealousy from those who are unable to take care of their kids the way they'd like to if they could afford it.

Missy said...

Annie and Jeremy are right. Great post. Sometimes I feel like a pushy parent as well. But you state it so nicely that with a gifted child, you HAVE to have a degree of pushiness in order to get their needs met. You have to, or you could lose them to things like boredom, underachievement, apathy. We've all seen it happen with older children.

Anonymous said...

>>But I'd argue that that parent is simply doing what her gifted child needs.>>

That's exactly it! When my child started school it quickly became obvious to us that the school had absolutely no interest in meeting his needs--to quote his principal: "Your son passed the standardized tests with flying colors, *what more do you want*?!?" Uhm, how about an education? So, yes, I was the parent who organized the after-school Robotics club, to keep my child from losing his mind from boredom and absolutely hating school. The school considered me "pushy"; I was only being a parent.

EMC said...

Yes.. exactly... you've hit the nail on the head!... we've been so frustrated by our daughter's schools "gifted" program... she finishes her homework in 15 minutes... if we didn't "overparent" she would be bored senseless.

vaughnsmum said...

This is a great post.

It's hard to achieve that balance as a parent however, as a teacher, I wish more parents would overparent.

There's lots of unrealised potential out there in classroomland.

DeepWatersCoach said...

I agree with you all. I'd say helicopter parenting and parenting a gifted child are two completely different things. Parents of gifted children largely wish they COULD let their guards down, but they know what's at stake. Helicopter parents can be parents of any children, frequently are, and are parenting out of fear, not out of love. I'm not saying that parents of gifted children can't fall into this category, but people who say we're all helicopter parenting obviously don't understand the challenges of raising gifted children. Oh, that they would...

mariposa said...

My 9-yr old has been identified as gifted. Since young he has had such high requirements for stimuli & interaction that I have had to engage him in all kinds of different activities and arrange playdates with a large rotation of little friends, just to keep him out of my hair. In summer I sign him up for 1/2 day activities every single week, or he would drive me nuts at home!

YY.

Anonymous said...

>>we've been so frustrated by our daughter's schools "gifted" program.>>

My son's principal abolished the g&t program because it wasn't "fair" to the other children (that their gifted classmates get an actual education?!?). Had my child been special ed, he would have been met with open arms and plenty of enrichment.

Jeremy said...

All of this said, I do remember being bewildered by the parents we knew who had their preschoolers in ballet, figure skating and soccer, agonizing over the best kindergarten classes and talking endlessly about the talent they saw in their little ones.

Of course we all want to provide good opportunities for our kids, but maybe sometimes forget to let them be kids too. I guess that point is made in the article as well...and is valid.

Meg said...

Excellent post, but why is being an advocate for your child only OK if the child is gifted? And just how gifted do they have to be? Kids that are not intellectually gifted often excel in the arts or sports. Is it OK for them to be highly scheduled in outside activities?

The guidance director at our HS spent an entire meeting berating parents for being helicopter parents, while simultaneously pointing out all that needed to be done to get our kids into college - much of which required parental involvment. It was ridiculous to say on the one hand that parents must support their kids, while at the same time noting that they shouldn't support them too much. It is a fine line.

Anonymous said...

Being a teacher, I see helicopter parent being more of the person who is doing everything that the student should be doing for themselves, asking for help when they need it, being vocal when there is something they don't understand...I have parents who expect me to raise their children, but get upset when I expect their student to do the work correctly and turn it in on time. Over-parenting comes from not allowing the children to make mistakes, going to college advisors with them or job interviews...gifted students especially need to know that they are allowed to make mistakes and need to learn to ask how to fix them from the people who can help them (usually the teacher).

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