The Overparenting Epidemic: How Your Parents Ruined You [review]

the overparenting epidemic
Written by Tom Ewing

Overparenting has backfired. Early millennials aged 19 to 30 are anxious and non-resilient as the result of overweening, overcontrolling parents says “The Overparenting Epidemic.” Tom Ewing takes a closer look at the issue. [book review]

aNewDomain – Overparenting has backfired, says a new book that claims scores of early millennials have been badly scarred by the invasive, competitive and overly attentive parenting tactics that became especially popular in the 1990s and beyond.

Psychiatrist George Glass and parenting advocate David Tabatsky, authors of The Overparenting Epidemic (Skyhorse Publishing, NY, 2014), say the proof lies among the ranks of the first generation of overparented children, born 1991 and after. The population of these individuals, now 19 and older, swells with anxious, narcissistic and self-important young adults unable to cope with everyday life challenges.

the overparenting epidemicOverparenting compromises a kid’s ability to deal with hardship and failure, the authors say. They claim it potentially stunts the growth of self-esteem and confidence, and that it often can cause children to hold unreasonable expectations and to feel a warped sense of entitlement.

Their theory calls to mind recent comments like this one, from former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims that many Stanford undergrads are “somehow not quite formed fully as humans.

That sounds harsh, but psychological theory shows that something is up. Since the 1950s, theorists have noted ever increasing anxiety and depression levels among the children they survey. But in recent years, the number of kids showing full blown generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depression has risen sharply, too.

the overparenting epidemicMeanwhile, the book says, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled.

In the end, it’s the parents’ fault, they say. To get a closer look at this idea, I gave The Overparenting Epidemic a long, hard look. Here’s my review.

What is overparenting?

Overparenting refers to a broad spectrum of overweening and controlling parenting strategies. From the time children become toddlers, for example, more and more parents overprogram kids’ schedules with an alarming assortment of formal activities, clubs and sports. They monitor them all. And kids don’t have room to breathe or create.

By overscheduling children’s lives, parents inadvertently prohibit their children from developing the creative skills that foster problem solving, resiliency, and self-confidence down the road, the authors say, adding:

Becoming so invested in our children, emotionally, psychologically and financially can make us do strange and harmful things to ourselves … and to them.”

Creativity most easily develops when children have free, unstructured times, times when they can daydream, fantasize and work out solutions to what they see as life’s problems. But children need to reflect on their lives and what drives them, say Glass and Tabatsky. They add:

When children are too busy, they don’t have time or the mental space to be able to do that … it used to be the job of parents to expose their kids to the outside world by simply throwing them into the metaphorical pool of life and hoping that they could swim or by managing the amount of external input they received, closing out the real world a little at a time.”

Many parents today, the authors write, seem hell bent on protecting their children from what they consider to be the perils of the outside world. And that, for overly protective parents, can be almost anything.

Are your kids really so fragile?

the overparenting epidemicThe authors note a huge drop in summer camp attendance over the past generation.

Today’s overparented kids generally can’t stand to be away from their parents, and vice versa, they explain.

An essential part of a parent’s job is to teach children from an early age how to become increasingly independent, until they eventually let the child go, first psychologically and, finally, physically.

But these days, too many parents confuse letting go with turning their backs on a child and, even, not loving the child enough, they say.

Parenting is not about merely raising children by planning and trying to engineer a successful outcome for them. Rather, a parent’s job is to help transition, if not slingshot, a whole developing young adult with his or her very own personality into the world, add the authors, emphasizing:

“The struggle to survive and cope is what makes us who we are!” (Exclamatory emphasis, theirs.)

How many kids does it take to change a lightbulb?

The answer to that riddle, they say, is this:

It depends on whether their tutor is there.”

The authors also question the activities that parents select for their children, writing:

Parents also practice what we might call selective training for success. This amounts to actively assessing a child’s talents, often closely influenced by parents’ own preferences and biases and then directing a diverse schedule of leisure activities while consistently intervening at school and other institutional settings on the children’s behalf.”

Can’t you just back off?

This book is long on indictment and short on solutions. In a word, it boils down to this advice: Back off. 

the overparenting epidemicKids need time for unstructured play, the authors say. Consider it to be an educational moment. Play is a simple human interaction, a joyful alternative to the essential conundrum that we human beings face each day, say Glass and Tabatsky, adding:

Unfortunately, most adults forget that after they have passed through childhood …  it is worth remembering that our children are not our project, and as they become older, we must let them discover the world more and more on their own, with an appropriate amount of supervising.”

Therein lies the conundrum, the fuzzy line between too much supervision and safety and too little.

How much supervision is enough, and when should be go further or sit back? The authors continue:

If parents want their children to grow up to become independent, confident adults, they need to practice what we like to call ‘benign neglect.’ It requires a simple attitude adjustment, an easing of the mind and a pulling back on the reins of parental control. That begins with allowing your child to experience a certain amount of frustration and to discover that he can recognize a problem and then fix it by himself, without your active and intrusive intervention.”

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison recently raised other people’s eyebrows when he made his two kids return participation trophies. Harrison wanted his kids to celebrate real achievements not manufactured ones.

The authors note that it is important to recognize the fact that many people who are successful in terms of personal happiness, financial success and fulfilling family life attended community college and non-Ivy League institutions.

The book provides a simple checklist for parents:

    1. When it comes to your kids, spend time before money.
    2. Listen to their wishes before sharing yours. Support their interest, not yours.
    3. Let your kids fail.
    4. Work with children on how they can learn from their mistakes.
    5. Let them take pride in their creations, even if you think they should be better.
    6. Let your kids pick their own friends, generally.
    7. Encourage your child to deal directly with his or her own teacher.
    8. Do not over schedule your child.
    9. Embrace free time with nothing specific to do.
    10. Let go.

As the authors note, D.H. Lawrence had the answer back in 1918 in an essay in which he wrote:

How to begin to educate a child, First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.”

How did we get here? 

The authors credit the roots of overparenting on the larger society in which parents find themselves. Society, particularly contemporary American society, creates an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed at every level and at all costs, say the authors, writing:

Avoid these hazards! Buy this product! Eat meat! Don’t eat meat! Exercise like this! Not like that! Drink more! Drink less! Let your baby cry! Don’t let your baby cry! These is no shortage of literature pointing out what products to avoid and which foods to buy, what exercise to do and what books to read, all pointing toward the optimal development of our children.”

In today’s world, parents get too much advice from too many so-called experts, all willing to throw down an opinion. Bloggers, talk show hosts, pop psychologists and religious leaders are chief among them. But, as Glass and Tabatsky point out, observing someone else’s rules will only get you so far. And sometimes, it gets you nowhere.

Is overparenting responsible for the rise in bullying? Maybe.

the overparenting epidemicOverprotective parents can have other, more unexpected adverse effects on children, the book says.

By not learning small lessons in resilience, overparented children have trouble when it comes to facing larger issues, like bullying. Which makes them easy targets.

Children who are lost without someone intervening on their behalf are especially at risk.

The authors note a litany of ill effects from overparenting, including inadequate life skills, increased anxiety, a lack of trust, feelings of entitlement, narcissism, inept children, irresponsible and unaccountable young adults and compromised resilience.

By the time many overparented kids get to college, they say, they go crazy.

“Parents drop off their well-groomed freshmen (at college), and within two or three days many have consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol and placed themselves in harm’s way,” say the authors, adding;

These kids have been controlled for so long, they just go crazy.”

Beware, blackhawk moms ahead!

The book includes many new and well-worn terms related to overparenting.

You’ve heard of “helicopter parents,” those moms and dads who just can’t stop hovering over their kids at any age. But then there’s “blackhawk moms,” which the authors define as “helicopter parents in attack mode who will do anything to ensure their child’s success.”

the overparenting epidemicThen there’s the extreme version of helicopter parents he calls “guardian angel” parents, those who “will go so far as to lie, manipulate, and cover up for their children so that the children don’t have to deal with the consequences of their behavior.”

These are not to be confused with “cheerleader” parents, who not only attend every afterschool activity, cheering the loudest “but who also carry around a daily calendar of their children’s schedule, not their own, because everything in their life revolves around their children,” Glass and Tabatsky say.

Then there are “the carpoolers.” These are parents who meet for coffee after dropping off their kids at school in the morning, or assemble in the long line outside of school anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before closing. They leave their cars to gossip about teachers, administrators, grades and sports.

Maturity killer” parents are those who ignore developmental changes in their children, and treat their kids as babies or as if they were younger than they are, treatment that’s liable to interfere with the proper process of maturity.

Parents sometimes act as “best buddies” who constantly crave the companionship of their child. Here, say Glass and Tabatsky, “the child has little life of her own and becomes the puppet of the parent. The parents have no life of their own, and when the child eventually leaves, they are crushed.”

The Overparenting EpidemicThe authors also collect useful definitions for overparented kids, including:

Teacups” refer to exceedingly fragile children.

Toasties” are the kids so heavily loaded up with activities that they burn out before they even reach maturity.

Turtles” are kids who are so protected from real-life issues that they have a protective shell which creates an atmosphere of privilege.

And finally, there is the “tyrant,” which the authors define as “overparented kids who have been told they were special for too long.” It’s here we find the makings of a bully.

The bottom line:

There is a lot to learn in this 190-page book, which is well-written and even quite humorous thoughout. But 189 of those pages focus on the various aspects of the overparenting problem. Only one page is about the solution, which is basically, just to leave kids alone and follow the movement known as “free range parenting.” Unfortunately, the authors don’t dive into the ins and outs of that movement in this book. Read more about the free range parenting movement here.

The Overparenting Epidemic lacks step-by-step, rehabilitative solutions to the problem, which any overparenting parent is going to expect, if not demand. This type of parent might also require an exhaustive list of peer-reviewed articles proving beyond any doubt that overparenting causes harm. That belies the book’s cover description that describes it as one for parents. This book is less a parenting guide than a cultural commentary. But as such, it’s a good one.

The book might also have utility in interventions. If your therapist, friend or a family member happens to give you a copy of the book, or if you happen to find a copy of it in your mailbox, you should probably read the book and reflect deeply on it.

You might not really want your overparented child to one day write a poem along the lines of late English Poet Laureate designee Philip Larkin who wrote:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.”

For aNewDomain, I’m Tom Ewing.

Photo credits:

“Blue Boy,” by Thomas Gainsborough [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; “Girl suffering form anxiety” by Bablekan at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons; “Pinky,” by Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; “Acoso escolar” by Adda garridoOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via<ahref=”//”>Wikimedia Commons; “Bernhard Plockhorst – Schutzengel” by Bernhard Plockhorst (1825–1907) ––10302816/SP–A/IGID–1009314/Blessed_Are_the_Children.htm?sOrig=CAT&sOrigID=12124&ui=6C19473B2A154BB399A10A16F08022BB, watermark and copyright notice removed, color corrected. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; By Vicki Nunn (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; image of girl in hat: Tom Ewing for aNewDomain 2005/2015, All Rights Reserved.