Note to Readers: In our quest to be the best parents we can be and keep our children as safe as we can….Are we inadvertently overparenting? College orientation information actually has a segment dedicated to telling parents to stop being a helicopter parent…funny, I don’t remember my parents having to be told that in a brochure… Thanks to Kiwi Magazine for asking me about this subject.
By Marygrace Taylor
When meeting her kids’ babysitter at the park one afternoon, Marie Anne Mastrovito tried to squeeze herself into a tot-sized slide—but it wasn’t because she loved playground equipment, or because she was attempting to channel the carefree fun of her childhood. Instead, it was to make sure her then three-year-old daughter, Maya, would make it to the bottom safely—until the sitter pointed out that Maya was a pro at going down the slide on her own. “It suddenly occurred to me how silly it must have looked to see a grown woman squishing into this tiny space to go down the slide with her perfectly capable toddler,” says the New York City mom of two.
Certainly, Mastrovito’s devotion to her children is undeniable—but when it comes to doing and caring for kids, how much is too much? The line might be blurry, but at some point, (maybe at the top of a too-small playground slide) parenting becomes over parenting. Sometimes also called helicopter parenting, “it’s making sure to buy deluxe and organic everything. Jumping up when a toddler is still two feet away from maybe bumping her head. In short, treating a kid like he’s in bubble wrap,” says Lori Lite, a childhood anxiety expert and founder of Stress Free Kids. Here, why parents spoil children and how to break the cycle.
Why we hover
For Mastrovito, helicoptering her children’s every move stems from fear: “I’m an anxious person and didn’t know anything about kids until I had them in my mid-forties. I tended to underestimate their abilities and do everything for them. The more I did, the more they expected—and it’s become a difficult cycle to break.”
Mastrovito isn’t alone. According to Robert Epstein, Ph.D., a psychologist and creator of a scientific test of parenting skills (the Epstein Parenting Competencies Inventory, available for free at myparentingskills.com), fear is a big part of the over parenting equation. While his research indicates that children are actually safer today than in generations past, the constant onslaught of horror stories brought on by the media creates the notion of a big, bad world—from which our kids need protecting. “As we’ve become a more news-oriented culture, parents have become more nervous. According to statistics, kids are safer than they used to be, but the perception has changed dramatically,” Epstein says. The result? A caution that, at times, is overblown—and that can hurt our kids more than help them.
But this is my child! Of course she needs protecting!, you think. No matter what the studies say, the urge to nurture (and possibly over-nurture) our kids is undeniable. “It’s natural, especially for women, to want to protect one’s children—and I don’t think we could exist as a species if we didn’t have those strong tendencies. The problem is that it can translate into behavior which probably does more harm than good,” says Epstein. Case in point? When Maya was a baby, Mastrovito would sit next to her daughter in the back of the car on family trips instead of in the passenger seat next to her husband. “I’d bring a full spectrum of toys to entertain her, handing her a new one every five minutes,” Mastrovito recalls.
To this day, Mastrovito admits to doing way too much for her now-six-year-old daughter, but is unsure how to back off. What’s more, she feels her status as a working mom only strengthens her urge to hover over Maya’s every move: “I may over parent when I’m with my kids because I don’t get to parent them a lot of the time,” she says. Lori Lite thinks this is common, and also believes that the perfectionist, type-A personalities of some working moms has the potential to translate into helicopter parenting at home. “Many moms were in the workforce prior to having kids, and had to be persistent, aggressive, and in-control at their jobs. I did that with my first child, and completely transferred that approach to being a parent,” Lite explains.
Why we might want to step back
So there may be a lot of over parenting these days, but does it matter? If kids are safe and they know their parents love them, then so what? Actually, there are some ramifications to consider: Giving your child excessive guidance or protection might prevent her from learning crucial lessons in self-reliance and autonomy, Epstein says. (Read: She’ll never learn to do anything on her own!) Plus, you won’t always be there to make things perfect. “Kids need to be prepared for life’s ups and downs,” says Lite. By allowing your child to experience minor letdowns from time to time, like sitting in a time-out or only bringing along one toy to the restaurant, she’ll be better equipped to deal with bigger disappointments down the road.
An anxious parent can also transfer those feelings to her kid. “Helicoptering can make a child emotionally fragile,” says Lite, who points out that roughly 70 percent of U.S. kids say that they worry—largely in part because they haven’t developed the ability to resolve problems on their own. And while babies aren’t able to comprehend the words and actions of over parenting, they certainly aren’t immune to the effects: “Fear and anxiety are contagious,” says Lite. (Fortunately, the reverse is also true. In an effort to foster feelings of relaxation, Lite performed deep breathing exercises with her third child propped on her belly. The result? A baby whose demeanor was much calmer than that of either of her older siblings.)
What to do instead
First off, don’t feel guilty if you’ve found yourself veering into helicopter parent territory (or if you’re pretty sure you live there). You’re doing it out of love, and that’s the most important thing. But if you’re starting to think you’re doomed to a future of phone calls from your grown-up kid asking how to handle life’s every curve ball? You can relax. While of course it’s important to be concerned with your child’s safety, a recent study conducted by Epstein found that parental concern is not a good indicator of a child’s happiness or how good a parent-child relationship will be. What does affect satisfaction and well-being? “Teaching autonomy and independence, using positive reinforcement instead of punishment, and being loving and attentive,” Epstein explains. So while you might continue to remain vigilant about steering clear of phthalates in your toddler’s educational toys, remember that the real benefit to your kid’s development lay in letting her know she did a good job cleaning those toys up—then sharing a cuddly bedtime story.
The next time you find yourself going overboard, start simply by being aware of the situation to see whether there’s room to let your kid explore the situation on her own. “If your toddler is on the playground and you see a struggle about to occur with another kid over a toy, check your urge to jump in by taking a moment to breathe and observe,” suggests Lite. Your child might throw a tantrum—but she might also deal with the problem positively in her own way. “If you take that pause, you might get to see the things you’ve been trying to teach them,” says Lite. “What a joyful moment for you to see your child handle her own situation. What an empowering moment for the child.”
This article was originally published in Kiwi Magazine
Kids aren’t the only ones we have tools for. Parents too can learn techniques for relaxation and stress management with our Indigo Dreams: Adult Relaxation and Indigo Dreams: Rainforest Relaxation Music CD.
Stress Free Kids founder Lori Lite has created a line of books and CDs designed to help children, teens, and adults decrease stress, anxiety, and anger. Ms. Lite’s books, CDs, and lesson plans are considered a resource for parents, psychologists, therapists, child life specialists, teachers, and yoga instructors. Lori is a certified children’s meditation facilitator and Sears’ Manage My Life parenting expert. For more information visit Stress Free Kids and for daily advice follow Lori on Twitter and Facebook.