Parents, like lovers, must always negotiate a fine line between nurturing and controlling. But many now step way over the line into controlling, and a large segment of America’s children are suffering from overparenting. They lead highly pressurized lives that are rigidly structured and managed by their parents. They are pushed to achieve, not for the pleasure of learning but for the grades that will get them into brand-name colleges. Today’s parents brandish the achievements of their children like a badge, turning tots into trophies, thereby subordinating the developmental needs of the children to the psychological needs of adults.
In this hothouse environment, every obstacle is typically cleared from the path to achievement. Should Jonah or Emma leave a workbook or assignment home, Mom is likely to run it over to school. And should a child get a grade on a test or paper that disappoints, Mom or Dad might call the school to see what can be done to fix it. As the assistant principal of one well-known public high school told me, “I have hundreds of stories—from five-page e-mails from parents detailing all the ways a son's teachers have failed to recognize his learning style to a seven-phone-call exchange taking up over four hours to explain why a parent's daughter was asked to stay after class to talk to a teacher.”
The number-one problem of school counselors today, a Nebraska educator informed me, is “overinvolved parents, thereby creating extremely dependent young people.” (Of course, the number two problem is under-involved parents, who create “young people with no moral or academic compass.” That’s why we need to find a way to care for all children, not just pour all our resources into our own privileged children.)
And indeed, the young people are suffering. When they leave the protective cocoon of home for college, they are breaking down psychologically in record numbers. Campus counseling centers are overwhelmed with students suffering from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, and self-mutilation. “By the eleventh week of a semester, all appointments are filled,” says the director of counseling at one southern university. “But the students don’t stop coming.” Increasing numbers need hospitalization.
In some outposts of affluence, the pressures to achieve are especially acute and the students don’t wait until college to break down. “I'm scared for the kids at my school and for my own daughter, who isn't even two yet,” the assistant high school principal told me. “I am tired of sending kids to mental hospitals.” By early February, he “had 11 students hospitalized and tomorrow will likely yield number 12. This number includes only the students on my caseload. I'm not sure what the number is for my counterpart, but I'd guess it is similar.”
How is it that those who mean only the best for their kids wind up bringing out the worst in them?
Hyperinvolvement is always counterproductive; it breeds fragility as it directly transmits anxiety to the kids—and they have no coping skills for handling it. With all the lumps and bumps taken out of life for them, they have never learned any way of handling life’s challenges. When they hit the slightest impediment, they feel overwhelmed.
Despite inhabiting a world characterized by uncertainty, the children of overinvolved parents increasingly lack tolerance for uncertainty. As a professor in one highly regarded Midwestern business school told me, “We seem to have at least two segments of MBA students—those sincerely interested in a rigorous learning experience and those who seek a more straightforward, streamlined education that simplifies the world for them. They have a tremendous desire to reduce uncertainty in learning (to have things summarized and linearized for them). That segment is growing; it is now large enough to be having a real impact on learning experiences, norms, and student culture.”
Being bred in a hothouse environment and highly programmed from an early age also makes young people overly compliant. Over dinner one night, I asked a group of six undergraduate students at that same Midwestern university whether it was true that a new silence was falling over classrooms. I told them I had heard that students now saw speaking up as too great a risk, even in courses like philosophy and ethics that normally demand discussion. They all shrugged, as if granting a unanimous “of course.” Finally one looked me straight in the eye and said emphatically, “We didn’t get here by rocking the boat.”
It is a sad day for American culture when one of its most vibrant features—speaking up to voice an opinion—is “rocking the boat.” Keep in mind that these are the very students who are being trained as the future leaders of business and society. That’s what makes hothouse parenting so destructive. It doesn’t just undermine the kids; it threatens the future of democracy. Does it need mentioning that it’s difficult to sustain the economy without risk-taking?
How you and I care for our children has far-reaching implications. It’s time to consider lengthening the leash and allowing the kids, judiciously, to learn how to care a bit for themselves. Children come equipped with an enormous drive to demonstrate their competence, if we don’t subvert it.
So take the day off. And send the kids out to play—by themselves. The value of play is almost entirely counterintuitive, but it is the very thing that most facilitates creative adaptation to the fast and fluid world our kids are inheriting and the problem-solving skills that success increasingly demands. In today’s world, success hinges less on getting everything right than on how you handle getting things wrong. The future success of the children—that’s what it’s really all about anyway, isn’t it?
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