College Confidential

What all freshman (and their parents) should know about entering higher ed.

Over-Parenting Can Make Kids Helpless

‘Good’ versus ‘good-enough’ parenting

Over the next few weeks thousands of youngsters will be headed off to college and the vast majority of them don’t know how to do their laundry. That’s a stark metaphor for how over-parenting can undermine a child’s ability to be self-sufficient.

A dear friend of mine’s daughter left for college last week. In addition to juggling her classes, her athletic schedule and a pretty novel social experience, she’s spending a whole lot of time teaching her roommates and peers how to do laundry. A casual survey of friends, colleagues and clients reveals that many of their almost-college-age children don’t know how to do laundry—or load a dishwasher or write a check. Still more don’t know how to change a tire or cook a simple meal, like scrambled eggs or pancakes. These aren’t spoiled, upper-crust families with staff either—just regular, work-a-day folks.

All of this speaks rather directly to how our social imperative to over-parent actually has something of an opposite effect. Parents are meant to be teachers. But it would appear that many children are not taught salient social survival skills beyond the activities of daily living.

In her landmark book The Drama of the Gifted Child psychoanalyst Alice Miller introduced us to the model of the ‘bad’, the ‘good’ and the ‘good-enough’ mother. The ‘bad’ mother neglects. The ‘good’ mother is invasive and hyper-vigilant. The ‘good-enough’ mother strikes a balance between these two extremes that supports, while allowing for a solid dose of self-exploratory independence. The model can be transferred and applied to any number of social relationships, parenting being one of them.

As our child-centric culture has evolved over the past several decades, ‘good’ parenting has become the norm. Very often parents do for their kids more than they do for themselves. One consequence of this is that kids often get short shifted on experience, to their peril. I can speak to this—and it is likely why I am reacting and writing about it—because, although it issued from a different set of values, I had a somewhat similar experience growing up.

I was born a generation late. My father, who was born very close to the turn of the last century, was rather old-fashioned and tended to take care of everything. He passed away suddenly when I was in my early twenties and I was left quite literally not knowing how to look after myself in some very basic ways. Sure, I could do laundry and change a tire, but many of the fundamental tools necessary to maintain a household and lead an independent life were lost to me. I stepped up out of necessity, of course, but the results were considerably less than stellar.

This post isn’t a self-confessional, cautionary tale or admonishment to today’s parents. But watching so many kids on a large Midwestern campus flounder really pushed my buttons and made me think about how their experience—again, for different reasons—mirrored my own, and how that experience made my initiation into adulthood that much more of a struggle, grief notwithstanding.

I suppose the take away here is that there are some things that kids should know how to do for themselves and, if they aren’t taught those things directly, they should be allowed to figure it on their own. That’s the good-enough parenting piece.

It’s our own misplaced sense of immortality and failure to acknowledge the constancy of impermanence (ah, that’s how he’s working the Buddha into this one) that leads us to the belief we will always be there to do for them. We won’t—and coming to terms with our own mortality (read: impermanence) can actually make us both better parents and more effective teachers.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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