Parental attention to children is a good thing, it has always been assumed. And indeed, studies show that parental involvement in children's schooling correlates with kids' achievement. But researchers are finally getting around to examining what other observers (myself included) have recognized for some time—that there can be too much of a good thing. Call it overparenting or call it helicopter parenting, it can have detrimental effects.
Researchers define overparenting as "the application of developmentally inappropriate levels of parental directiveness, tangible assistance, problem-solving, monitoring, and involvement in the lives of children." At every step of the way, parents are overly involved in their kids' lives and overmonitor them.
They push their kids to achieve and accept nothing less than As, calling teachers and even college administrators if they feel disappointed with a grade. They take over tasks for their kids, solving the minutest problems for them. They monitor their kids' movements, even from afar, and orchestrate their leisure. They go to great lengths to keep their kids out of harm's way, discouraging play in playgrounds or almost anywhere outdoors in favor of organized after-school activities.
They overreact to every little emotional blip in their child. They put pads on infants' knees when they're learning to walk, although such pads actually impede mobility. They fill out job applications for the grown and graduated, accompany them to job interviews, even negotiate salaries for them! I could go on. Gatherings of college administrators these days often begin informally with the latest eyeball-rolling accounts of parental intrusiveness.
Studies are now documenting that such intensive parenting makes kids feel ineffective but overly entitled, robs them of coping skills, and inclines them to narcissism as well as depression and anxiety, to say nothing of feelings of stress. After all, if you're short on coping skills, even a minuscule bump in life is going to stress you out. Kids become extremely risk-averse, terrified of failure, unable to make decisions for themselves. The parents don't come off so well either; overparenting is associated with negative traits such as anxiety in the adults.
Still, overparenting has taken on a force of its own and spread rapidly over the past decade. It is now the dominant standard of parenting in many communities in the U.S., aided and abetted by an extraordinary readiness of modern parents to negatively judge child-rearing practices or philosophies that differ from their own.
So it is especially distressing to learn that, although overparenting can disrupt healthy psychological development, it is now being incorporated into the law. A recent article in the University of California Davis Law Review details how.
Gaia Bernstein and Zvi Triger report that custody allocation and child support payments are now being tied to demonstrations of parental involvement. And custody disputes only raise the stakes. Want to prove that you are the parent who should receive primary custody? Better leave a documented trail of how much time you spend with the kids, how many calls you make to them and for them, how many messages you send, how many times you call the teacher, coach the soccer games. According to Bernstein and Triger, courts increasingly consider the quantity and quality of time each parent spent with a child prior to divorce.
When clients contact lawyers seeking divorce, the lawyers now urge those who are parents to effectively engage in a parenting competition. This has nothing to do with the welfare of the children, mind you, just who will be the parental victor. "In a sense, the time period before custody determinations becomes a race for parental involvement," with as much of a paper trail as possible.
Custody battles have become commonplace as family law's "tender years doctrine" has given way to the "best interests of the child doctrine." The tender-years doctrine carried the presumption that young children fare better with maternal custody. At least in the U.S., it has been in retreat, paving the way for parent vs. parent battles that now intensify already intensive parenting practices.
In the course of researching their article, Bernstein and Triger interviewed family law attorneys who regularly represent clients in custody disputes. "Lawyers advise parents, particularly the parent who is not the primary caregiver, to create an appearance of involvement by participating in all aspects of the child's life." Suggestions include: taking the child to school and picking her up (especially if sign-up sheets create a written record), being involved in the child's homework preparation, knowing the child's teachers, calling or texting the child at least once a day, coaching the child's sports team, participating in child and parent classes.
The surveyed lawyers themselves conceded that many parents tend to go overboard—for example, taking over the practice sessions of their children's sports so that the children have no independent outlet ever.
Child support determinations only up the ante, as the more time a parent spends with a child reduces the amount of money he or she will be required to provide.
The net effect is to make high-intervention parenting virtually mandatory. Pity the poor parent who believes that free play is good for children or that children play a role in their own growth. Parents are forced to engage in intensive parenting to avoid being labeled that most vile of epithets: bad parent. "In the past, the job of the parent was to expose the child to the outside world," observe Bernstein and Triger. "Today's parents seek to protect their child from the outside world."
It's bad enough that such child-rearing practices deprive children of developing independence and competence. Bernstein and Triger think the law is going too far. Making legal standards out of parenting practices abrogates parental decision-making autonomy. Further, parenting practices tend to change with time and information. Freezing them into law serves no one. "Beyond the dangers of turning confusing and impartial knowledge of best child-rearing practices into law lie hazards of endorsing child-rearing norms that are culture- and class-dependent as well as gender-biased," report the duo. Incorporating today's intensive parenting norms into legal standards will only prevent natural social evolution, they argue.
Bernstein is on the law faculty of Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Triger, who is now deputy dean of Tel Aviv University's law school, has spent a great deal of time in the U.S. I asked him how he got interested in the topic. "As a family law scholar, I've been looking into how parents use their children against their co-parents during divorce proceedings, and one of my research interests in general is the child's best interest principle as it is applied in family courts." The other trigger for the article, he confided, was his co-author's stories of parenting in New York City. "Parents are required to be much more involved in every aspect of their children's lives, much more than our parents were when we grew up in the 1970s."
In his current position as deputy dean, he says, he rarely encounters parents getting involved in their children's academic life—something that happens frequently in the U.S. Ironically, he reports, Israeli parents are very involved during their children's military service. "But it stops when they go to university. Parents who try to interfere on behalf of their children are usually perceived as a great source of embarrassment for their children."
If only that were the case in the U.S. as well!