Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

When Does Mothering Become Smothering? Part 1

Parents' impluse is to coddle, but how much is too much.

At the end of a talk to a group of parents by clinical psychologist Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a concerned parent asked for advice about her chronically forgetful son. He regularly left the books he needed for homework at school causing him to fall behind. Nothing the mother tried had helped.

Dr. Nadeau an expert on family dynamics and ADHD, suggested that the mother obtain a second set of schoolbooks to keep at home. The mother, not wanting to be overprotective, said, "But wouldn't I be enabling him?"

"Yes," Nadeau replied. "You'd be enabling him to do his homework!"

Although Dr. Nadeau's advice was given to a parent whose child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the parent's question underscores a major concern of parents everywhere: When does responsible and appropriate parental involvement cross the line and become overprotective? This is a special worry for parents of only children, who have long been accused of excessive child coddling. But is it fair to single out parents who have one child?

The emergence of the fashionable term "helicopter parents," which refers to parents who hover over their children, suggests otherwise. In all likelihood, the term would never have evolved, much less taken root, were overprotection solely the domain of one parental subgroup.

The popularity of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting by Hara Estroff Marano, a Psychology Today editor-at-large and blogger, further indicates that over-parenting has affected an entire generation. One needs only to read the chapter titles in Nation of Wimps such as "We're All Jewish Mothers Now," "Cheating Childhood," and "From Scrutiny to Fragility," to understand what a dim view A Nation of Wimps' author takes of what she considers coddling children. Marano's concern is broadly shared. Many experts also argue the dangers of helicoptering, such as children rendered incapable of making their own decisions or dealing with disappointment as adults.

Parents who take a different route are harshly criticized as well. Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry was labeled "America's Worst Mom" after she published a story in the New York Sun explaining how she trusted her nine-year-old son enough to let him go solo on the subway (with a map, metro card, quarters for the phone, and 20 dollars) for the first time. It took only a day for a representative from the Today Show to call and ask, incredulously, if it were true she had "abandoned" her son in midtown New York. Skenazy and her son appeared on the show where she was introduced by Ann Curry asking rhetorically whether her guest was "an enlightened mom or a really bad one?" This was followed by a face-to-face with a "family expert" who was there to, Skenazy says, "teach me a lesson."

Her son made it safely home from New York's midtown and was proud of himself, his confidence boosted. Hovering, coddling, overprotective, controlling parents will do most anything to see their children succeed. Skenazy's advice to parents is, "relax and give them some space. Children learn a lot from failure." In fact, she says, failing is how you get to success: You get lost and then you find your way again. "That probably happened to you sometime in your childhood and now it's a proud memory. It's when you realized you could do something by yourself. Those are childhood's magic words: ‘I did it myself!' Not, ‘Mommy helped me do it!'"

New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin admits to her own "helicoptering tendencies" and recognizes the danger of protecting children from the reasonable consequences of their choices and actions. Nevertheless, in a piece titled, In Defense of Helicopter Parents, Belkin points out children can benefit from a reasonable dose of parental scrutiny. Her article notes that today the complex and sometimes fraught process of growing up has only been exacerbated by the demands put on entire families by the current economic crisis. These days, for example, the choice of which college a middle class child attends demands increasingly intense parental involvement.

I spoke with Lenore Skenazy to get her side of the issue. She noted "that the same deep desire to preserve our young from death and dismemberment is what we now bring to the SATs." Parents are intent on building bulging resumes for their offspring. While Skenazy readily admits signing her own 13-year-old up for test prep, she also admits letting him quit "the guitar lessons and robotics lessons and the football lessons that might have made him ‘college catnip.'"

Researching her book made her realize that free time and poking around are as important as taking an extra class, the choosing of which is usually overseen by helicopter parents. "In fact, why don't we just think of ‘playing' as the new, hot, extracurricular activity, and put it down on the college application. That way, everyone wins!" she suggests. "No, really, the point is that there's no way to make a ‘perfect' kid and no reason to try," she says. "The best we can do is try to give them the ultimate gift: resourcefulness. And the way they get that is by doing some of the heavy-ish lifting on their own."

A reappraisal is underway and many are defending helicopter parents much to Marano and Skenazy's dismay. Clearly, people don't agree on the best approach. At what point does mothering (or fathering) become smothering?

For more: Read Part 2

Copyright 2009 by Susan Newman

More from Susan Newman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today