The Rise of the Monster Parent

Can parents be too overprotective in raising their children?

Posted Aug 17, 2016

Many schoolteachers across North America are already reporting being overwhelmed by overprotective parents who seem disinclined to let their children fight their own battles.  But reports out of Asia suggest that things could be worse.  Much worse.

Years after Amy Chua first introduced the concept of the "tiger mother" and the draconian parenting practices that supposedly helped children excel, much of Asia is now experiencing the rise of "monster parents" and the terror they bring to their children's teachers. Taken from a Japanese term for irrational parenting, monster parents are known for their bizarre blend of authoritarianism and overprotectiveness in raising their children. According to one writer, "monster parents wrap their children in cotton wool and cannot countenance criticism of their progeny."

Often denounced by critics and advocates of education reform, monster parents have become a favorite topic in Japan, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia.  One online contributor to a popular Hong Kong social media site for parents, came up with this comprehensive guideline on how to identify a monster parent:

1.  A need to control their children (regardless of age). They shift the responsibility of their children back to themselves, not giving them autonomy and hence discouraging their thinking abilities.
2. Forcing their children to do things that they don’t really like, like taking classes in different subjects or socializing with others, depriving them of their childhood.
3. Viewing academic results before anything else. If the results are good, parents praise them. But if bad, they attribute the poor results to external factors such as the quality of the school, the quality of the teachers, cheating by other students, or the negative effect of "other" students who are considered to be disruptive.
4. They tend to think their children are right in everything they do, even if it's something that's not socially appropriate. These parents may look down on children and parents from other backgrounds who are regarded as inferior or undeserving of the same educational opportunities as their own children.

According to Japanese sociologists, the rise of monster parents (at least in Japan) is directly linked to the sharp decline in the birth rate in recent years. This motivates parents more than ever to provide their children with the best possible upbringing by demanding that their opinions on education be heard and followed.  Along with Japan, Hong Kong and other regions plagued by low birthrates are seeing more monster parents than ever. 

In Hong Kong especially, the competition for placement in private kindergartens and preschools remains fierce.  Many parents begin preparing their children almost from birth to excel in academic settings.  There is often competition for the "best" playgroups in which to place their toddlers and continues all the way through preschool and beyond.   

Even when their children are placed in first-class schools, this need for control means constant monitoring of their child's progress.  One of the best methods that monster parents have for controlling how their children are educated is through constant complaints to teachers and school boards which can continue all the way from preschool through to university. 

In one recent news story about monster parents, a woman described how she had her four-year-old son attend soccer class on Mondays, piano and violin on Thursdays, extra English and maths on Thursdays and Fridays and music on Saturdays. She was also considering Mandarin and swimming, and all this on top of kindergarten.  While this case may be extreme, there is an entire industry that has sprung up to help parents provide their children with enriched educational opportunities.  

As the competition becomes more intense, many parents lacking the luxury of emigrating somewhere more congenial have no choice but to embrace their inner monster parent to ensure their children have the best education available. That this means more financial strain for lower-income families who find it harder to compete is just adding to the problem.

The tension over having children succeed is especially evident in places like Hong Kong which only have a limited number of spots for university.  As a result, families are forced to either arrange for their children to study abroad or to emigrate themselves to give their children better opportunities elsewhere.  But this isn't an option for everyone, hence the pressure on parents and students to excel in academics above all else. 

To add to this tension for Hong Kong parents, they are also facing competition from "cross-border students" coming from other parts of China to fill valuable university spots once reserved for Hong Kong students alone.  Though groups such as the Hong Kong's Progressive Teachers' Alliance are calling for greater flexibility and less competitiveness for parents and children, coming up with better alternatives won't be easy, especially while competing with the millions of university-age students in China pushing to enter university there.

But is monster parenting limited to Asian cultures?  Just about any schoolteacher in North America can describe harrowing encounters with parents determined to root out anything that might get in the way of their children's education.  Here, they are more commonly known as "helicopter parents" (because they "hover" over every aspect of their child's life) and the long-term psychological effects on their children seem to be as profound as what is being reported in Hong Kong and Japan. 

For many parents however, watching over their children simply makes good economic sense given the enormous financial costs associated with seeing a child through university.  Many families find that university tuition represents the single greatest expense they might have and, like all good investments, this means careful monitoring of every detail to ensure their money is being properly spent.

As the birthrate continues to decline in many places, we may well see even more overprotective parents (whether of the helicopter or monster variety).  Despite being driven by good intentions,the consequences for their children can be severe.  In Asia for example, education critics have been warning that subjecting children to monster parenting has created a new generation prone to what has been called "prince/princess sickness" encouraging greater narcissism and egocentric behavior (think "affluenza".)  

There are other drawbacks as well given the pressure children experience to meet unrealistic expectations. They also face constant pressure to pass examinations and get good grades, something that many schools encourage as well. It is hardly surprising that suicide and non-suicidal self-injury is rising among many young people.

In warning about the problems associated with overparenting, Doctor Deborah Gilboa, founder of AskDoctorG.com, points out that many parents have difficulty keeping a proper perspective about what their children really need.  "The problem is that, once parenting becomes governed by fear and decisions based on what might happen, it is hard to keep in mind all the things kids learn when we are not right next to them or guiding each step," she explains. "Failure and challenges teach kids new skills, and, most important, teach kids that they can handle failure and challenges." 

Ultimately, parents need to accept that their children need to struggle in order to develop the self-esteem and life skills they will need as adults. As Doctor Gilboa suggests, "Remembering to look for opportunities to take one step back from solving our child's problems will help us build the reliant, self-confident kids we need."

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