The Nurture Tightrope: Can Parents Love Too Much?

Overprotecting our children can be perilous.

Posted Jul 23, 2011

     Some years ago, there was a bestselling book called Women Who Love Too Much by California therapist Robin Norwood. As I read an article in this month's Atlantic Magazine with the intriguing title "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," I was reminded of Norwood's book. Briefly stated, the article argues that parents can love too much, nurture too much, and protect too much. The result of this overly fastidious parenting is that in young adulthood the "overly nurtured" kids are not prepared for the sometimes harsh realities of life. They often end up in the therapist's office complaining of depression, anxiety and emptiness. Interestingly, these young people do not whine about their parents like kids of yesteryear. On the contrary, they claim that their parents are their best friends and that they adore them.

      But, after leaving home, these youngsters find themselves floundering in a world that bears little resemblance to the safe and nurturing environment of their family hearth. They have trouble having good relationships, deciding on career paths, and navigating the inevitable rough spots on the journey from the nest to adulthood. The sense of entitlement with which they grew up becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

      The Atlantic article's point is that kids don't always end up on the therapist's couch because of negligent, narcissistic, or abusive parents--the main complaints of therapy patients in previous generations. On the contrary, what the author hears from her young adult clients is that their parents were overly nurturing. They were not merely "good enough parents", in Winnicott's now famous words describing the parent who carefully meters the amount of frustration her child is allowed to experience. Their parents were "too good," so that as children they were barely allowed to experience any frustration at all. Some frustration, it seems, is a necessary ingrediant for healthy development.

      In the light of recent events in the news, I cannot help thinking that at least these over-protected kids, whose helicopter parents are hovering at the curb outside day camp at dismissal time, don't end up getting kidnapped and murdered. I bring up this point not to be sensationalistic, but because it goes to the heart of one important reason that many parents feel like they need to protect their children more than their parents protected them. Today's world is simply a much more dangerous place for children. Even in gated communities in upscale suburbs (not to mention the streets of Brooklyn) children are snatched while playing on their front lawns. Even though these occurrences are extremely rare, many parents believe that it is better to err on the side of being over protective. And this over-protective instinct to keep their children safe overflows into other aspects of parenting, and may even become excessive.

      I think that the author, Lori Gottlieb, brings up a good point. She raises parents' awareness of an important issue, although she does not give parents specific guidelines for navigating the nurture tightrope. Parents are left to incorporate her insights into their parenting as they will. Parents will continue to struggle with the decision of whether to change their son's school because they believe his teacher is damaging or whether to allow their daughter to quit her piano lessons because her instructor is too demanding.

      There is, however, one significant strength of the over-nurtured, over-coddled young adults that  the author doesn't mention. At least their parents instilled in them the message that help is always available--from parents or professionals--and these young people have the courage to seek out therapy when they need it. For a young person, going to a therapist for help takes significant strength.

Copyright 2011 Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Marilyn Wedge is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic (Penguin/Avery)