As most parents soon learn, the task of raising children is a humbling experience. In the current issue of Boston Magazine, Katherine Ozment writes of her realization that she may be stifling her children’s development with her hyper-attentiveness.
First she sets the stage.
“When Boston was hit by last winter’s barrage of blizzards, my two oldest kids, then ages eight and five, spent their snow days lounging around the house in their pajamas, occasionally dabbling at the computer,” she writes in “Welcome to the Age of Overparenting.”
“‘Mom,’ they said, ‘we’re bored.’ Finally, I suggested they go outside — but not too far and not for too long and they should remember to wear layers or they’d surely end up in the hospital receiving treatment for frostbite. Oh, and did they need a snack or have to go to the bathroom first? As they trudged out the front door, I was simultaneously relieved to have them out of the house and terrified that they would be kidnapped or hit by a bus. I opened our living room window and sat beside it, working on my laptop. Every 20 minutes I’d crane my neck and yell, ‘You guys all right out there?’
“I went outside an hour later and found them looking at me plaintively from our tiny garden, where they’d built ‘forts’ that were really just shallow ditches in the snow. ‘We’re cold,’ they said. ‘Can we come in now?’
“My heart sank. How times had changed. I still remember the time my two older brothers built an igloo in our front yard. It had a domed roof and arched entrance, and they strung an overhead work lamp from the ceiling and laid out a small rug so we could all sit in it for hours. Witnessing my children’s paltry fort-making skills, I thought, Is this what our kids will remember of winter — digging little holes in the snow as their mother hovered nearby? Where has the childhood I once knew gone?
“In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.
“I know that if I continue on this path, not only will my kids never have the wherewithal to build an igloo after a snowstorm, they won’t even have the freedom or imagination to try. Watching them play halfheartedly in their meager little forts, I knew I had to change.”
Many parents probably recognize themselves in Ozment’s introduction and will, perhaps, wince as they follow her on her quest to understand what she terms “the era of extraordinary parenting.”
Along the way – in the article and in a separate roundtable – Ozment talks to a number of experts. Here are excerpts of what some of them had to say:
Psychologist Richard Weissbourd, lecturer in education at Harvard University and author of “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development” – “Historically, parents have been concerned with things like obedience, manners, and respect for authority. We’re the first parents in history who really want to be their kids’ friends…. The need for closeness can be more about you than about your kids…. When your kid has trouble with homework and you jump in right away, you’re worried about your kid’s experience with failure. The irony is that, rather than securing self-esteem, that level of micromanaging usually undermines it.”
Jerome Kagan, professor emeritus of psychology, Harvard University – “When a majority in a society notice an increase in tension, uncertainty or malaise, they search for a reason. Americans are especially prone to implicating the improper behaviors of parents as the culprits…. Parental behaviors are usually reactions to conditions in the society that they did not create.”
Psychologist Michael Thompson, author of the forthcoming book “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow” — “When kids are away from their parents, their achievements are their own…. Modern parents feel that more time with Mom and Dad is always a positive — this is the single biggest change in American childhood — but the truth is that more time with you isn’t always a positive. In fact, it’s annoying…. The modern parent thinks he or she is always value added. But you aren’t. At some point you realize you’re a burden to your kids.”