Parenting is simultaneously one of life’s most daunting and rewarding challenges. As parents (and in our case grandparents), we second-guess decisions we made, try to strike the perfect balance between safety and risk, and long for a simpler time without ubiquitous technology, over organized activities, and growing external threats. Consequently, many parents are becoming overprotective, intensely directive and highly anxious about both their children’s future and present safety. Teachers report that often their greatest challenges are the students’ parents – both those who neglect their child’s schooling and those hovering “helicopter” parents who check their child’s grades daily, saturate the teachers’ inboxes with lengthy emails, and publicly fret about the quality of the school and the staff. They do their child’s homework, write their college essays (or pay for tutoring assistance to do so), and vociferously challenge any grade less than an A, not enough playing time in their sport, and/or chair designation in band. Moreover, often parents define their own success at parenting by their child’s grades or test scores, athletic or artistic feats, or where their kids are admitted to college. All this pressure on parenting has taken its toll on parents as well as on children.
Fewer students of this generation are walking or riding a bike to school, and free, unsupervised play is disappearing as is sandlot baseball, backyard football and board games. In fact, it has been reported that parents who leave their children to play unsupervised are considered negligent by neighbors.
Overprotecting a child can do more harm than good. Both educators and psychologists see an increase in anxiety disorder among children. According to a study by the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the number of children diagnosed with anxiety has increased significantly in the past years with 3.5% in 2007 and 21.6% in 2017. Numbers are one thing, but narrative is another. Of all the parenting books I have read, none surpass Julie Lythcott-Haims How to Raise an Adult. It should be required reading for every educator and every neighborhood book club. By over protecting our children, we are saddling them with unnecessary anxiety that they will be left to handle on their own.
In studies on the relationship between parenting and developing anxiety in children, it was concluded that the parenting behavior that affected children most was “granting autonomy” or the parental encouragement of children’s own choices, acknowledgment of their independent perspective, and solicitation of their own input in decision making. The more autonomy given to the children, the fewer instances of childhood anxiety. Overprotecting children can give them the message that they need to be scared of something and that the world is a dangerous place.
It’s important to note that some children are slower in developing than others. Parents can start out by giving independence to their children in low-risk situations they can handle. This can be doing the dishes, choosing the gifts for their friends, or having your five-year old walk you across the street or through the parking lot instead of vice-versa. These are all small steps towards independence and self-sufficiency that can be encouraged with a pat on the back or a supportive phrase of trust. In these instances, nagging and reprimands for not being more responsible and independent do not work.
Independence can start for the youngest children in small tasks. This will prepare them for a life of making decisions and taking risks. Letting children play unsupervised can be done gradually and will help individuals gain sufficient experience and skills in handling negative situations, building resilience, and dealing with conflict. Parents on their end have to cope with their own anxiety when allowing children to cope on their own. After all, even if children make mistakes, it is part of growing up and learning to improve. This gives children the confidence and sense of responsibility in living in the real world and making their own choices. As they get older, encouraging them to find and take a part-time job – no, not necessarily an internship – but a minimum wage job will go a long way in building their character, empathy, and work ethic. Have them write their own college essays and choose whether or not to do their homework. They will learn what and how much they have to do from the latter, and any essay in a student’s own authentic voice will be recognized and rewarded in the competitive admissions process.
But what about that final grade for the parents? How do they know when they were successful? Well, as we approach 70, Jan and I still don’t really know, but as we watch two of our kids be terrific parents to our four grandchildren and a third thriving in a job and place he loves, we do not regret our past decisions to let them explore, to limit them to one travel sport, to get them outdoors or in the garage, to make messes (and then clean them up), to finish every single homework assignment to perfection, and to go to college or not.