Seven years ago, my husband and I moved from the urban home in Denver that we adored to a bigger home in suburbia. We had an 18 month old son and a child-to-be-named-later on the way and we knew that we would not want our kids riding their bikes on the busy city streets around our home. We wholeheartedly believed that a move to the suburbs (a move we would have eschewed just a couple years earlier) would be the best way to give our children the fun, peaceful childhood we’d each had.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that moving would present even greater, hidden danger. It was in our idyllic neighborhood that I first fell victim to a frightening disease, the affliction of overparenting. Up until that point in my parental career, I was admittedly rather haphazard. I bumbled along trying to figure out who my children were, where they fit into our lives, and how we functioned as a family. I left my son in the playpen while I cleaned. When he wouldn’t nap, I just gave up and let him stay awake. I owned just one book on parenting and its main function was to collect dust. All that was about to change.
Shortly after joining the play group in our new neighborhood, another mom asked where I intended to enroll my son for preschool. The look on my face must have been pure deer-in-headlights naivete.
“Preschool? He’s just two.” I gasped.
Surely I didn’t need to be worrying about that yet, did I? After all, I had no formal schooling until I got on the bus on my first day of kindergarten. (Yes. On the school bus. At age 5. Alone. No mommy to accompany me. Shocking, I know. My heartless mother let me get on the bus while she stood on the curb and waved goodbye before heading home to a cup of coffee and Days of our Lives.) Much to my dismay, all the other mothers in the play group started discussing how vital it was to get your small children, especially if they were boys, into a good preschool. It was September. Registration began in January. I had four months to research, visit, interview, and determine the best school for my son. My rapid descent into parental onset insanity began.
While the play group was a good setting in which to make new friends, a place where I could commiserate about exhaustion and the lack of nearby drive-thru Starbucks stores to remedy that exhaustion, it was also the school where I began my formal education in modern-day overparenting. Nearly immediately, I ingested the “good mom” Kool-Aid provided and started pulling out the Baby Einstein tapes and buying organic baby food. I devised appropriate responses to head off criticisms regarding why I bottle fed my infant son...although I wasn’t quite sure when bottle feeding my children became a public concern. I began taking my young boys to story time (which they wouldn’t sit still for), to the Museum of Nature and Science (where I once lost my youngest son for 3 minutes of utter terror), and to weekly play group where they would hopefully learn to play nicely with others. It was all part of my new role as stay-at-home mom. After all, parenting was now my only job, so my Type A personality applied the same diligence that I had applied to college and my career. My children were my new career, and parenting them to the hilt became my chief job description.
I made sure they were in infant swim class. I childproofed the entire house with baby gates, outlet plugs, cabinet locks, and doorknobs that even adults struggled with on occasion. I read to them daily. I counted to ten with them in four languages. We limited television and made sure that they only watched “educational programming.” And, yes, both boys began preschool at age 3 so they could sing songs, learn to sit on a line, follow instructions, cut with safety scissors, and begin their formal education with an education in how to be educated.
As I trudged along, however, something did not feel right. My body had clearly been hijacked by an alien being. I was on autopilot. I felt nothing but inadequate as my boys failed to meet crucial milestones in the baby book in a timely fashion. Our house was filled with workbooks, games, crafts, art supplies, and educational tools, all representing my boys’ hidden potential. Yet, I never took the time to ponder how I became the self-sufficient, independent, capable person that I am without all the advantages of art classes, weekly museum trips, play groups, infant swim classes, a preschool education, child safety seats, or even seat belts. Even more rarely did I take the time to sit and enjoy my children for who they were because I was too busy comparing them to other children and wondering why they were different. As a parent, I was perpetually stressed out and wholly consumed with offering my kids everything that society was telling me they needed.
Something had to give. Recently, hubby and I decided to move consciously away from helicopter parenting and to stop hovering perpetually over our children. We’re choosing to give them more space, space in which they will perhaps struggle occasionally but will eventually grow into independent, autonomous, creative thinkers. It’s been difficult to let go, but what has surprisingly been more troubling is that we find ourselves worrying about what our peers will say. Last week we walked with the boys to the park; once there, we left them on the playground to walk around the lake trail there. As we left, a couple other parents made a mental note of our departure. Our boys are 6 and 8, plenty old enough to play for 10 minutes without constant parental supervision, especially when they can see us and know where we are. Still, we felt self-conscious about our decision, despite the fact that by the time we were 8 years old both hubby and I had been left to ride our bikes off alone to our friends’ homes, to school, and even to the store to buy a few things. The watching eyes of judging and all-knowing Big Brother follow us mightily in suburbia.
My parents may have been the King and Queen of Tough Love, but they did me a favor in requiring from me a measure of sacrifice, hard work, struggle, and failure during my first 18 years. When I would miss a 4.0 grade point by garnering a B-grade in a course, my mom’s standard response inevitably referred to where I had failed instead of where I had succeeded. I didn’t get paid for my good grades; I was merely expected to achieve them. My parents didn’t give me an allowance either. I was part of a family and as such I had responsibilities. When I felt uncomfortable about something, my mother forced me to face it; she never once called my teachers and asked them to give me a make-up test or yelled at my coaches when they only let me play right field in softball. If I forgot my coat, I was cold. Left my lunch on the counter? I had to sit hungry while other kids ate. When I didn’t get into my first-choice college right off the bat, my parents asked me to figure out what I could do to change that situation. They repeatedly requested that I rise to the challenges I encountered and they made sure I had the space to do it. And, guess what? Not only did I survive the things I feared most, but I gained self-confidence and self-esteem for enduring them. Funny how that works. Yes. They had to watch me struggle sometimes, and I understand now with my own children how that must have broken their hearts; but the payoff is that they have three intelligent, hard-working daughters who have all earned master’s degrees and aren’t living in their basement.
Parents today are far too fearful. We spend too much time worrying about what we can do to make the most of our young children’s early brain development. We start pondering what we can do to get them to college before we even get them potty trained. We’re getting it all wrong. Children only get one childhood, and we eviscerate it by bombarding them with non-stop activity and not allowing them to get bored and find their own amusement once in a while. We’re so busy planning for them that we don’t listen to them. And, we treat them as if we know their destinies instead of being silent enough to let them discover their own. Our kids will go as far as we allow them to go which, judging by many of the parents I know these days, may mean they never make it beyond the end of the driveway alone. Personally, I’m hoping mine get to the moon without me.