Parenting on overdrive

parenting on overdrive, compulsive parenting
Special thanks to the Jackson family of Anthem. Mom Cady, dad Chris, Chris Jr. (12) and Carly (5) agreed to be models for our photo shoot. Photo by Daniel Friedman.d

Parenting can be an overwhelming, all-consuming job. But in the quest to keep our children safe and healthy, we often go too far and actually put them at risk for unwanted behaviors or characteristics. At some point, we have to move away from thinking we can keep our children safe every moment of their day so we are allowing them opportunities to grow. Otherwise, they can’t develop into confident children who become independent adults.

Is your parenting on overdrive? Answer “yes” if you:

Overprotect. Are you someone who keeps young children away from McDonalds playlands or other opportunities for fun out of fear they will get dirty or exposed to germs? Parents who overprotect or insist their children always be clean run the risk of creating children who will be afraid try anything new on their own. Preschoolers who have been taught to stay clean or be careful may feel left out or scared when their peers are playing in the sand or painting with shaving cream. Valuable learning opportunities are missed when children have too many rules or restrictions.

One preschooler I know cried and clung to her teacher’s leg for more that three months because the stimulus at school was too much for her. Her parents had kept her home and sheltered her for so long, she was terrified of everything. Just as she was beginning to adjust, her parents pulled her out of school. She will likely become a fearful, anxious adult because of her parents’ decision to overprotect.

We don’t want our children to be hurt physically or emotionally. But when we limit their experiences or keep them away from school to protect them from discomfort, how will they learn to react appropriately to physical pain or social conflict? It is developmentally appropriate for preschool children to occasionally hit, bite and use hurtful words because they have not yet learned the appropriate words or socially acceptable actions. They can only learn if they are exposed to situations in a safe environment with loving adults to support their learning. It is our job as parents and teachers to model and teach appropriate behaviors and conflict resolution skills. We must allow them to experience some pain and conflict in order for them to learn how to react and overcome larger obstacles in their future.

As soon as children can walk and follow simple verbal directions, it’s time to allow them to take some simple risks with adult support. Take them to the park or make a mud puddle in your own back yard so that they can experiment in a safe environment. Use positive language and encouragement instead of phrases like “be careful.” Stand nearby (your presence offers reassurance) or say, “Would you like to hold my hand while you try that?” or “Does that feel safe?” Try not to say “no” to new motor tasks or challenges unless it could damage property or result in another person being hurt. We must let young children try new things so that they become aware of their own limits, but especially so they may learn their own capabilities.

Overindulge. Do you reward your child’s behavior with gifts, food or excessive praise? Parents who overindulge risk creating children who rely on material gifts and constant positive reinforcement to measure their self-worth. Of course we should support and encourage our children with lots of love and hugs. We want to make them feel good about themselves. But constantly rewarding their efforts with gifts or praise can create “praise junkies.” In Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn, parents learn the negative consequences of creating “praise junkies.” Kohn urges parents against using excessive positive reinforcement to bolster children’s self-esteem, suggesting that instead of creating independence and self-esteem, showering children with praise could actually increase their dependence. If we constantly say “I like the way you…” or “Good job!” our children will rely too much on our evaluations of what is good. Our goal as parents should be to teach them to be proud of their own accomplishments and to rely on their own judgments rather than seek approval from others.

As soon as young children can understand language and follow simple directions, encourage and support their behaviors. But instead of judging children’s actions, projects and behaviors with comments like “Good job!” or “I love it!” use phrases that help them gauge how they feel about their own work. “You did it!” and “Aren’t you proud of yourself?” allow children to decide when to feel delight or pride in their actions.

Over-schedule. Is the majority of your time spent chauffeuring your child from one activity to another? Parents who over-schedule their children or push them to achieve risk creating young people and adults with chronic stress, burnout, low self-esteem and lack of creativity. Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D. and Nicole Wise coined the term “hyper-parenting” in their book The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. Hyper-parenting has been used to describe “a child-rearing style now prevalent in middle and upper-middle class homes. In these families, parents become over-involved in every detail of their children’s academic, athletic and social lives.”

In attempting to maximize a child’s potential, we make parenting a competitive sport and children become the losers. Over-scheduling can damage children’s self-esteem by sending the message that they are not good enough. This hyper lifestyle is unappealing to some children and may be why some choose to bury themselves in computer games or why others—very bright, promising students—burn out in adolescence, fearing that if they do not get into Harvard or Yale or achieve in the way their parents expect they will disappoint their parents and possibly lose their love. Depression, substance abuse and promiscuity can be the result.

Children need time and space for unstructured play. They must be given time to learn how to self-regulate. Although sports leagues and music lessons are helpful to children in many ways, while they are in these leagues and lessons they are being regulated by adults. Kids who are allowed plenty of time for unstructured play become good at self-regulation naturally and are better able to control their emotions and behaviors, resist impulses and exert self-control and self-discipline. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn.

David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, insists that “in blurring the boundaries of what is age appropriate, by expecting—or imposing—too much too soon, we force our kids to grow up far too fast.” It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage—to protect, to stimulate, to enrich—our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helps children the most: play.

There has to be a happy medium where we provide our children with enough experiences to engage their inquisitive minds while allowing them space to just be kids. I believe our children know what they need, so listen carefully and follow their lead; let them show you when enough is enough.

Overdo. Do you do things for your children that they could easily do for themselves? Parents who overdo risk raising children who are incapable of making their own decisions or completing tasks without assistance. In an attempt to maintain control or save time, valuable teaching opportunities for young children are frequently missed. Parents wipe up spills, lay out clothing, brush teeth or wipe bottoms for children who are totally capable of accomplishing these skills.

In an informal survey, a group of Valley kindergarten teachers said the number one skill they hoped incoming students would have was self-help: feeding, dressing, (including shoes) and toileting. When incoming students are adept at these, teachers are able to work on social and academic skills rather than taking precious teaching time to help students who did not learn self-help skills at home.

As soon as children can verbalize or even point, allow them some choices throughout their day. The choices should all be positive and appropriate for your child’s age. Lay out two or three outfits for a child who is going to preschool; give your child two healthy options to choose from for breakfast; allow your child to choose the hairstyle for the day. Do not give choices that will obviously not work: “Eat your food or go to bed” or “Clean your room or no dinner.”

Choices should not be unlimited, especially as related to health or safety. It is okay to say, “It’s not a choice!” but use it sparingly and only when there really, truly is no choice. Allowing children too many choices can be overwhelming. Children who have been given no limits become the ones we see in the grocery store who are unwilling to accept compromise and end up screaming or throwing a fit when they are finally told “no.”

The trick is picking your battles—knowing when to set a limit and when to allow a choice. Molly Anderson, of Phoenix, allowed her son Wyatt to wear his Spiderman pajamas to preschool anytime he wanted to, even on picture day! It didn’t affect his health or safety, so why should she make him wear regular clothes? She allowed him to be a kid while he was a kid instead of making him grow up and conform to what society expects.

Allowing children to make choices when they are young trains them to make positive choices when their parents are no longer there to make the decisions for them. Parents who continue to make decisions and control their children’s lives—even into the teen years—risk raising dependent adults who never leave!

I must admit to over-parenting my own son who started college this past fall. For years my husband accused me of overdoing it and being too involved in his homework. I finally accepted that I was overdoing it when I found myself filling out his college applications and calling the high school to send his transcripts. I nagged and nagged and it wasn’t getting done, so I finally did it myself. What kind of lesson is that? If you procrastinate long enough, someone will do it for you?

Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way in the real world. I shouldn’t have enabled him this long. I’m letting go. He can go forth and conquer but be prepared to suffer the consequences. I’m sure he can do it!

If you see yourself anywhere in this article, don’t panic. For most of you, there is still plenty of time. Focus on what you are trying to accomplish with your children. I believe that it is our ultimate goal as parents and teachers to create adults who are confident, creative, independent problem-solvers who are internally motivated to do well as they continue to learn and grow well into adulthood. We can do this by providing unconditional support instead of praise, listening to our children without believing that what we have to say is more important than what they want to say, allowing them to take risks and make choices in a safe, loving environment, exposing them to many different experiences and situations and—most importantly—not overwhelming them with our own fears and insecurities.