Say your son falls on the playground, and you swoop down to hug him and exclaim over his scuffed knee. Your daughter has a fight with her best friend, and you quickly call the girl’s mother to try to intercede. You check over each child’s homework every night, so that you can find mistakes before the teacher’s red grading pen comes out. And when your child is working on a school project, you might be found lurking nearby saying things like: “A purple sky, really?” (If, that is, you don’t take over the project altogether.)
If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, you’re not alone: Overparenting is quickly becoming normal parenting in America. Yes, we moms (and dads) have the best intentions: We want to protect our children from unnecessary pain, fear, failure, and disappointment. But according to several studies and experts, we’re actually doing our children a big disservice. Our frantic efforts to help them be successful and happy can backfire — causing them to be anxious or depressed.
“Today, kids are overbooked, overtested, overprotected, and as a result, under-believed in, ” says Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, a featured blogger at Modern Mom, and coauthor of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year. “When you try to control too much, you rob your child of valuable learning opportunities, including how to make decisions. And without these opportunities to find their own feet, children feel less confident and more anxious.”
New research is discovering a connection between children’s stress and overparenting. In a Johns Hopkins study, hyper-parenting was more closely related to increased anxiety in children than the mental health of the parent or parental rejection. In turn, elevated anxiety (in children and adults!) is easily linked to depression and behavioral issues.
“Even toddlers with moms who are too directive in play are more aggressive and more likely to throw toys, ” Ivana points out. “The opposite is also true: Moms who are less intrusive tend to have happier children.”
Considering that several years ago UNICEF ranked children in the U.S. as the second-unhappiest in the world, it’s fair to say that overparenting is having negative — albeit unintended — side effects. (If you’re curious, the most unhappy children in the world come from the U.K., where 1 out of 10 children over age eight are unhappy. The U.K. is also considered one of the most “overprotective” countries in the world when it comes to children.)
The negative consequences of overparenting aren’t limited to childhood, either. A recent series of investigations showed that as adults, children who were overparented tend to have “lower self-efficacy and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.”
Even knowing this, many parents will still have trouble backing off.
“It’s true; most of us have had our bouts of hovering to one degree or another, ” Ivana admits. “I’m a recovering helicopter mom myself. I was especially overprotective and overinvolved when my son and daughter were smaller.”
“It’s a tough call in a tough world: when to hover and when to mother, when to protect and when to let go, ” Ivana says. “Finding the balance takes practice, instinct, and trust. Remind yourself that children are far more resilient and powerful than we often give them credit for, but given the right tools and the freedom to pursue their curiosity without fear of failure, mistakes … children thrive.”
She offers 8 important “hovering recovery” tips:
1.) Install a mental hover-meter. Like most habits, a tendency to be overprotective won’t vanish overnight. You’ll have to dial back your hovering by being mindful of your own parenting behaviors. When you catch yourself hovering, try to talk yourself into backing away (unless, of course, there’s a true emergency).
“It may help to ask yourself why you feel the need to supervise so closely, ” says Ivana. “Are you worried about what-ifs instead of something that’s actually happening? Also, be honest about the possible consequences of leaving your child to her own devices. If she makes a mistake, will she learn a valuable lesson from the experience? Is she likely to do serious damage if you don’t step in? Often, the answers will make you feel better about being a little less hands-on.”
2.) Tone down the how-tos. Whether you mean for it to happen or not, oversupervising and overinstructing your children sends the message that you don’t believe they can handle various tasks on their own. For example, staying in the driveway with your son for an hour as he learns to shoot hoops — correcting his technique all the while — can actually undermine his self-assurance and take the fun out of the activity. Instead, a better strategy for building confidence would be to shoot the basketball a few times with your son, then leave him to practice on his own (or play a game with him).
“Be encouraging, and, of course, stay available in case your child really needs your help, ” she adds. “If he is having a hard time and decides to give up, it’s his choice. This can be a hard lesson for parents to learn, but your child will learn more from making his own choice than from making yours.”
3.) Praise children when they succeed. Despite the reservations you may have had, you held your tongue and allowed your daughter to turn in her book report without heavily editing it yourself. And to your extreme pleasure, she came home with an A. Now is the time to affirm, affirm, affirm! “I’m so proud of you! You put forth your best efforts, and they really paid off.”
Admire, congratulate, and encourage when your children accomplish something on their own. Hug and kiss them, too! Through your actions and your words, you should let your children know you believe in them. Just don’t hand out empty praise.
4.) Show vulnerability. One of the (many) reasons why we overparent is because we want to save our children from the pain and disappointment that accompany errors. However, a tendency to prevent children from making mistakes is often accompanied by a tendency to downplay your own. In addition to depriving your children of the opportunity to learn valuable lessons, this environment can also inadvertently teach them that nothing less than perfection is acceptable. As Albert Einstein, said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
5.) Don’t do for your children what they must do for themselves. We’ve all heard stories of young adults who began college, only to place frantic calls home asking their mom and dad how to boil water, make a bed, and balance a checkbook. Odds are, those parents didn’t set out to raise a helpless teenager, they simply tried to make Junior’s growing-up years as pleasant as possible — and their “I’ll take care of it, honey” strategy backfired!
Teach your children how to care for themselves, their finances, and their future homes. As your children grow, assign them age-appropriate chores. Teach them how to responsibly save and spend any money they receive. And again, don’t solve all of their problems for them — encourage them to find their own solutions.
6.) Let them play. These days, many kids are overscheduled. When they’re not in class, they’re at soccer practice, violin lessons, Boy or Girl Scout meetings, etc. And even when there are unscheduled minutes or hours, we feel that it’s our parental duty to make sure that our children are constantly engaged in “educational” and “enriching” activities. Unstructured playtime is quickly becoming a thing of the past—and that’s a problem!
“Free play in a natural environment is one of the most important ways children learn and grow, but today’s children have less play time than ever before, ” Ivana says. “The truth is, kids need to climb trees and run a bit wild to develop vital skills like resourcefulness, independence, and self-regulation — much more than they need to play a math-based computer game or learn a second musical instrument.
7.) Stop fueling the helicopter. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that there are more books, articles, and blog posts on parenting than one person could read in a lifetime. But that doesn’t stop many helicopter moms from trying, and from soliciting additional advice from friends, teachers, etc., along the way. The result? Parents who psychoanalyze, second-guess, over-supervise, cater, and control — and who can’t fathom not trying to shape every aspect of their children’s lives in order to help them succeed.
There’s nothing wrong — and a lot right! — with informing yourself on how to raise happy, healthy, resilient, and capable kids. But it’s important to draw the line somewhere, to make sure that the natural desire to be a good parent doesn’t cross the line into an obsession. Keep in mind that there’s no substitute for actually spending time with your kids — and hearing directly from them what they need, want, hope, and enjoy.
8.) Live your own life. When you become a parent, it’s easy to let that part of your identity overshadow all of the others. (And our society, full of Tiger Parents and honor students, doesn’t help.) You become so focused on raising your child the “right” way that many parts of who you were before children fall by the wayside: your interests, your hobbies, your friends, etc.
“It’s very possible to become too invested in your children’s successes and failures, placing an unfair burden of expectation on them. Remember, it’s important for your children to see you thriving on your own terms so that they’ll be inspired to do the same, ” she adds. “Happy parents tend to have happy kids!
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About Princess Ivana: Ivana is the author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was co-written with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, is a blend of humor, practical advice, and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom.
While she’s a modern-day princess, she comes from modest means and met her Italian Prince Charming (if you’re curious, he’s Adriano Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire) while on scholarship at Pepperdine. Ivana and her husband have two fabulous kids (ages four and two).