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Why I’m Not Excited By That “Overprotected Kids Die Younger” Study

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Read Time: 3 minutes

A very long study of about 1,000 British and Brazilian Boomers looked at whether their upbringing impacted their longevity. Among other things, the researchers found that folks who’d grown up overprotected (by their fathers, at least) were more likely to die before age 80 than their more Let Grow-ish counterparts.

As reports:

“Men who had an overprotective father and little autonomy during childhood may run a 12% higher risk of dying before their eightieth birthday. In the case of women who had an overprotective father, the risk of dying before the age of 80 can increase by 22%.”

Even though this seems like outright vindication for our movement here, I am having a hard time considering these findings as anything other than more parental-fear fodder, for three reasons.

What qualifies as “overprotection”?

First: It is really hard to specify what is overprotection, considering we all grow up in different neighborhoods, situations, family units…a million variables. On a personal note: While I am obviously a Let Grow / Free-Range mom, I’m also part-Helicopter. For instance: I trust strangers. I do not trust cars.

So it seems unfair to declare certain practices ipso facto will dump you into the overprotective camp. While here at Let Grow we are dedicated to giving kids MORE FREE TIME and FREE PLAY, that doesn’t mean that we condemn parents who, for instance, won’t let their kids go on overnights (a hot button issue).

As one mom posted on our Facebook page: She lets her kids do all sorts of things on their own that other parents don’t — play outside, walk to school, etc. And she also forbids sleepovers. Is she overprotective (maybe?) or Let Grow (yes!). Murkier still: the longevity study seems to have asked the participants to recall their childhoods when they’d already reached ripe middle age. Fuzzy much?

Paging Goldilocks!

Second: The study also found that “authoritarianism, permissiveness and negligence can be negative for children’s development.” At which point, it starts sounding like if you were raised EXACTLY RIGHT — with parents who weren’t too attentive but also weren’t too un-attentive — you win. The researchers call that parenting style “being present and taking care.”

Except…how does anyone ever find this sweetest of sweet spots, or agree on it? Even COUPLES can’t agree on how to raise their kids — dad doesn’t want to let ’em quit soccer, mom thinks it’s the child’s choice. Is dad an authoritarian jerk? Or is he “taking care” to develop the child’s grit? Is mom pathetically permissive? Or is she “being present” and respecting the child’s interests?

Finally: By the time a person lives to 80, the parent who did or did not do that perfect child-rearing is likely to be watching from somewhere other than the den, if you catch my drift. So even if giving our kids an extra hour of playtime a week meant they’ll live till 95, it’s hard for most parents to think, “Well, I don’t have that extra hour right now, but I’ll be kicking myself in 87 years…”

Is there really a recipe for perfect parenting?

Our parenting decisions have got to be based on something other than what is optimal according to scientific studies.

What research like this really proves is that there’s nothing parents can do that can’t be second-guessed, even decades after they are moldering in the grave. All that pressure is making it ever harder to be a parent — which could (God forbid!) lead to “authoritarianism, permissiveness, or neglect.”

Advice from me, a gal who tries to buck the overprotection trend but is certainly no paragon of parenting perfection? (Alliteration, that’s another story.) Love ’em. Feed ’em. Give them some freedom and unstructured time.

And go easy on the parenting research.

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