“David’s mom thinks we can’t see her following us!” My 12-year-old arrived home from school and threw his backpack down in a huff. “But we can. Does she think we can’t walk to school by ourselves?”
“David’s mom is following you to school?”
Apparently, she was. Every day when nearly a dozen 12- and 13-year-olds would walk to school, David’s mom—well-intended and wonderful in so many ways—crept two blocks behind them in her minivan. From our safe, sidewalk-lined Nashville neighborhood, the middle school was only a short mile route. Yet she always watched until they were safely inside the building. “Like a stalker,” my son said.
I was immediately overwhelmed with guilt since the plan to walk to school had been my idea. “Hey everyone,” I had texted the mom group chat a month before, “Who wants to join my son walking to school? Freedom! Exercise! No need to drive them!” Everyone had replied, with great enthusiasm, that the walk would be great. Just what their kid needed. Plus kids are so much less active than they used to be. They’d all thought it was such a good idea at the time. Now I wasn’t so sure.
It can be hard to give kids freedom.
David’s mom wasn’t the only reason why. Another mom had already voiced her concern about a shortcut the kids took through an alley. Yes, it was an alley of million-dollar homes in the safest neighborhood in the city, but she said “something” might go wrong. When I offered that most of the kids had their own cell phones, it didn’t seem to ease her mind. Would other parents, hearing about these incidents, start pulling their kids out of the walking group until mine would be the only one left?
I could just picture him walking up the tree-lined hill alone as his friends, buckled into the safety of their air-conditioned SUVs, passed him. My intention wasn't to cause controversy; I just wanted him to have a little independence. But in today’s better-safe-than-sorry world, giving kids independence can be seen as a liability, not an asset.
When we first became parents 16 years ago, my husband and I figured that the majority of child-rearing could be handled with a little common sense. And it worked, even with three adventurous boys. We emphasized safety—to us, that meant no lighting unsupervised fires, no jumping off rooftops—but never took part in, say, babyproofing the house, frantically applying sunscreen to kids in October, or pre-reading their teen books to check for “appropriate content.”
In our view, the walk to school in our safe neighborhood was somewhere in the middle, between roof jumping and “policing” their music. We never thought of this attitude as particularly laid-back or even unusual, but among our parent peers, it definitely was not the norm.
Let's stick together.
Like us, educator and writer Erika Sanzi, mom to three boys in Cumberland, Rhode Island, took a relaxed attitude toward parenting. She says that sometimes makes her feel like a time traveler from the 1970s who has yet to hear about the dangers of peanut allergies and improperly installed car seats. She never worried about the things all the parents around her seemed to obsess over, and to this day, she refuses to intervene with teachers or coaches on her sons’ behalf, preferring to let them fight their own battles.
“My friends live in this subdivision, and all the parents drive their kids to the bus stop every day,” she told me. “I tell them they’re ridiculous!”
Erika may not be a worrier, but I was. I worried that no one else would join me in my crusade against overparenting, that I’d be the only one.
I don’t blame David’s mom for worrying about her son and the walk to school. Sometimes, when my sons bike to the pool by themselves, the guilty thought flashes in the back of my mind that, should something happen, I would be to blame. After all, this isn’t the 1970s. Modern society seems to be bound by the belief that our kids need more guidance and control, not less. And I haven’t figured out how to break through.
From college admissions to scheduling appointments, parents are too involved.
People tend to think that “helicopter mom” and “lawnmower dad” only exist in privileged upper-class circles, but reports in this article tell a different story. Parents from all backgrounds are subject to the same behavior. According to the poll, 76% of parents are still reminding their adult children of important deadlines (including schoolwork), and 74% are making appointments for them. One out of ten parents said they would not hesitate to call their adult child’s employer if there was an issue at work.
In other words, overprotective parenting isn’t the wildly eccentric behavior of a privileged few who would do anything, even cheat, to get their kids into a top-ranked college; it’s the water we are all swimming in. Treating our children as if they are incapable of handling even the most everyday things is having distinct, negative outcomes—most importantly, skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression. Yet it's still difficult for parents.
Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher and author of The Gift of Failure, told me that after she presents her experience and research on how to give kids more autonomy, parents chase her down in the parking lot.
“They say, ‘I really want to do this, I want to give my child more autonomy, but I just can’t be the first one,” she said. The parking lot parents worry that if they let Mackenzie handle things herself, other parents and teachers will view it as them dropping the ball.
Lahey admits that she has been prone to this kind of thinking herself—and so have I.
As parents, we put the most pressure on ourselves.
When my oldest son turned five, I sent him to kindergarten even though he had the dreaded “summer birthday” that would make him the youngest in his class. Other parents thought I was crazy and told me so, that I was basically signing his permission slip for failure. His preschool teacher told me that the youngest boys often grow up addicted to alcohol and drugs.
We sent him anyway. Yet as I proudly walked him into kindergarten on the first day, I can remember the feeling of hot shame spreading in my stomach thinking about all the ways this could go wrong—how years in the future, picking my son up from his stint in jail, other parents would cluck their tongues and shake their heads at me as if to say, We told you not to send him to kindergarten on time.
Researcher Wendy Grolnick dubbed this particular kind of panic Pressured Parent Phenomenon. When parents look at all the ways their peers are pushing their kids to succeed (helping remove any barriers along the way), they worry they won’t measure up, says Grolnick, co-author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child.
The feeling is contagious, especially in a highly competitive society that makes every parent feel like they are never doing enough. And it doesn’t just pressure parents, either: A friend’s college-age daughter worried that her mom didn’t measure up, and frequently got angry with her, all because her mother wouldn’t fill out doctor’s forms or decorate her dorm room the way her friends’ moms did for them.
We need to start making a shift.
There is a light at the end of that tunnel you don’t dare let your kid walk down, though. According to Lahey, who has spoken to parents across the country, the overparenting tide is starting to turn. “People are starting to say, ‘This feels wrong and I need to back off,’” she says.
So, how to start? Transparency (and a dose of bravery) are key, Lahey says. Talk to teachers and let them know that you won’t be constantly checking the online parent portal for your child’s grades. And talk to other parents about how you want to give your child a little more independence, and ask if they’d like to join you. You’ll be surprised how many people are just waiting for someone else to lead the charge.
I took Lahey’s advice and spoke with David’s mom about the walk to school. When I told her I wanted to give my son more independence, she said that she wanted to do the same. I think she’s still following them to school, though. It turns out that trying to change the entire culture of overparenting is a bit harder than I’d anticipated, but I’m not giving up.
When my son came home complaining again about being followed on the walk to school, I told him that David’s mom was just worried. “But I’m not worried about you,” I told him. “Just look the other way. And keep walking.”