Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Avoid Over-Parenting

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Well, so much for the end of over-parenting.

After a year’s hiatus from that dreaded term – “helicopter parenting” – now you can’t pick up a magazine or go Online without being bombarded by more stories about over-involved parents. They’re monitoring what their kids eat…how they do their homework…even who their friends are.

And what’s worse, over-parenting, we now learn,  isn’t just bad for the kids. It also makes adults unhappy. They set too high a standard for themselves and end up disappointed. They’re not just exhausted, but lonely.

As someone who’s prone to worry about, well, everything, I’m also naturally prone to over-parenting. And yet, I also know that this isn’t the person I want to be.

Here are five ways to help yourself curb the over-parenting impulse:

1. Find somewhere else to put your energy. I think that one of the reasons that people over-parent is that they don’t have any other place to put that energy. This is a criticism often levied at SAHM’s, who are criticized, rightly or wrongly, for making parenting a career. But I know plenty of working parents for whom it’s equally true. They come home from the office and channel all the adrenaline that goes into supervising staff and hitting deadlines into over-monitoring their kids. The trick – whether you work inside or outside of the home – is to have a hobby or some other activity that can sap up some of that extra energy. It might be volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Or joining the PTA. Or becoming a board member at a local charity. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that you’ve got a focus outside your kids.

2. Consult an expert. This may sound counter-intuitive, since one part of over-parenting – in America, at least – is to over-pathologize every single aspect of your children’s behavior in an endless struggle to perfect their shortcomings. Having said that, sometimes seeing an expert can also correct that tendency to do so. I recently took my daughter to see a speech therapist to re-evaluate her lisp. During the course of the evaluation it became painfully obvious that a. my daughter’s lisp is slight b. she herself has no problem with it and c. the therapist didn’t think it warranted any further therapy. Without coming out and saying so (the speech therapist was, after all, English), she basically let me know that this was really my problem, not my daughter’s. And that by insisting that my daughter’s speech could be clearer, I was actually making things worse. Lesson learned. Mouth zipped. Next?

3. Take The Long View. I’ve posted before about how all of my conflicts with my husband can be reduced to one single dimension: I go too fast, he goes too slow. But there’s a corollary to this dynamic which is actually quite useful for confronting over-parenting within…OK, one of us. Which is that precisely because I often gallop through life at breakneck speed, I’m often very focused on the short run. And so with any “flaw” that I detect in my children – i.e., they’re not reading enough, they’re reading too much, they’re not social enough, they’re too social, etc. – I tend to magnify its short-run effects. My husband is really good at reminding me that what matters is the long run. If my son is being silly and goofing off in class, my husband will ask me if I really think that he’ll go through life like that? And when he frames it that way, I realize that I don’t. It puts whatever behavior is troubling me at present in perspective and I can take a huge, much-needed breath.

4. Recognize that there’s only so much you can do. As an acknowledged control freak, I’m often loathe to throw up my hands and accept that I’m not God. I always think that if I just put in a bit more effort in dotting every i and crossing every t, I really can fix everything around me. Which is, of course, conducive to terrible parenting. Wherever you stand on the whole nature vs. nurture debate, one of the most startling – and relieving – aspects of being a parent is that you wake up one day and realize that your kids aren’t you. They have their own interests, their own personalities, their own rhythms. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that. (Thank Goodness!)

5. Move to Europe. One of the most insightful things I’ve read on this whole helicopter parenting debate was on the Motherlode blog at the New York Times. It was a comment by a reader from Europe who opined that perhaps the reason American parents are so over-anxious about their children is that they have too many choices and there is too much variance within those choices. In Europe, the commenter argued – and largely because of different public policies – child care, education and even toys tend to be much more homogeneous. And because there are fewer choices and those that exist are of similar quality, parents obsess less over getting “the very best.” This may be a bit of a stereotype, but I suspect that it contains a grain of truth. So if you’re really throwing up your hands right now and just don’t know what to do, remember: You’ll always have Paris.


For those who are interested, I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign finance scandal.

Image: With Mom by MJIphotos via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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  • Reply Patricia

    July 14, 2010, 11:20 pm

    This was fun, especially since my kids are now all out on their own. There was a freedom in having a very high energy kid with a lesion in her brain – her two older sisters had to take care of themselves. I had to go to high school with my youngest to make sure she made it from class to class as the other kids liked to persuade her to go to McDonald’s instead and then they would use up all her money. We were kind of duct taped together and now that she has matured…the relief is just wonderful….she still calls when the car would not start, but cell phone distance is good spacing!

    This was fun to read. And I loved that there was always Paris!

  • Reply delialloyd

    July 15, 2010, 6:51 am

    Thanks, Patricia. How fabulous that all of you made it through with your autonomy and good humor in tact! And yes, there *will* always be Paris…

  • Reply Sarah

    July 15, 2010, 9:42 pm

    My daughter is only three, so I still have to devote a substantial chunk of time to her needs–but this is a great reminder to lighten up and not obsess so much.
    It wouldn’t hurt to get a sitter or not count her veggie servings once in a while.

  • Reply Daryl Boylan

    July 17, 2010, 2:39 am

    Corruption in politics??? Mon Dieu!!! Who do the French think they are? Brits? Americans? Italians?

  • Reply Cecilia

    July 23, 2010, 6:45 pm

    This is a tough topic. I definitely over parent I am realizing, and I struggle with knowing how much is too much or too little. My parents were immigrants, and were simply too busy and understood too little about American culture to “control” my upbringing. In my personal case I feel that I could’ve had more opportunities and turned out a little “better” had they been more involved and guided me more. That is probably why I have gone the other direction.

    My son started studying Chinese after school this year, and he is doing phenomenally well. I sometimes wonder if it is because it is the one area in which I am not involved at all, because I don’t speak the language. I leave him alone and he’s growing tremendously.

  • Reply delialloyd

    July 23, 2010, 8:09 pm

    yeah, mine pretty much left me alone too, Cecilia. Chinese example is interesting. My son the same way w/chess. I just let him do it and don’t worry too much about how it goes and he has a lot of fun w/it.

  • Reply Meagan

    January 16, 2013, 3:57 pm

    Great article! However, I have noticed on more than one occasion European parents badmouthing American parents. YET, by my own observations, American children are MUCH better behaved than Euro children. I have actually left restaurants, tourist spots, etc to get away from an over-indulged
    English or even worse, French child whose parents seem to think their behavior to be normal…

    The academic complacency and behavior of children at most British schools can be evidenced by anyone who visits forums dealing with either “british children” or “british schools.” So in actually, the schools may be of simliar quality, but not a high one…

    Where I live, many children say “yes sir” or “yes maam,” and for the most part obey parents and respect elders. There is always an exception to this rule, and it is usually from a child of overindulgent or lenient parents.

    Great article though – I hope the Europeans follow this advice too, not withstanding the unearned compliment..

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