A few weeks ago, the New Yorker reviewed a couple books about overparenting:


This used to be known as “spoiling.” Now it is called “overparenting”—or “helicopter parenting” or “hothouse parenting” or “death-grip parenting.” The term has changed because the pattern has changed. It still includes spoiling—no rules, many toys—but two other, complicating factors have been added. One is anxiety. Will the child be permanently affected by the fate of the hamster? Did he touch the corpse, and get a germ? The other new element—at odds, it seems, with such solicitude—is achievement pressure. The heck with the child’s feelings. He has a nursery-school interview tomorrow. Will he be accepted? If not, how will he ever get into a good college? Overparenting is the subject of a number of recent books, and they all deplore it in the strongest possible terms.

Most of us have heard of people who pipe Mozart into their child’s room….

Overparented children typically face not just a heavy academic schedule but also a strenuous program of extracurricular activities—tennis lessons, Mandarin classes, ballet. After-school activities are thought to impress college admissions officers. At the same time, they keep kids off the street. (In the words of one book, “You can’t smoke pot or lose your virginity at lacrosse practice.”) When summer comes, the child is often sent to a special-skills camp….


A year ago, I would have agreed: these ridiculous parents shouldn’t center their lives around their kids. Now, I’m not so sure. How else should a child be soothed to sleep, if not with piped-in music? We tend to use Juana Molina instead of Mozart, reflecting my own taste, but I’m sure someone will soon mock the new-agey multiculturalism of that choice, if they haven’t already.

Later, when Sophie gets older, should we avoid camps all together, or choose a bad overly-basic summer camp, to avoid being accused of the obnoxious snobbery of “special-skills camp”? Around here, the big thing is lifeguarding camp, where kids learn beach-safety while playing with a lot of other kids and many surfboards. Really, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I myself spent the best summers of my childhood working at the kind of camp that this article mocks.

The article actually makes many interesting points: an uncertain economy, the overcompensation of mothers who feel guilty about working outside the home, and the ridiculously escalating concerns about children’s safety and self-esteem are all blamed for the latest iteration of overparenting. There’s more here.

I hadn’t known that the idea of “brain plasticity” (the more you stimulate an infant’s brain, the more you help aid brain development) is mostly a crock, since almost all infants receive enough stimulation anyway, without mobiles and special polka-dotted mirrors and all the other infant toys for sale. According to the books reviewed in this New Yorker article, the best brain stimulation is self-stimulation, initiated by the child when the parents finally let that child alone.

I’m all for kids having free time and I’m all against centering a child’s life around college admissions, but I also see myself accused in this article about overparenting. Sophie already has so many toys that it’s hard to think what to get her for Christmas. Sophie has already graduated from infant-swim class and infant-sign-language class. She already owns a half-dozen CDs of kids’ music that are supposed to enrich her, not to mention a small jungle-gym, water-table, dollhouse, lego-table, a half-dozen musical instruments (the kazoo is her current favorite), a shelf-full of books, another shelf-full of stuffed animals, and more blocks than she can use.

Worse than all those toys, Sophie isn’t great at independent play. She wants to have me close by, watching her. If I start to read a book or talk on the phone, she gets upset. I’m working on teaching her to enjoy alone-time and to give me my own alone-time, but I am embarrassed that I have to work on it. I hovered so closely in her first few months, overpersuaded by attachment parenting theory, that now I have to wean Sophie from expecting hovering.

It’s not that I’m obsessed with her future college. She doesn’t have to go to the same elite college that I went to — but I do hope for her that she’ll have a sense of curiosity and a sense of adventure, and I want to nourish that already, giving her as many opportunities as I can to explore her world. I want to pass on to her all the advantages that I had as a child. It’s not about college, alone: honestly, it’s about class. I want to pass my class status on to my daughter. I’m high-class enough to think that that goes beyond college.

So here’s the part of the article that really bothered me: 

Sooner or later, all critics of overparenting get to the problem of morals—the sheer selfishness of these parents and of the children they produce. Even the pragmatic Marano makes this point. Why, she asks, aren’t parents “manning the barricades,” demanding benefits for all children? Why do they care only about their own? And doesn’t it bother them that the extra help they can buy for their children—the college-admissions courses, the tutoring—is tilting the playing field? Hovering, as most of these books acknowledge, is largely the preserve of upper-middle-class parents, and these people want their children to prosper as they did, fairness be damned.

This bothers me because I have been worrying about it ever since I was pregnant with Sophie and Ben started sneaking extra protein-powder into my food because our birth-class declared it was good for her brain. If every thing that we do for Sophie that is rumored to help her development, actually does help her development, then equal-opportunity is a lie. America only thinks that it’s an equal-opportunity employer. From even before birth, we were giving Sophie advantages — at least trying to. 

It’s not that it takes a lot of money to have careful nutrition during pregnancy, enough support to give birth without pain medication, extensive breast-feeding, stimulating toys, daily trips to the park, daily book-reading, lots of organic vegetables, no tv or movies, weekly trips to the library, quality childcare, and all the rest that Sophie has — not to mention the infant sign-language class and infant swim-class. None of that is expensive, really (even the classes were at our local Y), though it does add up, and it requires a baseline of having healthcare, money for groceries, and a neighborhood with parks and libraries (not to mention terrific used-toy stores here in my rich neighborhood). That baseline excludes far too many Americans. Still, more than money, it takes time and knowledge to give Sophie this upper-class life. And I know far too many families don’t have that time, let alone the baseline of healthcare and parks. 

Maybe they don’t need the knowledge, since so much of this style of upper-class-parenting is so mockable. I’m not about to impose this style of parenting on them. But I will work to create the necessary infrastructure. I sign petitions at momsrising. I try to vote for better libraries, parks, schools, healthcare, parental-leave, flex-work schedules, and all the rest that seems to me to be a prerequisite for decent parenting. I would do more, if I knew how. 

So I resent the accusation that because I provide for my child, I am selfish. Taking her to her doctor’s appointments doesn’t preclude supporting healthcare for all children. 

I think I resent it because I see how close I am to it.


3 responses to “Overparenting

  1. davelew

    I wouldn’t worry about the morals of overparenting. What about the morals of feeding Sophie? There are children starving in Darfur, should you send all your food to them instead of selfishly saving some of it for your family? Of course not, the world doesn’t work that way, and if people started acting like that, the world would stop working.

    The most useful definition of morality that I’ve heard is “a pattern of action is moral if and only if the world would be a better place if everyone acted that way.” Using that definition of morality, your parenting of Sophie is moral because, if everyone treated their children as well as you treat Sophie, the world would be a better place. Also, sending all your food to Darfur is NOT moral, because if everyone did that then the whole world except for Darfuris would starve.

  2. elewinnek

    Dave, doesn’t your definition of morality imply that working as a teacher is immoral? If everyone worked as a teacher, no one would be working as a farmer, plumber, or any of the other myriad jobs we need. I think there are some patterns of action that simply aren’t designed for everyone to do them — patterns like the division of labor in modern society.

  3. davelew

    Ooh, good comeback, that really made me think.

    I don’t think it’s a true hole in my argument, though, and here’s why: the act of choosing is important to any set of morals. In your counterexample, everyone would have to mindlessly CHOOSE to be a teacher without evaluating whether or not that choice would be good for society. That kind of thoughtless choice without regard to consequences is immoral by my definition.

    A moral process of choosing a career would be to choose what allows you to contribute to society, and brings pleasure to you and others. That algorithm would result in some teachers, some plumbers, some farmers, and so on.

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