When Did Parenting Become Overparenting?

This morning as I listened to yet another report about the university cheating scandal, I wondered for possibly the thousandth time when parenting changed. Sure, it’s likely there have always been parents who’ve paved the way for their children, despite the legal or moral implications involved. But in one way or another, it seems this sort of thing — overparenting — has become the norm.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe the majority of parents would pay thousands (and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands) of dollars to ensure their kids’ success (despite Lori Laughlin’s belief that any mother would have done the same). But I do think the majority of today’s parents have been led to believe they must do everything they can to make their children’s lives as easy as possible. That can mean everything from helping a four-year-old get his jacket on (so the child doesn’t have to feel frustration), to stepping in to thwart a potential mistake (lest the child feel foolish), to rushing to the school to deliver forgotten homework (because, you know, grades!). And that’s just a start!

As I listen to and read stories about this cheating scandal, I’ve noticed that most of them involve the implications either for the celebrities involved or for those kids and families that didn’t cheat and were denied entrance into these colleges. But I personally haven’t heard anybody express concern for the kids whose parents committed the crimes. How are they feeling about what was done? Does it seem acceptable to them, or are they burdened by the thought that if not for their parents’ actions their applications wouldn’t have been accepted?

If it were me, it would be the latter. In fact, I firmly believe that every time we do something for a child that the child could (or should) have done for herself, we’re relaying a significant message: we don’t believe in the child’s capabilities. Is that really what we want them to think? These kids will grow up and as they do, they will need to make more and more decisions and take more and more actions for themselves. It’s inevitable. But if they’ve been led to believe they can’t do for themselves – that they’re incompetent – how are they to succeed in life?

That’s the part that many of today’s parents don’t seem to get. They’re not setting their children up for success; they’re setting them up for failure! Or, at the very least, for doubt and insecurity.

Parenting expert Amy McCready has written about the link between rescuing and responsibility. She says,

If we rescue kids …we rob them of the opportunity to learn from their missteps. They can’t even get to the valuable life lessons or find creative solutions to their problems because we, as attentive, eager-to-make-everything perfect parents stop them in their tracks.

Consultant Tim Gill writes in “Risk, fear and freedom: a plea to parents”:

In the end, the only way children grow to be resilient – to be ready for the everyday challenges that life will inevitably throw at them – is by being given the freedom to learn from their own efforts, and their own mistakes.

Parents will always want the best for their children. Unfortunately, today’s parents have been falsely informed that if they don’t do everything they can to smooth the way for their children, they’re not good parents. It’s not true, and it’s sad for everybody involved – but especially for the children.

If you’re a parent, please know that your children’s freedom to act independently — and to make their own mistakes — is crucial to their development and future success. If you’re an early childhood professional, i hope you’ll do everything you can to offset any overparenting the children in your care may be experiencing. In either case, as a parent or a teacher, resist the urge to hurry them. Yes, I know watching them button their own clothes or put on their own shoes can be excruciating when you’re in a rush. But, trust me, it’s worth the wait!

I love this video of a toddler attempting to get a boot onto his foot. Yes, the mom was probably going for laughs; but I give her extra credit for not rushing in to help him. As a result, he’s learning about independence, gaining spatial awareness, and coming to understand the value of determination. What else do you see him learning?


  • Tim Gill says:

    Thanks for quoting me. I was making the exact same point about the cheating scandal to a friend the other day. It’s amazing to me how little of the coverage has asked what it might mean for the kids involved. Either they were lied to, or they were being invited (perhaps coerced) to be complicit in a process that fundamentally undermined their sense of themselves and what they are capable of.

  • Nancy P Gorden says:

    Love this. I have been in the field of early childhood education for over 50 years and always feels that process rather than product is best!!!

    • Rae says:

      Yes! If only all adults would understand the value of process over product, we’d see fewer parents screaming on the sidelines at sporting events. Less focus on grades. Less demands for worksheets, etc., etc.

      Congratulations on 50 years in the field, Nancy!

  • Carol says:

    I have felt that lately educators are using this argument to keep caring competent parents out of the classroom and put them in “their place”. For example, when parents want to advocate for their children, they are often being called helicopter parents. When my kids were young and I wanted to talk with their teachers about the need for recess, movement, and experiential learning, teachers did not want to engage me. They tried to give me advice about “letting my kid go” and “trusting educators”. I am suspicious of articles by educators who bemoan the mistakes of parents! Everyone talks about how they want to work in partnership with parents but mostly I see educators jumping on the band wagon to place more guilt and shame and blame on parents.

    • Rae says:

      I appreciate your input, Carol. I agree that there are communication problems among teachers and parents. Among other issues are feelings of intimidation and lack of respect on both sides. It’s long been a problem, and it’s an issue deserving of much attention.

      It’s certainly not my intention to contribute to any distance between parents and teachers. I would hope teachers would be able to distinguish between parents who wish to be partners in their children’s education and those who truly are helicopter parents. Helicopter parents do exist, and it’s a major problem, mostly for the children, who are my primary concern. Surely, as a university professor, you’ve seen the change in children. They are becoming more and more helpless. College and university counselors report that today’s students are running to them for every little problem. That they are incapable of making decisions on their own. This is a direct result of helicopter parenting. Of the misinformation under which parents are laboring — in this case the belief that they must do everything they can to smooth the road for their children. They fail to realize that children will not suddenly become capable human beings simply by virtue of aging.

      I see my primary role as that of advocate for children. I will continue to advocate for them, even if it creates discomfort for some of the adults in their lives.

      Thank you for all you do for children, teachers, and parents.

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