I Would Rather He Break His Arm: Helicopter Parenting in America
A hovering & controlling, but well-meaning, parent who gets way too involved in her child's life to the point of doing things that are completely inappropriate, such as personally attending all of little Sweetiepie's extracurricular activities, writing medium-sized Sweetiepie's school application essays, and submitting full-grown Sweetiepie's job applications.
I am not sure any of us would want such a moniker. But how many of us secretly -- or not-so-secretly -- believe that our children need us to guide their every interaction? That is the topic of Chapter 5 of Christine Gross-Loh's riveting new book, Parenting Without Borders: "Hoverparenting: How Can We Foster Self-Control?"
There was a lot to digest. Ultimately, I decided to focus on two aspects of hoverparenting: how we view our children's behavior and how much risk-taking is appropriate.
Prologue: Swimming Upstream
In all the topics we have addressed in Parenting Without Borders, I have walked away feeling powerless against cultural mores. An anthropologist at heart, I understand the importance, and the stickiness, of language and culture. And in my culture, a parent who disciplines her child immediately, who intervenes at the first sign of strife, is considered enlightened, a "good" parent.
In February, I wrote about feeling like a playground pariah:
[I]n Brooklyn, it seems like a parent's sole purpose is to keep children from touching others and being touched. Simply letting children play? That's crazy-talk. If your child takes a toy and you don't return it immediately and soliloquize on sharing for all to hear, you're a playground pariah.
Gross-Loh seems to agree with my assessment:
The parents I'd known in American always stepped in and intervened when a young child "misbehaved."... If they didn't do something, the people around them would wonder why they were letting their child get out of control.
The pressure to conform to societal norms is high. But it's not exclusive to the U.S. On the contrary, Gross-Loh writes,
But as we settled into life in Tokyo, it became more noticeable (and embarrassing) to be the only parent who stood close to the playing kids and who went in to break up a budding argument.
The pressure cut both ways, which only served to bolster my conviction that it is impossible to go too far against the grain.
I decided to email her to ask: How does a parent swim upstream in any culture?
Her answer was that she does adapt to the differences when she is in the States versus Japan. Here, she might intervene a little quicker on the playground; there, she might sit on her hands an extra beat to see if the kids can work it out on their own.
The thing is, while Gross-Loh's children have benefited from learning two different approaches, I don't have a "here" and "there." My children will only learn what I teach them here, as will most of their peers. I still don't know where that leaves me.
Sociopath Rising: What Is "Normal"?
Gross-Loh writes that our constant disciplining of children -- don't touch, don't hit, you have to share, sit down -- is deeply rooted in the foundations of American history.
Lots of American parents worry that their children won't outgrow spunkiness or misbehavior without an adult's help, intervention, guidance or punishment ("consequences"). We do not realize that this unrealistic fear is a hidden relic of the Puritan view of childhood as a period requiring strict moral molding and taming, even the breaking of a child's will to override a naturally sinful nature. (emphasis is mine)
The Japanese, on the other hand, believe that children basically have good intentions and that excessive cautioning from adults can have a negative effect on a child's growth. As a result, their mixed-age elementary school classes seemed more chaotic to Gross-Loh than she initially thought was wise.
As it turns out, American parents need not worry that their rambunctious five-year-old will turn into a sociopath.
One large-scale study drawing on data from six studies (looking at 34,000 children) concluded that how well behaved a child is at the start of kindergarten, or, conversely, how ill behaved, fidgety, or disruptive, is unrelated to how well they do in third grade, despite the widely believed American assumption that disruptive, fidgety kids will lag behind their peers.
Unfortunately, our belief in the negative value of expression is so ingrained that we are more likely to prescribe Ritalin for ADHD to young children, especially boys, for such behavior.
In fact, the New York Times reported in March of this year that 20% of high school boys and 11% of school-aged children overall have been diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S., well above the expected prevalence rate of 4-7%. The Director of the CDC said, in regard to ADHD medication, "Unfortunately, misuse appears to be growing at an alarming rate."
In Japan, teachers attribute "positive motives" to children, making it difficult for children to see themselves as bad people. In America, it seems we do just the opposite.
Perhaps it is time to revisit our assumptions about what makes for a "normal" childhood.
How Much Risk Is Okay?
I watched the other day as my 20-month-old son tumbled headlong from the third step, ultimately landing on his face on the playground's soft artificial turf. I was six feet away, but it happened in a flash, as such falls typically do. He cried instantly, and I went over and picked him up. He clung to me for dear life. Yet he was definitely more frightened than anything else, and soon he was running around again, albeit with quite a bump on his forehead and a small abrasion on his face.
The only way I could have prevented the fall is if I had been standing directly next to him the entire hour and a half he played. Honestly, that's no fun for either of us. And it would have taught him nothing about holding on going down stairs nor about getting up after a fall.
In Sweden, adults do not bat an eye at a child climbing a tree; that is just what children do. Gross-Loh explains,
Yes, children might fall from those trees, but they had a chance to learn what their bodies were capable of.... [C]hildren...were given space to explore and tune in to their own instinct about what they could do.
Likewise, a Norwegian psychologist and researcher that Gross-Loh spoke to says,
"Allowing children to handle risks on their own with their own bodies, their own minds, and through their own assessment and courage, is the most important safety protection you can give a child."
And yet, as Gross-Loh writes,
[T]he mentality that seems to prevail in the United States is that no level of risk should ever be acceptable, that it's our job to make sure nothing ever happens (and our fault if anything does).
The irony, she says, is that risk-taking "also fosters qualities we as a culture value highly, such as adventurousness and an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit."
So which is it? The rough-and-tumble entrepreneur or the safe and perfect citizen? We, as a culture, seem ambivalent. And our children pick up on the mixed signals. They are ambivalent themselves, looking outside for guidance every step of the way.
Studies out of the University of Delaware have shown in a study about fourth- and fifth-graders' views of misbehaving and fighting that 92% of American children were concerned with "getting caught" (an external motivation), while Japanese children said they should not misbehave because it would hurt someone's feelings or it would be wrong (an internal motivation).
We are teaching our children not to trust their own instincts, to their detriment and ours.
[W]hen kids are given leeway to trust their instincts, they don't tend to take on more than they are capable of.... if they're not allowed to take some risks now, they won't develop the judgment I'd need to be able to trust them to stay safe later on.
I could not agree more. It goes without saying that I hope my son, the light of my life, lives a charmed, unharmed life. Frankly, however, I would rather he break his arm falling out of a tree than live under a sterile, suffocating blanket of fear.
Would you let your child climb this tree?