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The Child Trap

The rise of overparenting

Posted: 2008-11-19

from The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2008

Weâve all been thereâthat is, in the living room

of friends who invited us to dinner without

mentioning that this would include a full-evening

performance by their four-year-old. He sings, he

dances, he eats all the hors dâoeuvres. When you

try to speak to his parents, he interrupts. Why

should they talk to you, about things heâs not

interested in, when you could all be discussing

how his hamster died? His parents seem to agree;

they ask him to share his feelings about that

event. You yawn. Who cares? Dinner is finally

served, and the child is sent off to some

unfortunate person in the kitchen. The house

shakes with his screams. Dinner over, he returns,

his sword point sharpened. His parents again ask

him how he feels. Itâs ten oâclock. Is he tired?

No! he says. You, on the other hand, find

yourself exhausted, and you make for the door,

swearing never to have kids or, if you already

did, never to visit your grandchildren. Youâll

just send checks.

This used to be known as âspoiling.â Now it is

called âoverparentingââor âhelicopter parentingâ

or âhothouse parentingâ or âdeath-grip

parenting.â The term has changed because the

pattern has changed. It still includes spoilingâ

no rules, many toysâbut 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 elementâat odds, it seems, with

such solicitudeâis achievement pressure. The heck

with the childâs 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 childâs room. In âA Nation of Wimps:

The High Cost of Invasive Parentingâ (Broadway;

$23.95), Hara Estroff Marano, an editor-at-large

at Psychology Today, writes that Baby Einstein, a

subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, will sell

you not just a Baby Mozart CD but also a Baby

Beethoven. Both are available on DVD as well,

with the music supplemented by puppet shows and

other imagery. These DVDs, Baby Einstein says,

are for the three-months-and-older age group.

Since, at three months, babies cannot sit up,

parents will have to hold them in front of the

monitor, and since these infants have only just

learned to focus their eyes, it is hard to know

what they will make of the material. (Nothing at

all, Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard

Medical School, told the Chicago Tribune: âThe

baby video industry is a scam.â)

The DVDs are intended to provide you with a head

start on the academic-achievement front, but

there is also the environmental-hazards problem.

Hovering parents, Marano says, see lethal bacilli

on every surface. To thwart them in the

supermarket, you can buy a Buggy Bagg, a

protective pad that you insert into the front of

the grocery cart before you put the child in.

According to Buggy Baggâs literature, this will

guard against âviruses, bacteria, and bodily

fluidsâ left on the cart. In a survey that Marano

cites, a third of parents reported that they sent

their offspring to school with antibacterial hand

gels. Who trusts soap?

Once the child goes to nursery school, the

academic pressure begins. Gone are the finger

paints. Even preschools, Marano tells us, have

replaced playtime with reading- and math-

readiness training. As the child progresses, the

academic load becomes heavier, and his ability to

carry it is now regularly measured by

standardized tests, as mandated by the No Child

Left Behind Act of 2001. Because the test results

are rendered in numbersâand can thus be compared

with the norm, the ideal, and the neighborâs kidâ

ambitious parents may, at this point, begin

hiring tutors. According to Marano, there is now

a four-billion-dollar tutoring industry in the

United States, much of it serving elementary-

school children. (Some of the coaches sent out by

Princeton Review, a leading tutor-provider,

charge close to four hundred dollars an hour.) If

tutoring doesnât do the trick, enterprising

parents can argue with the school that their

children, because of special needs, should not be

held to a time limit in taking standardized

tests. In 2005, according to Slate, seven to nine

per cent of students in Washington, D.C., were

given extra time on their S.A.T.s. Their scoresâ

which were sent out to colleges, with no notice

of the dispensation, alongside the scores of

students working against the clockâwere, on

average, well above those of others.

Overparented children typically face not just a

heavy academic schedule but also a strenuous

program of extracurricular activitiesâtennis

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,

âYou canât smoke pot or lose your virginity at

lacrosse practice.â) When summer comes, the child

is often sent to a special-skills camp.

Extracurricular activities and camps are areas

where competition between parents, thought to be

a major culprit in this whole business, is likely

to surface. How do you explain to the other

mother that while her child spent the summer

examining mollusks at marine-biology camp, yours

was at a regular old camp, stringing beads and

eating sâmores?

Finally comes the Last Judgment: college

applications. Admissions officers, it is said,

donât know what to make of application forms

these daysâmany of them have so clearly been

filled out by someone other than the applicant.

If the parents donât feel up to the job, they can

turn to IvyWise, a service that, for a fee

ranging from three thousand to forty

dollars, gives students a course in

how to get into college. IvyWiseâs offerings

include âApplication Boot Camp,â on how to

complete the forms, and âEssay Writing Workshop,â

on how to get the application essay into âoptimal

shape for submission.â Careful parents donât have

to wait for application time, however. IvyWise

will also advise high-school freshmen and

sophomores on which courses and extracurricular

activities to choose, so that two or three years

later, when the application process begins, they

wonât make the awful discovery that they have

been spending their time on classes and clubs

that will not please admissions committees.

When the student goes off to college,

overparenting need not stop. Many mothers and

fathers, or their office assistants, edit their

childrenâs term papers by e-mail. They also give

them cell phones equipped with G.P.S. monitors,

in order to track their movements. In Maranoâs

eyes, the cell phone, by allowing children to

consult with their parents over any problem, any

decision, any âflicker of experience,â has become

the foremost technological adjunct of

overparenting. Some parents, she adds, are not

content with calling. They buy a second home in

their childâs college town. According to a recent

report on this trend in the Times, the child may

protest, at the start. A student at Colorado

College told the Times that when she found out

that her parents, Maryland residents, were buying

a four-bedroom house fifteen minutes from her

school, she thought, âAre you kidding me? Youâre

following me across the country?â But then she

came to like the arrangement: âI found myself not

doing my laundry until my mom was in town.â I

wonder if it was actually she who did the


Students provided with such benefits may study

harder and, upon graduation, land a fancy job. On

the other hand, they may join the ranks of the

âboomerang children,â who move straight back

home. A recent survey found that fifty-five per

cent of American men between the ages of eighteen

and twenty-four, and fourteen per cent between

the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, live

with their parents. Among the reasons cited are

the high cost of housing, heavy competition for

good jobs, and the burden of repaying college

loans, but another factor may be sheer habit,

even desire. Marano and others believe that,

while hovering parents say that their goal is to

launch the child into the world successfully, the

truth lies deeper, in some dark dependency, some

transfer of the parentâs identity to the child.

One cause of the overparenting trend, Marano

says, is the working mother. That seems

paradoxical: if Mother is at the office, how can

she hover over the child? Well, she can hover at

night and on weekends. The rest of the time, she

can hire someone else to do itâand secretly

install a ânanny camâ (one model is disguised as

a smoke detector), to make sure itâs being done

right. Marano believes, however, that the risk of

overparenting is greater for a woman who quits

her job in favor of full-time mothering while her

children are young. Such a woman faces a huge

loss of incomeâone source says a million dollars,

on average, over the course of her career. It is

no surprise that she might want child-rearing to

be a project worthy of that sacrifice.

Another causeâand Marano stresses it over all

othersâis insecurity bred of the global economy.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, in 1957â

the first unmanned spacecraft, ever, and not ours

âAmerican school curricula shifted dramatically

toward math and the hard sciences. âHow are we

ever going to beat the Russians?â people asked.

Likewise, Marano says, the overparenting

phenomenon got going in the seventies, in

response to âstagflationâ and the oil crisis, and

has been nourished, ever since, by the rise of

the global economy. No Child Left Behind: that

sounds like the expression of a democratic wish.

More likely, it was the product of an economic

wishâthat America not be left behind by India and


A third development that pushed people into

overparenting, Marano and others believe, is the

âbrain plasticityâ research published in the

nineteen-nineties. This research said that, while

the infant brain is, in part, the product of

genes, that endowment is just the clay; after

birth, it is âsculptedâ by the childâs

experience, the amount of stimulation he

receives, above all in the first three years of

life. That finding prompted many programs aimed

at stimulating babies whose mothers, for whatever

reason (often poverty), seemed likely to neglect

them. Social workers drove off to homes deemed at

risk, to play with the new baby. But upper-

middle-class parentsâand marketers interested in

themâalso read about the brain-plasticity

findings, and figured that, if some stimulation

is good, more is better. (Hence Baby Einstein.)

Later research has provided no support for this.

The conclusion, in general, is that the average

babyâs environment provides all the stimuli he or

she needs.

Marano thinks that the infant-stimulation craze

was a scandal. She accepts the idea of brain

plasticity, but she believes that the sculpting

goes on for many years past infancy and that its

primary arena should be self-stimulation,

as the child ventures out into the world. While

Mother was driving the kid nuts with the eight-

hundredth iteration of âThis Little Piggy,â she

should have been letting him play on his own.

Marano assembles her own arsenal of neurological

research, guaranteed to scare the pants off any

hovering parent. As children explore their

environment by themselvesâmaking decisions,

taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety

or frustrationâtheir neurological equipment

becomes increasingly sophisticated, Marano says.

âDendrites sprout. Synapses form.â If, on the

other hand, children are protected from such

trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems

âliterally shrink.â

Such atrophy, Marano claims, may be undetectable

in the early years, when overattentive parents

are doing for the child what he should be doing

on his own, but once he goes off to college the

damage becomes obvious. Marano sees an epidemic

of psychological breakdown on college campuses:

âThe middle of the night may find a SWAT team of

counselors calming down a dorm wing after having

crisis-managed an acute manic episode or yet

another incident of self-mutilation.â

Overparented students who avoid or survive

college meltdowns are still impaired, Marano

argues. Having been taught that the world is full

of dangers, they are risk-averse and pessimistic.

(âIt may be that robbing children of a positive

sense of the future is the worst form of violence

that parents can do to them,â she writes.)

Schooled in obedience to authority, they will be

poor custodians of democracy. Finallyâand, again,

she stresses thisâtheir robotic behavior will

threaten âAmerican leadership in the global

marketplace.â That was the factor that frightened

parents into hovering. And by their hovering they

prevented their children from developing the very

traitsâcourage, nimbleness, outside-the-box

thinkingâthat are required by the new economic


Marano gets a vote of agreement from âUnder

Pressure: The New Movement Inspiring Us to Slow

Down, Trust Our Instincts, and Enjoy Our Kidsâ

(Harper One; $24.95), by Carl Honoré, a partisan

of the so-called âslow movement,â which is aimed

at persuading us all to abandon the fast track.

Honoré is not from the United Statesâhe was

brought up in Canada and lives in Londonâand he

therefore looks beyond his own national

boundaries. You might have thought that the

United States, with its susceptibility to child-

rearing fads, would be worse off than other

countries in the matter of overparenting. Not so,

Honoré says. Look at East Asia, where tutoring

and testing constitute a sort of religion. In

international comparisons, he says, East Asian

youngsters âscore near the top in math and

science, yet rank near the bottom for enjoyment

of those subjects.â And where the joy of learning

has vanished, Honoré argues, so have its ethics.

He feels that test-driven schooling has

contributed to what is apparently a recent surge

in cheating, so much easier, now, with the

Internet: âNearly three-quarters of Canadian

undergraduates recently admitted to serious acts

of cheating on written work while in high school.

. . . In 2007, officials revealed that five per

cent of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge had

embellished their application forms with material

taken off the Web. Explaining why they wanted to

study chemistry, two hundred and thirty-four

applicants cited word for word the same example,

âburning a hole in my pajamas at age eight,â as a

formative experience.â

As for childrenâs safety, Honoré makes what will

no doubt be the controversial recommendation that

we stop fretting about it. He quotes Samuel

Butler on the subject: âYoung people have a

marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting

themselves to circumstances.â Allergy rates in

children are rising throughout the industrialized

world. Honoré blames this on oversanitized

environments: âJust look at what happened in

Germany. Before unification, allergy rates were

much higher in the western part, even though the

Communist-run eastern half had much worse

pollution and more children living on farms.

After the countries reunited, East Germany was

cleaned up and urbanizedâand allergy rates


Finally, Honoré takes on domestic psychology, in

particular the âself-esteem movementâ born of the

nineteen-seventies. To him, as to other writers

on overparenting, this is a matter of disgust.

âEvery doodle ends up on the fridge door,â he

says. According to the research heâs read, such

ego-pumping confers no benefit. A review of

thousands of studies found that high self-esteem

in children did not boost grades or career

prospects, or even resistance to adult

alcoholism. If I am not mistaken, however, there

is something about the self-esteem movement that

strikes Honoré at a level deeper than the

question of our childrenâs competence. Marano, as

the title of her book tells us, is worried that

we are producing a nation of wimps, people who

wonât âmake it.â Honoré is worried that the

Stepford children produced by overparenting will

make it, and turn the world into a rude,

heartless, boring place.

Heâs not the only one. Sooner or later, all

critics of overparenting get to the problem of

moralsâthe sheer selfishness of these parents and

of the children they produce. Even the pragmatic

Marano makes this point. Why, she asks, arenât

parents âmanning the barricades,â demanding

benefits for all children? Why do they care only

about their own? And doesnât it bother them that

the extra help they can buy for their childrenâ

the college-admissions courses, the tutoringâis

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. The socioeconomics get

special attention from Madeline Levine, whose

2006 book âThe Price of Privilegeâ is now in

paperback (Harper; $13.95). Levine is a clinical

psychologist, specializing in the treatment of

adolescents, in Californiaâs Marin County. In

other words, she spends her days ministering to

rich children, many with ambitious parents

looming over them. She seems inured to the girlsâ

tales of giving blow jobs behind the gym, but she

describes with real dismay her patientsâ lack of

any âconscience, generosity.â

The focus of Gary Crossâs âMen to Boys: The

Making of Modern Immaturityâ (Columbia; $29.50)

is specifically the current generation of young

men, compared with those of the post-Second World

War period (Crossâs fatherâs generation) and

those of the sixties (his own generation).

According to Crossâs statistics, this new breed

takes much longer to get jobs, marry, and have

childrenâthat is, to grow up, by his definition.

Instead, these boy-men, as he calls them, hang

out with their friends and play video games. They

donât even have girlfriends anymore, Cross says.

Theyâre content with âhook-ups,â casual

arrangements. A professor of history at Penn

State, Cross has done a lot of research. He seems

to have watched every episode of âFather Knows

Bestâ and âSeinfeld.â His conclusion, that the

fathers of yesteryear did know best, or betterâ

that the patriarchy wasnât so bad, after allâis

disappointing, but it should be said that what he

admires in the old-time dads is not so much that

they knew how to wield power as that they looked

out for someone besides themselves, an interest

not popular with the boy-man crowd.

These booksâ concern with altruism probably

stems, in part, from âpositive psychology,â a new

movement that stresses fulfillment and

affiliation as primary measures of mental health.

But, like positive psychology, the moral emphasis

is clearly related to the values of the sixties

and the early seventies, the world that we left

behind in the buckle-down eighties. The writers

are shocked by the materialism of the new

generation. (You should hear Honoré on the

subject of todayâs high-end birthday parties.)

They also note with alarm the rising indifference

to any species of idealism. Levine describes a

1998 study at U.C.L.A.:

When asked about reasons for going to college

during the 1960s and early seventies, most

students placed the highest value on âbecoming an

educated personâ or âdeveloping a philosophy of

life.â A minority deemed âmaking a lot of moneyâ

as the main reason to attend college. Beginning

in the 1990s, a majority of students say that

âmaking a lot of moneyâ has become the most

important reason to go to college, outranking

both the reasons above, as well as âbecoming an

authority in my field,â or âhelping others in


In view of these writersâ reversion to the values

of the sixties, they are strangely reluctant to

cite the thinkers of that period. You could read

most of these books without finding out that

there was a progressive-school movement in the

fifties and sixties, or that R. D. Laing ever

talked about âinauthenticity,â or Abraham Maslow

about higher-order needs.

On the other hand, some writers do address the

sixtiesâand give it poor marks. âMy generationâs

obsession with youth,â Cross writes, âstands out

in the history of human vanity.â He thinks that

todayâs layabout young men are the inheritors.

Another book that indicts the sixties, though

from a different perspective, is âJudging School

Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authorityâ

(2003), by Richard Arum, a professor of sociology

and education at New York University. It was in

the sixties, Arum tells us, that the studentsâ-

rights movement began, as an effort to protect

minority children from unfair treatment. The

resulting lawsuits won the right of due process

for all children threatened with expulsion or, in

some cases, merely suspension. And this, Arum

says, resulted in a new, worse kind of unfair

treatment for minority students. The due-process

requirement intimidated teachers, discouraging

them from imposing discipline. The students ran

wild. Furthermore, school administrators became

sitting ducks for aggressive parents seeking

preferential treatment for their children. In one

of Arumâs sources, a teacher is quoted as saying,

with regard to discipline, âIt all depends on who

you grab. Grab the dumb onesâthey donât know what

the hell to do. Donât grab a lawyerâs kid.â Of

course, the ones who donât know what to doâor

whose parents donâtâare the poorer children.

Arumâs conclusions are the product of long

research. Other writings on the connection

between the sixties and current child-rearing

practices sound more like the product of fogyism.

A good example is an article, âThe Kindergarchy,â

that the conservative commentator Joseph Epstein

recently contributed to The Weekly Standard. âMy

mother never read to me, and my father took me to

no ballgames,â Epstein writes. They took no

photographs, avowed no love, of him. This, he

says, was the general approach to child-rearing

in the nineteen-forties and fifties, when he grew

up, and children benefitted: they developed into

regular people, âgoing about the worldâs

business.â As for the steamy devotion shown by

later generations of parents, what it has

produced are snotty little brats filled with

âanger at such abstract enemies as The System,â

and intellectual lightweights, certain (because

their parents told them so) that their every

thought is of great consequence. Epstein says

that, when he was teaching, he was often tempted

to write on his studentsâ papers: âD-. Too much

love in the home.â As his essay suggests, critics

of overparenting have political concerns as well

as moral ones. The politics go both ways,

however. The conservatives are afraid that weâre

turning our children into pampered ninnies (that

is, Democrats); the liberals that weâre producing

selfish, authoritarian robots (Republicans).

The literature on overparenting raises a number

of sticky questions. For example, is it really

wrong for us to push our children to excel in

areas where they are talented? Honoré relates how

his seven-year-old sonâs art teacher told him

that the child was a truly gifted artist. So the

next morning Honoré suggested to the boy that he

take an art class after school, and got the

following response: âI donât want to go to class

and have a teacher tell me what to doâI just want

to draw. . . . Why do grown-ups have to take over

everything?â Honoré backed off, ashamed of what

he now judged to be his opportunism. If the

fathers of Mozart and the Williams sisters had

done the same thing, the history of human

achievement would have been different.

Another discomforting matter in these books is

the role of feminism in todayâs child-rearing

follies. According to Gary Cross, one reason that

young men are refusing to grow up is that the

womenâs movement has eliminated the rewards for

doing so. In return for putting on a suit every

morning and going to work, men used to be the

boss both in the office and at home. No more. So

why grow up? Cross acknowledges that patriarchy

and slackerhood are not the only available

choices. As he notes, some people are saying that

our society, by discarding sexism, can produce a

new kind of man, one who is ânurturing and

emotionally expressive,â and who âabandons his

old patriarchal privileges and embraces equality

in private and public roles.â Cross is not

looking forward to such a development, however:

âHow many men (or women) can distinguish this

approach from the stereotypical wimp?â I can, but

there are other matters to consider as wellâfor

example, Maranoâs claim that if a woman, before

having children, holds a high-powered job, this

may predispose her to overparenting whether or

not she quits the job to stay home with the kids.

Iâm sure Marano doesnât believe that women who

plan to have a family should not be given

responsible jobsâIâm not so sure about Crossâbut,

if what she says is true, this raises the old

problem that, if you improve some element in a

system, another element may break down in

response. Adjust the carburetor, and the

transmission goes out of whack.

A final question that one has to ask is whether

the overparenting trend is truly the emergency

that these authors say it is. In the manner of

popular books on psychology, the commentators

tend to forget that they are talking, for the

most part, about a minority. (Recent surveys have

found that todayâs teen-agers are volunteering

for community service at a rate unequalled since

the nineteen-forties.) And the writing is very

pushy. Maranoâs book is endlessly repetitive; you

could read every third paragraph and not miss

anything. Also, what about the sensationalism?

Are there really SWAT teams of therapists

descending on college dorms in the middle of the

night? Honoré, too, beats us over the head. In

almost every chapter, he (1) isolates the baleful

trendâstandardized tests, overcoached sports, and

the like; (2) reports that some brave folk are

now bucking the tide; (3) visits a site of their

revisionist activityâthe experimental school, the

back-yard ballgame; and (4) reports on how the

children thrive under the new regime. In one

progressive school that he inspects, âthe mood is

pure sunshine.â The students stampede to class;

they tell Honoré how much they love homework.

Never, in any of these wholesome environments, is

any child starting a fight or picking his nose.

To get some perspective, look at âHuckâs Raft: A

History of American Childhoodâ (2004), by Steven

Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia.

Mintzâs story begins with the beginning of the

United States, and therefore he describes

children with troubles greater than

overparenting: boys dispatched to coal mines, and

girls to textile mills, at age nine or ten. As

for the current outbreak of worry over the young,

Mintz reminds us that America has seen such

panics beforeâfor example, in the nineteen-

fifties, with the outcry over hot rods, teen sex,

and rock and roll. The fifties even had its own

campaign against overparenting, or overmotheringâ

Momism, as it was called. This was thought to

turn boys into homosexuals. For the past three

decades, Mintz writes, discussions of child-

rearing in the United States have been dominated

by a âdiscourse of crisis,â and yet Americaâs

youth are now, on average, âbigger, richer,

better educated, and healthier than at any other

time in history.â There have been some losses.

Middle-class white boys from the suburbs have

fallen behind their predecessors, but middle-

class girls and minority children are far better

off. Mintz thinks that we worry too much, or

about the wrong things. Despite general

prosperityâat least until recentlyâthe percentage

of poor children in America is greater today than

it was thirty years ago. One in six children

lives below the poverty line. If you want an

emergency, Mintz says, thereâs one.

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