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The Child Trap

The rise of overparenting

Publication Date: 2008-11-19

from The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2008


Weâve all been thereâ"that 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 âoverparentingââ"or 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 toysâ"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 elementâ"at odds, it seems, with
such solicitudeâ"is 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 numbersâ"and 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 clockâ"were, on
average, well above those of others.

Overparented children typically face not just a
heavy academic schedule but also a strenuous
program of extracurricular activitiesâ"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,
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 daysâ"many 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
thousand
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
laundry.

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 itâ"and 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 incomeâ"one 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 causeâ"and Marano stresses it over all
othersâ"is insecurity bred of the global economy.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, in 1957â"
the first unmanned spacecraft, ever, and not ours
â"American 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
wishâ"that America not be left behind by India and
China.

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 parentsâ"and marketers interested in
themâ"also 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 themselvesâ"making decisions,
taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety
or frustrationâ"their 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. Finallyâ"and, again,
she stresses thisâ"their 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
traitsâ"courage, nimbleness, outside-the-box
thinkingâ"that are required by the new economic
order.

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 Statesâ"he was
brought up in Canada and lives in Londonâ"and 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 urbanizedâ"and allergy rates
soared.â

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
moralsâ"the 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 tutoringâ"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. 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
childrenâ"that 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 allâ"is
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
difficulty.â

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
sixtiesâ"and 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 onesâ"they donât know what
the hell to do. Donât grab a lawyerâs kid.â Of
course, the ones who donât know what to doâ"or
whose parents donâtâ"are 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 doâ"I 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 wellâ"for
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 jobsâ"Iâm not so sure about Crossâ"but,
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
trendâ"standardized tests, overcoached sports, and
the like; (2) reports that some brave folk are
now bucking the tide; (3) visits a site of their
revisionist activityâ"the 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 beforeâ"for 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
prosperityâ"at least until recentlyâ"the 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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