Is overparenting prevalent?

If you believe the press and admittedly this blog, there’s an epidemic of overparenting among the moms and dads of college-bound kids. Parents have gone off the deep end and made it their full-time jobs to run their kids’ lives and get them admitted to the most famous colleges. And all this overparenting or helicopter parenting or whatever pejorative term that’s applied is producing a generation of kids who are helpless, depressed, and anxious. And it’s all the parents’ fault.

But does that description mesh with reality?

In a word, no. I don’t think it does.

First, most stories of harmful overparenting are speaking to a comparatively small segment of the parenting population that even has the time, resources, and inclination to be managers and agents for their children. Overparenting is largely a problem of the privileged, and even there, it’s not like the tendency is universally part of their DNA.

Second, there’s no universal definition of exactly what overparenting is. I like Alfie Kohn’s distinction he lays out in The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and Other Phony Crises. Kohn argues that helicopter parenting is only harmful when it is controlling. And while control over kids can take many forms, like punishment, guilt, disappointment, and even praise, they all share the common goal of getting a child to do exactly what will please their parents. There’s nothing inherently wrong with kids doing things that please their parents—I’ll go on record as a parent who will welcome that whenever my kids want to give it. But if the student’s choices, motivation, and direction are all predicated on pleasing parents, kids aren’t learning or doing enough on their own to become capable adults. They need to make decisions to learn how to make good decisions. More control may lead to more pleasing, but it doesn’t lead to more decisions.

And finally, let’s consider the alternative. No matter what the studies say about the reported consequences of hyper-involved parents, they can’t possibly do the same damage that underparenting does. Kids who lack a parent’s unconditional love, modeling of healthy behavior, or a sense of parental interest and investment have it a lot worse than those whose mothers choose their community service projects or line up armies of after-school tutors for every subject. Neither are good, but it’s hard to dispute the inherent advantages those coddled kids are receiving as they move towards adulthood.

Kids need their parents. They need you to pay attention to them and to accept them and to show them that you care about their happiness and their future. So please don’t let what’s becoming the hysteria of overparenting deter you from following your instincts. If your biggest crime is that you love your kids too much and sometimes allow yourself to be more involved than you should be, give yourself a break. Add it to your own “not quite perfect parenting” list that we all have.

But if you find yourself feeling like you’re the one driving your student’s bus, that you’re not only setting their course but also navigating and making every correction along the way, all while your student is a passive passenger whose sole job is to go along for the ride, that’s an unreasonable amount of pressure on you and a problematic lack of learning and doing for them.

You don’t have to hand them the keys, car, and map entirely. But let them take a shift every now and then. It might be a more enjoyable ride for both of you if you just switch seats.