"Let Them Walk": Overparenting, Eroding Community Relationships, and How to Make Your Kid Nervous as F*ck

Monday, April 20, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

If you guys know me, you’re probably aware that I’m a feminist. To me, this is about respecting the rights of other women, about embracing our differences and offering support. 

And I’m a little pissed off. 

Every week I see another story on some mother who let her kid walk home from school, or go to a park alone or god forbid walk to a friend’s house. Their children are being detained, mothers arrested, families torn apart if only for an hour or a few days.

Do the charges get dropped? Well, sure, almost always. But it SHOULDN’T BE FUCKING HAPPENING IN THE FIRST PLACE. 

If children walking down the street alone was really all that criminal, all of our mothers would be in jail. If your mom wouldn’t have called the cops for it, you probably shouldn’t either. “Free-range parenting” isn’t a new fucking thing. It was always just a normal thing until the last few years when we suddenly got super nervous. 

Helicoptering is the recent parenting fad, much like the majority of parenting fads that came before. And over vigilance is easy to fall into; after all, in our history we probably had some times where leaving a kid alone meant they got eaten by a saber-toothed tiger

But we aren’t in a place where we need to be on constant watch for a goddamn tiger. We only think we are.

Fear Mongering Versus Actual Danger

Our world today is not all that unsafe. We have lower child mortality rates1 than we did when we were playing down the street, out of earshot of our parents. The rates of missing children has fallen by 40% in recent years even as the population grows1. Children are less likely to be hurt crossing the streets or die by being struck by a vehicle1. Neglect has dropped by 13% from the 1990s9, physical abuse by 55%9 and sexual abuse by 64%9. And scientists who study these issues are unlikely to site “overactive parenting” as a reason for these declines. 

The takeaway is that our children are safe. They will not be statistically safer due to our over-active imaginations or helicoptering. Not to mention that pulling a kid into a cop car and arresting their mother is a damn fine way to promote distrust of authorities, scare children and even promote traumatic reactions. But without an actual threat it doesn’t do shit to actually protect anyone. The negatives far outweigh any positives. It’s fucking math. Well…kinda. 

It’s OUR anxiety that it leading us to refuse to let our children play out front without us. It’s our unnecessary panic and nosiness that is leading us to fuck each other over. And all this anxiety is not reflective of reality or the risk of actual harm. We are susceptible to fear mongering, to nonsense, to untruths if presented in the right way, say on the nightly news. If we keep it up, we’ll end up more delusional than Rush Limbaugh. And seriously, fuck that.     

So let’s check some shit out. Because all this helicoptering, while doing virtually nothing to assist our children, may actually be hurting them.

Helicopter Parenting, Anxiety, Depression and Helplessness

Let’s be clear up front: I am not attacking mothers who watch their kids 24-7, merely presenting the counterpoint to the argument: “Don’t let them play out front of they’ll fucking die!” We should not call the police on a child who is overly watched by our standards any more than we should call on one walking home from a park. Let’s be honest, there is something in each and every one of our homes that someone else sees as wrong. Maybe it’s your discipline methods. Maybe it’s letting your kid choose their own haircut and they chose the mullet. Maybe it’s the goat sacrifice at sunrise; I don’t know what you do for breakfast, people. All I know is we’ve all got something that some other mother fucker doesn’t agree with. Except in cases of actual, imminent harm, we would probably do well to shut the fuck up before Child Protective Services is wasting their much needed time all up in everybody’s perfectly normal and healthy shit. 

Clear enough? Onward.

Overparenting and helicoptering are ambiguous terms, so for our purposes here, I am defining them as follows: intensive or overbearing methods of child rearing that are too strict for the child’s developmental level. Children who are controlled via physical pain or emotional methods — such as a parent withholding affection unless they do what they’re told — may suffer the most. But helicoptering or intensive watching, without allowing the child any time alone to figure things out for themselves, may be detrimental as well. Developing autonomy and a sense of mastery and control over one’s life are critical for emotional development. Constantly monitored children are often those who are struggling internally.  

Mothers who overparent have children with higher levels of anxiety2,7, more depression3,7, higher substance abuse rates7 and lower life satisfaction3. Overparenting also leads to higher rates of delinquent behaviors, such as fighting at school, lying or stealing4. Overparenting is associated with lower-quality communication within families6 and lower family satisfaction6. And helicoptering has even been linked to obesity8 and lower school engagement5.

The fact that helicoptering tends to impair children’s sense of independence7 may be to blame. 

Delinquent kids, for instance, may feel controlled and act out as a way to rebel against mothers they see as overbearing:

“Fuck you and your rules!”

Children who are overly controlled may show signs of sadness or isolation as a way to express their hopelessness: 

“I will never get out, I will never be good enough to make these decisions, why bother trying.”

Overparented children who do their homework only to avoid parental harping may find themselves without internal motivation when no one is there to pressure them. This lack of intrinsic — or internal — motivation is a problem that may follow children through their time in school and into later work life

“No one is going to yell at me about this? Well, fuck it.”

It's also pretty easy to get a kid all nervous about their surroundings if you constantly tell them that danger is afoot and reinforce it with continuous monitoring:

"Mom's here because the world is scary and I'm not safe."

Overparenting and Maternal Status

This overparenting trend may also be a symptom of a bigger issue of superiority, a virtual, "I’m better than you because I watch more/ hoover more/care more". Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun; The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, believes that as opposed to fear for children, we focus on judgment and constant surveillance as a way to strut our stuff: "It's become our new plumage, how we parent, peacockishly displayed on Facebook and in playgrounds and at birthday parties.” In embracing helicoptering, not only do we make our children nervous and perpetuate our own inaccurate fears, but we lose the compassion and collaboration that was a part of generations past. (Click on the title to buy that book. Trust me.)

Perhaps we are also afraid of something bigger. Are there some of us concerned when we see a child walking home that we don’t trust our children enough? Do we worry that we are sheltering our children? Do we recall our childhoods with fondness and a sense of freedom, recognize that our children do not enjoy similar freedom and freak out just a little about that? Maybe we are scared that if someone else is right, we might be wrong.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re really just worried about that little girl walking home from the park. But if that’s the case, we need to ask ourselves “why” because it isn’t due to actual danger.

Trusting our children and teaching them independence is not a crime. It should not be treated as one. Nor should women be concerned that some asshole is going to call the police because they let their kid play at a fucking park. It isn’t like any of these women took their seven year old to a strip club to snort coke with the headliner. 

So if you find yourself uttering phrases like: 

“How could she allow them to walk? Doesn't she know that there are child murderers running around?!”

STOP. Put down the phone. Hug your kids. Eat a fucking cookie. The eat another one until your jaw is too tired to speak.

If you want to scream:

“DEAR GOD those kids must be neglected, walking around like that! Why isn’t their mother driving them home from school like any responsible parent?”

STOP. Put down the phone. Eat a cookie.

And on the flip side, if you want to tell your friend:

“OMG don’t hover! You’ll turn your kid into a neurotic mess!”

STOP. Put down the phone. Eat a mother fucking cookie. Or a banana. Whatever it takes.

Parenting is a balance. It’s individual. Actions depend on our version of right or wrong or normal. Parenting methods develop through modeling, the personalities of both mothers and children and how scary and competitive we perceive our surroundings to be. We may see our worlds differently from one another and respond in kind. But it does not make any of us correct in each and every circumstance. 

Plus, every bullshit call that overworked and underpaid social workers have to respond to is time taken away from a family who really needs it. I once watched a friend spend days going over a case where parents weren’t doing anything wrong. And in those days another case on her list got pushed back out of necessity. And in the one that had to wait, unbeknownst to anyone before she arrived, someone in the house was taking a vegetable peeler to the toddler when he was bad.

So knock it off. Bullshit calls hurt people and take time away from real cases. Call on actual abuse. Not on this stuff. 

We’re all doing out best. The cops won’t make us do it better. Only cooperation, compassion and acceptance of ways beyond our own helps us to build the communities that we can all feel safe letting our children walk home in. 

Motherfucking cookies help too.

Related Posts: 

  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/14/theres-never-been-a-safer-time-to-be-a-kid-in-america/?postshare=6521429187380612
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4104716/
  3. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10826-013-9716-3
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2708328/
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22503075
  6. http://web.sbs.arizona.edu/college/news/dangers-overparenting
  7. http://lawreview.law.ucdavis.edu/issues/44/4/articles/Bernstein.pdf
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4067382/
  9. http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/_Updated%20trends%202013_dc-df-ks-df.pdf
  10. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0062072226/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=62706401676&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=17342385608832073972&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_5x84ogrj7u_b