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5 Ways to avoid the ‘overparenting trap’

Sergiu Birca | Shutterstock
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How to prepare your kids for long-term success without becoming a helicopter parent.

A slew of recent books has focused on the problem of helicopter parents who micromanage their children in the frantic pursuit of academic and career success. In the short term, intensive parenting might help kids get high grades and build up an impressive resume. But there is increasing evidence that in the long run, overparenting produces young adults who are psychologically fragile, lacking resilience and basic life skills.

We parents want to be involved in our kids’ lives, and we all have good intentions. But sometimes we also need guidance, small adjustments that help us set them up for long-term success in what matters most.

Four different authors provide five simple ways to course correct and avoid what one author calls the “overparenting trap.”

1. Don’t be afraid to say no

Dr. Robin Berman, author of Permission to Parent: How To Raise Your Child with Love and Limits, writes that many new parents, still hurting from their own parents’ harsh tactics or a lack of love, have overcompensated by going to the opposite extreme of permissiveness. As a result, “the whole family hierarchy collapsed, leaving children in charge, bossing their parents around. Somehow giving children self-esteem has been construed to mean giving kids a trophy for showing up, hovering over their every move, pouring on excessive praise and never saying no for fear of hurting their feelings. In trying to constantly please our children and make them happy, we have done just the opposite. This pendulum swing has created a whole new breed of entitled, fragile kids.”

Dr. Berman suggests that there is “a graceful place in the middle of these parenting extremes” that combines love and limits, authority and affection, respect and trust. And that can include the word no.

2. Help them embrace responsibility

As parents, we often want to smooth the way for our kids, removing obstacles and giving them a clean shot at success. But sometimes we go too far. In How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims writes about our tendency to “absolve our kids from [tasks] like waking themselves up, keeping track of their own belongings, and making meals – in part to show our love, in part to make life easy and nice, and also perhaps in part to ensure that these things are done correctly,” but the danger is that a young person whose every need has been taken care of will lack the skills to be self-sufficient later on.

One simple remedy: give your kids household chores and responsibilities that suit their age and maturity level. (Bonus for moms—who wouldn’t want an extra pair of hands taking care of the laundry?)

3. Simplify, simplify, simplify

Do we really need all the scheduling and stuff in our homes? Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross’s book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids suggests another form of courage: saying no to excess in all its forms. Based on Waldorf educational principles, the authors point to “four layers of simplification,” starting with reducing “the clutter of too many toys, books, and choices,” then slowing down the frantic pace of our kids’ overscheduled lives so that they can have free time for unstructured play. The third layer is about filtering adult information and worries out of our homes and our kids’ awareness. And finally, the most important layer is about refraining from “hyperparenting” and building our relationship with our kids on trust and connection, not anxiety.

The overall message: less is more. Don’t be afraid to edit, prune, and let go so that something better and more valuable can grow in the space you’ve set free.

4. Emphasize values and character more than grades and accomplishments

Parents today are often obsessed with our kids’ grades and extracurricular activities, and we end up giving short shrift to virtues like kindness and gratitude. But Dr. Berman points out that parents can’t outsource their responsibility for teaching those deeper character lessons about caring for others, humbly owning and accepting our mistakes, and being grateful for what others do for us.

The catch? The best way of teaching these virtues is to model them in practice at the dinner table and in daily life. Time to walk the talk.

5. Let them face and overcome failure

There are times when kids will need to experience failure – the missed homework assignment, the flunked test, getting fired from a summer job. In The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Jessica Lahey points out that some parents – driven by the need to prove that they are competent mothers or fathers – try to “engineer failure out of kids’ lives.” But the result is that kids end up feeling “incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust, and utterly dependent.”

Lahey, who is both an English teacher and a parent, knows that it’s painful to watch kids struggle with failure, but counsels patience and trust: “Our kids writing their own stories, in their own voices, with plot points of their own invention. The narrative is not mine, and I can’t edit them into perfection.”

 

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