Judge Not the Anxious Mommy at the Playground

A complaint, if I may, regarding Jessica Lahey's recent post on over-protective parents. Lahey, a teacher, opens with a "war story" from early in her educational career, in which an "overprotective" mother, unwilling to allow her daughter to "fail," not only writes the little rapscallion's homework paper, not only plagiarizes said paper from sundry Google-able websites, but also argues, when Lahey catches her at it, that the girl shouldn't be punished for the transgression, because she—the mother—had committed it, and not the child.

This finely calibrated bit of Internet-readership provocation shares no point of connection to the claim of its headline, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," or the remainder of the article, which largely concerns a recent Queensland University of Technology study on over-parenting. The mother described here isn't afraid or unwilling to let her child fail. She's not "over-parenting," or "helicoptering," or "smothering," or whatever variant of coddling jargon one prefers. She's cheating, and lying, not to mention stealing. What ill lessons the daughter derived from her mother's antics remains foggy, in part because Lahey never tells us, but also because the fallacy of false comparison has been lacquered on with such glee that one can only hope the kid chooses white collar crime over domestic violence as her future crime-of-choice.

I won't quibble with the basic premise of Lahey's article or with the findings of the Queensland study. Over-parenting may very well exist, although I defy anyone to delineate useful boundaries between parenting of the over, under, neglectful, award-winning, and felonious sort. Perhaps, as the study claims, a looming problem of "high responsiveness and low demandingness"—demandingness, were their parents cheating in school, too?—is indeed rife among today's mothers and fathers (although, at least in my son's case, I bet he would say I demanded too much and responded not enough).

But I would ask us all to judge not the anxious mommy at the playground skulking about after her precious boy, clutching water bottles to fend off dehydration, dragging him bodily from the jungle gym, eyeing that no-goodnik from down the block with his satchel of water balloons—lest you be judged. Under the right circumstances, that mommy may be you, or me. No one loves well the brute eventualities of real life, though they befall our little ones no matter what we do. We are all capable of going a little too far.

But the example given by Lahey, and the ones she cites from the study, don't resemble the small foibles and unfortunate errors of the typical over-parenting parent. If you're cutting your ten-year-old's meat, as noted of one parent in the Queensland study, something has gone wildly awry in your rearing plan.

So, you ask, do I let my children fail? Do I swoop to the rescue, avert disaster, stave off skinned knees, threaten his classmates to make sure he never goes uninvited to a sleepover, blackmail his basketball coach until he makes the junior varsity? The answer is no, but not because of some overarching philosophical desire to have my kids face adversity and overcome in some morally wholesome fashion. Rather it's more because I don't think I can get away with it.

If I chose, for example, to write my son's first grade papers—a waste of my surpassingly rare writing talents, if you ask me—and like Lahey's mom, I got caught, would nothing happen? Consider Lahey's anecdote: Mom cheated; daughter, depending on your chutzpah tolerance level, abetted her. Were there no consequences? Did the school in which Lahey worked have no principal (or principles)? Could you, as a parent, simply do as you wished, weak and defenseless teachers be damned? If so, could Lahey please send me the address of the school, because, you know, I'm always looking for a leg up in the world for my kids.

–Theodore Ross

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Presented by

Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, & Nathan Thornburgh

Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, and Nathan Thornburgh write for the website DadWagon. Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?

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