Judge Not the Anxious Mommy at the Playground

"We are all capable of going a little too far": the challenges of avoiding overparenting

"We are all capable of going a little too far": the challenges of avoiding overparenting

Bad Parents

Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they look at treading the line between responsible parenting and being overbearing. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.

"I'm going Tiger Mom on her from now on."

So said my wife, Jean, a little over a week ago, about 12 hours after our 4-year-old daughter had tried—and failed—to take the New York City gifted-and-talented exam. We'd brought Sasha to Williamsburg early in the morning, having explained she'd be doing puzzles with teachers, and extracted a promise from her that, when the time came, she'd leave us and walk alone with a teacher up the stairs and into the testing center.

Instead, when the time came, she clung to us crying to be taken home.

Thus began a miserable Sunday of errand-running and Sasha-denying. No lollipop, no TV, no fun—she was being punished, not because we were angry but, for the first time in her life, we were seriously disappointed. She had broken a promise. She was, to her own horror, not a princess.

Yes, Jean and I were both disappointed, but in different ways. It didn't bother me that Sasha had broken her promise—I hadn't really expected that to mean anything to her. No, it was her overall fear of taking the test that got to me, for I've started to notice similar fears in other parts of her life. At times, she'll be drawing at the table next to me when she'll throw down her magic markers and storm off, yelling, "I can't do it! I can't do it!" And this even before she's done anything. It's as she's afraid of failure.

Now, I love failure. Over the decades, I've gotten used to it, come to understand it as the price of success, and even come to relish it in certain ways. ("Well, at least that's over!") I vividly remember a day in sixth grade when I refused to draw a picture of Emily Dickinson, crying, "I can't!" My teacher, one of the best I've had, warned me that in his class, those were swear words—the only thing I could never say. So I drew the Belle of Amherst. The drawing was terrible. But I'd done it, and come out the other side.

The book I've written, which comes out at the end of April, is in many ways about the failures that are inevitable when we travel: failures of body, mind, culture. I like to think that failure no longer takes me by surprise.

And yet here I am, failing again, and unexpectedly: My daughter is afraid of the failure I so dearly want her to confront. How did that happen exactly? When did she start saying "I can't"? What did Jean and I do, or not do, to make her this way? Did we praise her easy successes too much? Or not challenge her enough? Or was her behavior—her fate, really—out of our control to begin with?

Jean, for her part, is taking this as a call to arms. From now on, more discipline, less indulgence—Sasha will succeed, if Jean has anything to do with it. I, however, am more patient. The kid is only four years old, and has, by backing out of the test, failed to get into the Gifted and Talented program. As long as she graduates middle school without any (visible) tattoos, I'll be happy. She has many, many years of failure ahead of her, regardless of what her parents do or don't do.

And in any case, there's this: As Sasha and I were cuddling in front of the TV last night, watching Adventure Time (the greatest cartoon in the world right now, if you haven't heard), she twisted her head to look up at me and said, "I want to be a doctor when I grow up."

Hoo boy.

–Matt Gross

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

Once again, I find myself disagreeing with my colleague Theodore. He asks us not to judge the "anxious mommy in the playground" or any of the other parents who refuse to let their children fall or fail. But parenting without judging seems to me nearly impossible.

Sure, we'd all like to be high-minded. The world probably would be a better place if I, like Jason Avant over at DadCentric, announced that I Don't Have Any More Parenting Opinions. But I do. I can't help it. Look past Jessica Lahey's post and go straight to the study she cites (.pdf). Yes, it seems only slightly more scientific than a collection of school counselor gossip—I heard a parent once sent a note to her child's classmate to solve a dispute the kids were having—but they have culled some very judgement-worthy highlights.

One example: Respondents highlighted the following as a common practice among parents they see (part of the "demandingness" that goes hand-in-hand with not letting children just be children):

[Parents give] constant instructions to children in public places—often from afar, rather than up close and ensuring child cooperation e.g. Don't touch that, sit down, move away from that lady, don't touch that (again and again).

Who doesn't want to judge that? It's so prevalent on playgrounds in uptight neighborhoods like mine as to be almost invisible: a nonstop barrage of instructions to children designed to cajole and badger them into more adult behavior. Take five minutes next time you're at a playground and just watch. You'll see it, too. It's maddening. It's the slightly older analog of being the parent who chases his toddler around the rubberized playground to make sure they don't fall once. Both behaviors seem intimately linked to all the cheating and lying and covering for a failing child that Lahey cites in parents of older children. If you don't let them fall on the playground, you won't let them fail in school. Both are a grave disservice to parent and child.

Here's the thing, though: I don't actually care about other parents or other children. I don't worry for their souls. I worry for my own. Because when I see parents of younger children and their reflexive badgering and cajoling, I remember that I used to be just like that when my kids were younger. I had these babies who seemed in turns too fragile and too unruly. As infants, they would cry in public and I would try to shush them (mostly by saying "shush", which is useless). As toddlers, they would toddle down crowded sidewalks and I would swoop in to pick them up and carry them. Now that my kids are school-age, I try to be a good parent, with just enough give and just enough pull. But just as I was guilty of excesses through all the other ages—without even knowing it at the time—I'm pretty sure that I am repeating whatever bad parenting behaviors are in vogue among us all right now.

And so: I have seen the bad parent, and judged him, only because I know that the bad parent is me.

–Nathan Thornburgh