Are you an overcautious parent?

We all want to protect our kids from harm — but it can be hard to tell when we're overdoing it

By John Hoffman
Are you an overcautious parent?

Parents get blamed for everything, including sedentary kids. “Hovering parents stop kids activity,” thereby contributing to childhood obesity, The Huffington Post recently reported. The news and opinion website was referring to a specific study from North Carolina State University that supposedly showed parents restrict their children’s activity levels when they play on climbers and slides. Other media jumped on it, too.

Actually, this particular study proved nothing of the sort. Researchers were trying to determine what factors influence how active kids are in playgrounds and parks. They noted whether or not parents or caregivers were present to supervise. The researchers made no attempt to gauge whether parents hovered, nor did they claim that parents did so. It was all media spin.  

What’s ironic is that if safety-focused researchers had observed the exact same families and found some kids were minimally supervised or unsupervised — as appeared to be the case in this study — we’d have seen headlines like this: Neglectful parents putting kids at risk of playground injuries! You won’t have to google very far to find studies that link playground injuries to lack of parental supervision.

So parents are caught in a double bind, as usual. We have two main jobs, which sort of contradict each other. We have to protect (supervise, care for, help) our kids, while at the same time promoting and nurturing their independence, so they can increasingly look after and do things themselves as they get older.

As parents, we spend a lot of time searching for the right spot on the protection-independence continuum, making ongoing judgment calls. Do I need to protect here or can I let him try going up the slide ladder by himself if I — ahem — “hover” at the bottom?

If you are on the less protective side, you’ll get concrete feedback if you go too far: Your child will fall, hurt himself or, at least, have a close call (personal example in a moment). Then you come to the conclusion that, OK, you can’t let him do that.

Overprotective parents don’t get much in-the-moment concrete feedback to warn them that they might be inhibiting their child’s independence (or maybe even the child’s activity level in a playground), unless their child is the type to push for autonomy. You could look around and find yourself still laying out your 11-year-old’s clothes or always cutting her French toast for her.

In other words, parents at the more protective end of the spectrum need to self-monitor. (“Could he pour that glass of juice himself?” “Could she order for herself in a restaurant?”) Ultimately, kids have to learn to look after themselves and do things on their own. Protective parents know that, but it’s probably harder for them to see when they’ve gone too far.

As for less protective types, we’ll have to concentrate on keeping our kids in one piece. I still remember the time I caught my two-year-old son’s head six inches from the floor as he fell off the shopping mall bench he was standing on. (Good thing I was hovering.) He was OK, I was embarrassed, and the old gent seated a little further down the bench shook his head in disapproving amazement. “Good catch,” he said.

This article was originally published on Dec 22, 2011

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