Overprotected children

The days of coddled and overscheduled kids may be ending as some families reject the idea of "hyper-parenting." Here's how they're letting go

When Shirley Lukachko’s eldest son, Derek, was 10, he had a great idea: He would take a hammer to his set of dinky cars, just for fun. His grandmother supervised. When he looked up from the wreckage and asked for another set, she said no.

“Why did you let him do it?” Lukachko, of Aurora, Ont., asked when she got home. “Natural consequences,” Grandma replied. Lukachko, now 50, shrugged: This fit her parenting philosophy perfectly. She and her husband have raised their five kids — who now range in age from 12 to 20 — to do their own homework, go hungry if they forget their lunch, walk everywhere and rely on a tutor only when they’re actually failing.

It’s an approach that doesn’t jibe with current trends. Over the last 20 years, overparenting (also known as helicopter parenting or hyper-parenting) has become practically the norm in North America. In extreme cases, parents have bubble-wrapped hotel rooms, demanded that kindergarten teachers boost their children’s grades, and shown up at their adult kids’ job interviews. The push for success means many kids’ schedules overflow with extracurricular activities — toddlers taking foreign language classes and elementary school students working on their black belts — while parents stay up late to complete their kids’ school projects.

Parents have noble intentions: to protect their kids from danger while guaranteeing their future success. But there is a selfish side to it as well: Doing everything you can for your kids gives you a sense of control. Plus, tying shoes, packing lunches and keeping kids away from the washing machine and vacuum cleaner also means fewer meltdowns, messes and badly done jobs.

But if the goal is to help children reach their full potential, this approach backfires. Kids who never wake themselves up, take out the garbage, manage their time or cope with conflict turn into teens who expect everything to be done for them and adults who don’t know how to take care of themselves.

So more parents are adopting a philosophy like Lukachko’s. They’re letting their toddlers tackle the monkey bars by themselves, their school-agers cope with minor playground conflicts alone, and their teens go to school late when they sleep through the alarm clock. They’re hoping their kids will learn from their mistakes, discover their own skills and interests, and eventually forge their own identities.

But parents are also aware that they need to set limits. Kids still need to be safe, still need help and still need their parents to love and watch over them. So how do you do all that without robbing your kids of their responsibilities, on the one hand, or exposing them to undue harm on the other? How do you parent at a safe distance?

The birth of the bubble

Today’s adults grew up in an era of more relaxed parenting. We were told to play outside until the street lights came on, rigged up our own science fair projects, and got our shoes wet hunting frogs in the local creek.

It wasn’t perfect. We rode in the “way back” of station wagons, no seat belts in sight. Adults smoked in cars. Victims of bullying dealt with abuse alone. Kids didn’t have a lot of rights.

But by the 1980s, families were getting smaller and parents began doting all the more on their children. The middle class had more money to spend on toys, books and lessons, and the push was on to raise future doctors and lawyers. Meanwhile, 24-hour cable stations, and later the Internet, documented child abuse and abductions in gruelling detail.

Staying at home to raise kids came to be seen as a career and one working moms had to compete with. “We’ve professionalized parenting,” says Carl Honoré, a UK-based Canadian journalist and author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-parenting. Since extended family members rarely lived together (or even near one another) anymore, people turned to self-help books and parenting research for guidance on how to raise their kids. There emerged an idea of a “gold standard” for child development, says Kimberly Bezaire, an early childhood education researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. But this just made parents anxious and increasingly convinced that the best way to help kids grow up was by getting a tighter grip on them.

 Letting go — gradually

The law of bubbles is that, eventually, they burst. In the case of overparenting, people began to question the trend for a variety of reasons. For Lukachko, it was when she was taking Derek (now 18) to skating lessons — which she’d heard were essential — back when he was five. He didn’t want to be there, and neither did his younger siblings. He whined and they cried as she laced up his skates in the chilly rink. “Why am I doing this?” she asked herself. “When he wants to skate, he’ll learn to skate.” She took them all home. (Derek did learn to skate, five years later, when he started hockey.)

For Joanne Arden,* another parent who is bucking the trend, a low-stress lifestyle is a top priority. “Raising kids is a hard thing, but I think everyone needs to relax a little bit,” says the 39-year-old from Peterborough, Ont. Arden, whose children are six and four, used to hang out with a group of moms who bragged about their kids and ignored bad behaviour. Then she found a group of parents who shared her ideals: Give kids some basic rules and allow them to run, play and be themselves.

Farveh Ghafouri of Toronto thinks back to her native Iran where kids as young as five go to the store alone and even small babies attend adult parties. The 41-year-old’s daughter is just three, but she’s encouraged to explore on her own with what Ghafouri calls “soft supervision.” For example, Ghafouri lets the toddler climb up and down the ladder of a bunk bed she shares with her stepsister (and on which she sleeps on the bottom bed) without any hand holding.
Ironically, hands-off parents actually find they’re creating a lot of rules — and consequences — for their kids. In Lukachko’s family, for example, if you go to the park alone or forget to call from your friend’s house, you’re grounded. If you fail a class because you haven’t done the work, you go to summer school (and deal with angry siblings who would rather be at the cottage). If you take off your coat and snow pants in frustration while waiting for the rest of the family to get ready, you get in the car that way and get cold pretty fast.

But Lukachko drops what she’s doing when one of her kids asks for a hand with homework. “If they want help, the help is there,” she says. She doesn’t give her kids allowance, but she will pay her older children for walking their younger siblings around the neighbourhood. And she drives 15-year-old Russel to hockey practice. He was a bit of a troublemaker, and the hockey seems to keep him engaged.

Some kids need more monitoring than others. Jane Smith of Brackendale, BC, keeps her seven-year-old son, Luke, who has ADHD, on a regular routine with lots of lists. She admits that she hovers during homework time. “It’s up to me to get him to sit down,” she says. Similarly, Lukachko keeps close tabs on 16-year-old Carson’s marks in school, where he struggles, but she refuses to define what success means for him. When his teacher said, “He’ll never be a rocket scientist,” Lukachko replied, “Yeah, but he can fix your furnace.”

*Names changed by request.

 Life outside the bubble

Lukachko isn’t the only parent who’s had to defend her approach. When New York writer Lenore Skenazy encouraged her nine-year-old to find his way home on the subway alone in the spring of 2008, the story made headlines across North America. When Arden told a neighbourhood grandmother about her then-five-year-old daughter Isabelle’s request to take her doll out for a stroll by herself, the grandma, visibly shocked, said: “You didn’t let her, did you?” (Arden did, but followed discreetly as Isabelle marched down the street.)

It’s not just “other people” who question what these parents are doing — they have plenty of doubts themselves. Honoré says it takes time to overcome the temptation to overparent. “It’s got to be a process. You can’t just go cold turkey.” Arden recently debated talking to the teacher about a child who was pushing Isabelle during recess. But the problem wasn’t interfering with Isabelle’s sleep or desire to go to school, so Arden coached her on possible responses and let her work it out herself.

Smith once considered calling off a trail-riding trip with son Andrew, who was eight at the time, because his younger brother, Luke, was still using training wheels on his bike and couldn’t go with them. “It was really hard for me to ride away from Luke; it made me feel like a big meanie,” says Smith. When she returned, Luke had fully mastered his two-wheeler.

Comfort for such choices may come in a crowd. “Parents are starting to get together on this,” says Honoré. In Smith’s neighbourhood, like-minded parents watch out for one another’s kids on the street and at the local park, and help the other parents debate difficult decisions. The affluent New Jersey neighbourhood of Ridgewood holds an annual evening called Ready, Set, Relax! when there is no homework, no extracurriculars, and both parents make it home in time for dinner. This event, initiated in 2002, has spread to other places in the US and Canada.

Deciding how to parent is more than following — or not following — a trend. Relinquishing control means letting go of some of your own fears about what’s going on in the playground, and about what will happen in your child’s distant future. “For a lot of parents, it’s about me: my needs, my agenda,” says Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good.

For Lukachko, the decision to loosen her grip was partly practical: It was downright impossible to bubble-wrap life for such a big family. But she also believes her kids learn from their failures. And now, she’s seeing them succeed: Her eldest daughter is doing well in university, and Derek has just been named top candidate in his basic training platoon with the Canadian Armed Forces. “I see some people go through life and think it’s a bed of roses,” she says. “I want my kids to be real.”