I feel like Forrest Gump walking through the history of Overparenting
Remember how Forrest Gump walked through famous scenes in history, perhaps not even realizing it at the time? That's how I feel after reading Nancy Gibb's Time Magazine cover story about The Case Against Over-Parenting.
I was happy to see the article since I am hard at work editing the forthcoming anthology Courageous Parenting that aims to give parents the background and skills they need to reverse the tide of overparenting. I agree with some of Nancy Gibbs' analysis, but disagree with other significant aspects of it. Since I have a lot to say on this topic I'll write a series of blog posts. But I want to start by considering my relationship to the recent history of overparenting.
A theme that has defined and will continue to define my life is that I am on the leading edge of Gen X. Born in 1968, I have come to accept my fate playing Jan Brady to the Baby Boomers' position as Marcia: the Boomers are older, more popular, and certainly more powerful. They get there first and set the trends, and we Gen X often get caught in their wake. Overparenting may look largely like a current Gen X phenomenon but I think it has roots in Boomer parents due to their incredible power as a market. When Boomers were teenagers, being a teenager became not only cool, but the lucrative youth market was born. When Boomers started having kids, the market for new baby products and parenting advice took off as well.
Pamela Paul's book Parenting Inc. does a great job of shining a light on the billion-dollar baby-industrial complex, but you only have to walk the aisles of any baby store to see how many gadgets and safety devices there are.
Hard to believe that thirty of forty years ago we didn't even have car seats!
My encounters with modern parenting started even before I had my daughter. From 1996 to 1999, I taught high school in San Francisco, and many of the kids were children of high-achieving Boomers. Teaching was a fantastic experience, but there were definitely signs that parents expected the best for their kids. I was pretty surprised to see that seniors were applying to a dozen or more colleges, when ten years earlier, we typically applied to a handful. The goal went from getting in somewhere good to having a huge array of options to choose from. Some parents were also clearly overinvolved with being their kids' friend and didn't always know how to set the necessary limits for their teens.
Even before then, I had a near-brush with one of the burgeoning trends in parenting. As a Stanford neuroscience graduate student, I was doing research into brain development and I was very interested in critical periods of learning. This became popularized in "zero to three" interventions. Around 1995 I even considered creating a video series that would have predated Baby Einstein. Inspired by the very cool work of neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl, who investigates early language acquisition, I thought about trying to create a video series that would teach babies and kids languages that were very different from their own, such as Japanese for English speakers or vice versa.
On the one hand, maybe I missed out on a multi-gazillion dollar industry, but considering the fact that the Baby Einstein videos didn't actually work, I am not too sorry about taking a different path. I will say though, that being a scientist I would have tested the results to make sure that the products worked! In the meantime, if you want your baby to learn another language I'd recommend hiring a babysitter who is a native speaker.
So, I do believe that marketing is an underlying root cause of overparenting. As our lives were actually getting safer, we were being sold new "problems" in order to sell us new "solutions." By the time we were being sold the BabyPlus Prenatal Education System, I started to pull my hair out, as I wrote about on my CNET blog, (Parent.Thesis) This marketing of overparenting is not only ridiculous, it's offensive to me. There are so many true problems facing families that it is a shameful waste of time, money and attention to try to give your kid a "head start" in the womb. Hopefully one good outcome of the current recession is we can let the most ridiculous stuff go.
In addition to overt marketing messages, this decade's rise of 24-hour news media on cable and online meant a rise in selling fear. CNN.com is one of the worst major news offenders in my experience, in that they sometimes post a story in a headline position which is not new news at all, but rather a scary story from the archives that they are revisiting. I am talking about stories along the lines of this CNN.com post from yesterday, with Nancy Grace talking about a cold case from 1989, Cold case: Toddlers vanish from park. But sometimes CNN.com posts this type of story in a headline position on the home page without clearly labeling it as a cold case. Doing so is irresponsible. Child abductions are fearful occurrences of mythic proportions. They can't help but pus the anxiety buttons and get any concerned parent's adrenaline flowing. But the truth is that THANKFULLY, these incidents are much rarer than you would think based on how heavily they are reported. With genuine new tragedies such as Shaniya Davis' recent rape and murder shining a light on human trafficking, I really wish the news media would stop dredging up decades' old cases for sensational purposes. When I think about web site clicks I can't help but think of lab rats conditioned to push a lever, and I will admit that I am as conditioned as anyone!
So we have consumerism and the marketing of problems and solutions, news sensationalism, and what else...oh yes, the Decade from Hell. Let's face it, the past ten years have been scary and anxious. Terrorist attacks, resulting wars, the economic meltdown...we haven't had much of a break from fear and anxiety. And for eight years, the Bush administration manipulated our fear as consciously as any marketer or news producer.
We're only now waking up from that nightmare, if we're lucky, and as parents it's crucial that we wake up. We need to become conscious of the effect that we have on our children. If we are fearful people, our parenting is going to get out of whack. I believe we're seeing that already, as we limit our kids' exploration of the world to the point where they are missing out on important developmental experiences. I want my kid to be able to walk the neighborhood, to go to a slumber party and summer camp, to spend time with other families and get to know other people. [For ongoing conversation on this topic, check out Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids blog.]
Now in order to do so, she'll need skills, and I need the skills to teach her, and that's what we're addressing in Courageous Parenting. In the meantime you can check out the websites of Kidpower for real-world safety training and resources and iLookBothWays.com for online safety training that I highly recommend.
As far as waking up and being conscious of our effect on our children, I have been blessed with a daughter who has been my greatest teacher from day one. When she was a baby I swore she was a Yoda-like Zen master (but much cuter). Then, she taught me how to be in the moment. Now that she's older, she has an almost psychic sensitivity to what is going on in my mind, what I am thinking about and worrying about. When I am stressed and worried, it is mirrored in our relationship and her behavior. It amazes me that she will often voice worries that are currently on my mind even if she and I haven't talked about them yet. So my personal experience has shaped my world view on parenting. There are challenges to face and things to be fearful about. True fear requires attention and action, as author Gavin de Becker has taught so well. But unfocused worry is toxic static that pervades our lives.
It's time we start thinking about the costs of overindulging ourselves and our kids even as we overprotect them, and adopting worry as a destructive habit. My hope is that in our new decade we can turn a fresh page in parenting. I'll be doing that both metaphorically and literally and I invite you to join me.
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