The instinct to protect our babies, even if they're 17 and applying for college, is a strong force that never goes away. We only want to do what's best for our children, but somewhere along the way, many of us absorbed the message that hovering over our children so that they never get dirty, sick or experience pain or disappointment is synonymous with compassionate parenting. As it turns out, that could be setting our children up for failure in life — not to mention the toll it can take on our mental well-being (because it's crazy difficult to keep up with the burden of playing guardian angel in your child's world).
"One of the toughest aspects of parenting is finding the sweet spot between being too disengaged, or under-parenting, and over-parenting," says Dr. Chester Goad, a university administrator and graduate instructor, former K-12 principal and teacher, former U.S. congressional staffer, author and blogger. "The key to the sweet spot for effective parenting is age-appropriate involvement and age-appropriate engagement. All parents stretch and overreach occasionally, but frequent overreaching can lead to helicopter parenting or even tethering. While helicopter parents do tend to hover, their overarching goal is still to equip and encourage. Tethered parents, on the other hand, find it difficult to let go, can be intrusive, and intercede to the point of stifling important skills that lead to independence. It's important to remember, though, that none of us are perfect, and we're all on this parenting journey together."
If you're uncertain whether you're causing more grief than good in your child's life with your involvement, here are six signs you may be over-parenting.
1. You follow your toddler around on the playground — If you're acting like a human shield — hand outstretched to prevent her from falling or playing with dirt — you may be taking your role as protector too far, says Brooke Kimbrough, owner of 4 Sisters Surrogacy Agency in Northern California. What's the non-invasive approach to playground play? "You take your wild and screaming toddler to the park to run off some of that energy," Kimbrough says. "You monitor his playtime from a safe distance and intervene when there is a 5-year-old bully, tears or a windowless van creeping through the parking lot."
2. You do your high school child's homework with him — Are you sitting together at the table every night, reading each homework question in unison, and discussing his answers before he commits them to paper? Time to let go. A better approach: "You and your child read the homework directions aloud and discuss areas of concern and appropriate time limits for each item," Kimbrough says. "You encourage your child to do their best work and are available for questions as they arise."
3. You follow your child around with hand sanitizer — Spending 20 minutes each night after the kids go to bed wiping down each and every toy and surface with Lysol wipes? Your children will, maybe, catch one fewer cold a season, but you're also depriving yourself of much-needed adult time, either solo or with your partner. Save your sanity by teaching your kids to take care of their own needs: "You aid your toddlers and remind your elementary schoolers to wash their hands after they use the bathroom and before they eat," Kimbrough says. "You make soap available at a sink with a stool that all ages can safely and effectively use to wash their grubby paws."
4. You take few risks and don't encourage your kids to take risks — This "safety first" preoccupation that we're obsessed with emerged over 30 years ago with the Tylenol scare and with children’s faces appearing on milk cartons, says Parenting Expert Tim Elmore, president of Growing Leaders. But it doesn't have to pervade our everyday thinking. "We became fearful of losing our kids. So we put knee-pads, safety belts and helmets on them… at the dinner table," Elmore jokes. "But, it’s true. We’ve insulated our kids from risk. Unfortunately, over-protecting our young people has had an adverse effect on them — lower test scores and lack of healthy risk-taking in adulthood, to name a couple. No one is saying you should go bungee jumping with your 6-year-old, but allow them to experience the joy of jumping into the deep side of pool."
5. You rescue them too quickly — Failure is a crucial part of life, but some of us are unwilling to allow our little ones to experience the slightest hint of displeasure. "This generation of young people has not developed some of the life skills kids did 30 years ago because adults take care of problems for them," Elmore says. "Staff from four universities recently told me they encountered students who had never filled out a form or an application in their life. Desiring to care for their kids, and not disadvantage them, parents or teachers had always done it for them. We have removed the need for them to navigate hardships. It’s 'parenting for the short-term' and makes them wholly unprepared for adulthood."
6. You rave too easily — Everyone's child is special, but not everyone's child is a good enough baseball player to make it to the major leagues. Leading them to believe they have those skills is dishonest and prevents them from discovering their natural-born talents. "Attend a Little League awards ceremony and you soon learn everyone’s a winner — everyone gets a trophy," Elmore says. "We meant well, but research is now indicating this method has unintended consequences. The self-esteem movement told us we have to make our kids feel special, regardless of what they accomplish. But this creates a false sense of confidence that will quickly be deflated (and likely lead to depression) once these kids enter the real world and realize that Mom is the only one who thinks they're awesome."
It's difficult for us as parents to let go of the idea that our kids need us to do everything for them, but the sooner we relinquish total control over their lives, the more likely we'll arm them with the tools and confidence they need to navigate the world all by themselves.