October 14, 2020
Overbearing or Simply Caring?
By Dr Kathy Weston
This week, I have been rather defensively mulling over criticisms surrounding the concept of ‘overparenting,’ following a programme on Radio 4. It has become fashionable to claim that overparenting is to blame for increasingly anxious, stressed out children, and that the pursuit of optimal outcomes in parenting leads to burnout. The trouble is, the truth becomes clouded when an unhelpful and overly simplistic dichotomy is presented between those who ‘overparent’ and those who don’t care.
Moreover, there is vivid hypocrisy in debates on this topic. Those who warn against overparenting are, in most cases, practising aspects of it themselves. Three of the highly educated commentators who contributed to the Radio 4 programme, (including the psychotherapist presenter herself), admitted they were guilty of ‘overparenting’.
As they described it, this approach was synonymous with taking a deep interest in their children’s lives, outcomes, academic progress and future ability to cope in an ever-changing world. One of the alleged hallmarks of overparenting mentioned was the hiring of private tutors. It reminded me of a chat that I had with one of the most passionate advocates for social mobility in the UK (and staunch critic of private education), who admitted that he had hired tutors for his own children.
The truth is, it is hard to resist doing what is best for our own children, and why should we?
As mentioned above, it is the most natural thing in the world to want the best for your children and you should never feel guilty about that. Why wouldn’t we take an interest in what is optimal?
We no longer live in close-knit communities, where the wisdom of the ages is passed down through campfire chatter. We are largely alone, working and trying to do the best we can, in tough circumstances.
Our children are growing up in challenging times, with access to technology so powerful that even the tech companies haven’t fully understood its impact on users. Moreover, it is clear from the economic evidence that education and parental engagement are key levers in driving our children’s academic outcomes, which in turn can lead to future financial security. Who doesn’t worry about this?
The implication in simplistic discussions about overparenting is that taking too much interest, or being too involved, in our children’s lives, damages their mental health and happiness. This is a dangerous suggestion!
I think it is important to reiterate that balance is everything. It is possible to help children thrive in school, as well as maintain positive mental health. Our children live with us for a short period of time and I profoundly believe in the importance of the home environment (and what goes on in it), as critical to children’s future resilience, life satisfaction and wellbeing.
The real, yet often unexpressed, threats to children’s mental health and happiness lie in parents caring too little; leaving parenting to schools, ignoring early signs of distress in their children, not giving children a voice in family life, fighting in front of them, making big decisions without taking their feelings into account and casually giving them access to inappropriate material that could negatively affect their perceptions of the world.
Our children need (and want) us to care, guide, mentor, model and love them as passionately as we can. Whilst doing this, we need to accept our children for who they are, attune to their interests and passions, expect them to mess up and be there to gently help them bounce back.
Rather than be prescriptive, we need to give them the freedom to grow, the agency to make choices for themselves, and the confidence to trust their own judgement.
Our children must not suffocate under the weight of our expectations, but should know that we believe in them. Expecting this to happen in the absence of thought, constant engagement or any guidance is unfathomable to me and arguably ill-advised.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are a registered member of the Tooled Up community, click here to explore our library of resources.