Newton’s famous insight, “For every action there is an equal and opposite slew of trend pieces,” has never been truer about anything than it is about parenting advice. I feel like every time I hear a catchy phrase like “helicopter parenting,” it’s a perfect description of exactly what I am not seeing in the real world.
I’m sure overparenting exists. I have no doubt that some kids could do with a little less attention, or skin on their knees, and perhaps a little more danger in their lives. But I’ve probably interacted with a couple thousand parents on playgrounds at this point (I have two daughters, ages 8 and 5), and in all that time I don’t think I have ever seen a mom or dad go to extraordinary lengths to keep little ones from bonking their heads.
A mom crying “Be careful!” to a kid who wobbles on a swing? Sure. A dad guiding his son as he climbs the monkey bars? Absolutely. But the over-doters we hear so much about, swatting at anything that threatens a single, precious hair on Junior’s little head? At the bottom of Loch Ness for all I know.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the term “overparenting” was lifted into popular usage by John Rosemond, a syndicated columnist and a psychologist who, among other things, doesn’t believe in psychology. He does believe in spanking . And forced toilet training. But not in ADHD or the existence of mental illness in children.
Rosemond might fairly be described less as a foe of overparenting than as a fan of under-parenting. He recently summed up his philosophy in a viral column: “Yes, Virginia, once upon a time in the United States of America, children were second-class citizens, to their advantage. . . . Our parents’ marriages were more important to them than their relationships with us. Therefore, we did not sleep in their beds or interrupt their conversations. The family meal, at home, was regarded as more important than after-school activities. Mom and Dad talked more — a lot more — with one another than they talked with you. . . . The most important person in an army is the general. The most important person in a corporation is the CEO. . . . And the most important person in a family are the parents.”
The nostalgia of Rosemond (and lots of others) for the days of wine and bloody noses is at the root of the overconcern about overparenting. This rhetoric echoes in complaints about the “wussification” and “pussification” of America — that is, our embrace of weakness — and it has, like other heinous sentiments, been gaining a lot of traction these past few years. It’s almost a cliche at this point: Comedians, pundits and parenting gurus, usually of a particular white stripe, launch diatribes about how there were no silly bike helmets or rubberized playgrounds in their day, yet they somehow managed to turn out okay.
Readers who have never been hurled from their dad’s unseatbelted lap into a 1970s windshield may be tempted to take such claims at face value. I, however, as a parent of a certain age now raising young kids of my own, am uniquely qualified to ask: Really? Did you really turn out fine, dater of women half your age? Are you actually doing all right, libertarian racist? Are you okay, Tucker Carlson? Because it seems to me like you could use a hug. And maybe you might have benefited from a little more helmeting during childhood.
Rosemond and his ilk are soldiers in the same backlash army now waging war against public school “indoctrination,” the #MeToo movement and Movie Sequels That Ruin Childhoods. They are fierce believers in the character-building qualities of skinned knees, bruised brains and shattered senses of self, and this dad of two precious snowflakes would like to invite them to take an unaccompanied long walk off an unattended short pier.
You know what was great about the parenting of the ’70s? Nothing. In case you haven’t noticed, my generation’s lack of car seats, bike helmets and time spent with sober, attentive parents did not exactly turn us into paragons of toughness, independence or maturity. It turned us into action-figure collectors, comfort-food aficionados and porn addicts. It turned us into memoir writers.
I mean, does anyone seriously think we shouldn’t put helmets on kids when they ride skateboards? Or, you know, ask them about their day? I can tell you from experience that concussions don’t build character. Concussions build chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
You know what builds character? Character. Parents who have it and model it. Moms and dads who behave decently and thoughtfully and lovingly raise decent, thoughtful, loving kids.
I see a lot more kids having trouble because of under- rather than overparenting. Kids popping open bags of Doritos at 8 in the morning. Parents popping open six-packs not too much later. The one thing parenthood seems to breed out of most people, in fact, is a predisposition to over-anything, except nap. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, and yes, those exceptions are tempting to joke about: parents who hire a Hollywood producer to stage their child’s bar mitzvah, a grandmother who demands that trees be chopped to keep stray hickory nuts from falling into a pool where her allergic grandson swims. But to me the most telltale sign of parenthood is an attitude toward the minor sufferings of children — the cuts and bruises — that might generously be described as “unalarmed.”
This does not mean modern parents don’t love their kids. Maybe we’re just paying enough attention to our children’s lives to know what’s what. One of the upsides of spending time with your kids is that you learn things about them. And they about you. And a side benefit to all that learning is that your kids get to know what you know about them. They experience that knowledge as love.
Maybe today’s parents have earned the right to err on the side of caution at the playground by virtue of having actually been to the playground.