Prone to Overparenting?
Our family had reached a breaking point: my eldest son was in first grade and was tired all the time from a combination of school, music, sports, church, and lessons in Mandarin on Sundays. The reason he was taking Mandarin wasn’t to honor our family heritage (we are not Chinese-American), but because of a random phrase that his piano teacher had uttered in passing when he was five: “The children in my studio who go to Chinese school are the best ones at memorizing music as well,” she said. “Something about learning all those characters must strengthen their brains.”
That was enough to send me into a flurry of Mandarin-mania, and within six months, my son was learning all about tones and Pinyin and how to say useful phrases such as “the balloon flew away” in Chinese. And this was just one example.
Any program or activity that I thought would help him maximize his fullest potential, I’d sign him up for without hesitation. When he was an infant, I read that getting sufficient sleep was critical for a child’s brain and personality development, which turned me into an sleep-compulsive mom. My mother, witnessing the militant way I observed naptime and bedtime schedules, scoffed at my inflexibility. “We never did this with you guys,” she said of me and my brother. “You stayed up late, you slept when you slept, what is wrong with that? You turned out fine.”
Undeterred, I retorted: “But we could have turned out so much better!”
So yes, I admit it: I have been more than guilty of overparenting, multiple times over, with all three of my sons. I confess that I still am, on occasion. But in recent years, something happened to me. I realized that when it comes to the endless array of activities and options for our generation of kids, it is possible to plan too much of a good thing.
Recently, the social media universe went abuzz over an article in Boston Magazine entitled “Welcome to the Age of Overparenting.” Actually, in some ways the title is misleading: the trend towards overparenting has been around for a while, for the decade I’ve been a parent at least, and probably for as long as the children of the Baby Boomers have been school-aged. Whatever the causes of the trend, I was tired of feeling as though I was making parenting decisions based on a lemming-like response of “everybody else is doing it.” And so, out went Chinese school and a whole host of other classes, courses, and activities. Our kids each play one instrument, and our older boys are involved with baseball in the spring. Once a week, they go to AWANA. But that is it, and it feels like more than enough. In addition, most importantly, my kids play a ton, although their options for playmates are sorely limited after school. Everyone else is too busy!
It’s so hard to chart a different course; the temptation to try to keep up with other families and their children is unbelievably potent. Even after our decision to start scaling back and give our kids more time to just be kids again, I would forget the reasons for doing so. “Are you signing up for soccer? You have to start right when they’re no older than four years old otherwise they’ll be behind!” one friend told me, sending my mind reeling about whether my kids were doomed to a life of athletic spectatorship. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to immediately check and see if there were still room for late registrations.
What has helped me as I have sought to embrace some sort of antidote to the pressure to overparent has been to do three things in particular, two of which I’ll mention in this post:
1. Constantly ask “Why?”
As in, “Why are we choosing to do this?” So often I found myself opting to sign up our kids for this or that because that was what was the norm in families around us, without critically assessing whether the choice really made sense for us, whether my kids would truly enjoy or benefit from the particular activity, whether there would be any potential negative ramifications on our family life from the additional commitment, and most importantly, what my underlying motivation was for making this choice for our kids. Drilling down the the “why” question is a simple way to discipline ourselves to make wiser choices as parents.
2. Remember the point of parenthood
It was amazing how many times, when I really dug into the true reason for why I was having our kids take this summer class or that sports lesson, that it all came down to a desire to have them be glorified somehow, someday. Too often we think that our job is to help our children reach an enviable state, so that by the time colleges evaluate their potential, they will be deemed an excellent addition. But conceiving parenthood and our children’s futures in this way entirely misses the point of why God gives us children at all.
God gives us the blessing of children not to further their future purposes, but to further His overall plan and purpose. Certainly he wants for us to help our kids invest in and develop their talents and abilities–but not for their own glory. I think too often, Christian parents forget this point, which is why our parenting looks so similar to that of families around us.
Yet we are called to “set [our] minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2), carving out a different parenting path that will reflect “the peace of Christ” ruling our hearts, as opposed to wallowing in anxiety-ridden worry about our children’s future. Otherwise, the longer we pursue an “overparenting” type of approach in our families, the more we will ultimately be teaching our children that we are consumed by earthly approaches and failing to trust in the One who created our kids to begin with.
(In the next post, I’ll pose a third suggestion: that missional parenting can also be a great antidote to our overparenting culture. Stay tuned!)
What do you think about the current trend towards overparenting in our culture? How do you and your family strive to combat this trend in your own families? I’d love to hear your thoughts!