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!

20 Comments on “Prone to Overparenting?

  1. Great post! Thank you for your honesty and for the practical questions one needs to ask to combat overparenting. One great book that I’ve read that runs contrary to the culture of overparenting is NutureShock… great read!

  2. Excellent, Helen! When I was parenting and facing this temptation, I found that having a plan (a flexible plan) that grew out of the kinds of purposes you talk about really helped. Their growing into the people God created them to be is key. Giving opportunity and freedom to discover how God made them is good and needful. One or two wise activities that nurture their gifts/strengths/interests are appropriate. But as you said, so is time to be a child. That will give them so much more. Okay, starting to ramble. I really love that you wrote this.

  3. Amen. Thank you for writing this, Helen. Your “antidotes” are very wise. We have made choices for our seven year old that are different than his peers (no soccer because he doesn’t really like it YET everyone seems to do it and we were warned if we didn’t start young he’d never be able to play – crazy). Still, it is difficult when there are so many good things he could be doing not to go nuts putting him in everything. Unstructured play is crucial, and so few kids have it anymore. On the surface, simple playing doesn’t a Rhodes scholar make. But I think many kids miss out on opportunities to use their imagination, improvise, strategize and make their own decisions. Go fish, anyone?”

  4. Like the way that you are able to highlight this issue and allow us to speak to this new generation of “too much knowledge”! With the onset of pocket computer, knowledge is so overwhelmingly available at our finger tips, the challenge to most Christian parenting is no longer accumulating knowledge (Phd)… Vs., learning the art of prioritizing appropriate activities according to our life stages! Hopefully, as we nuture the children that are given to us by the grace of God, we are able to assist them to capture the joy and peace of each of their developmental stages,and allow them to cherish all the God given moments for their life journey!!! This also take me back in Gensis : the 2 tree., the tree of knowledge. Vs., the tree of life! Within the missional parenting model, I hope the Holy Spirit within each of us , the adult parent will always guide us to strike a balance…We are in the world but we are not of the world! Thanks Helen, being such a gifted writer to assist us to articulate our counter- culture perspective! To continue to gently remind us, we are here not to please the world. ( the writer of The Lion and the Lamb parenting)! Unto His Kingdom, and His Glory forevermore…”

  5. LOVE this! Totally agree! When my kids were still babies, I heard a mentor mom say that the trend was to make our lives full of activities. She said, “what happened to the old days of baking cookies and working puzzles with your kids?” She talked about how their character development was paramount, and that achievements were secondary. I really took that to heart, I guess. I limit their activities–which really improves the sanity of the whole family, and (like Judy mentioned) try to help them develop some of their God given gifts–sometimes that’s outside of the home, but this semester it looks like me spending my “free time” helping one paint and one with piano. Excited to read the “missional parenting” post!”

  6. Thank you so much, Helen, for posting on this article. I loved the article and thought one of the author’s best points revolved around the fragile ego of parents, ultimately leading us to drown our children with attention, learning opportunities and extra-curricular activities. My husband and I have been guilty as charged in all things over-parenting. However, some of our busyness is simply having 5 kids involved in one activity each – even when we put all sorts of stipulations on them: making them all play the same sport, on and off seasons, etc.

    In a lot of ways, homeschooling has helped us avoid some of the over-activities. But in other ways, it can be its own monster: co-ops field trips, learning opportunities galore. When is enough, enough? If they don’t have sufficient exposure in ‘xyz’ will they ever go on to be well-educated, intelligent adults??? And the pressure from the personal responsibility I often heap upon my shoulders (as if they went to school and turned out like schmucks, I could blame it on the school system?), can rob me of the joy of parenting them for this all too short season I have.

    But besides parents who are over parenting, school systems are over-cramming our kids with knowledge. I talk to moms all the time (at soccer practice) who are exhausted by the demands of their children’s schools. Two hours of homework a night, extra ‘family projects’ required for passing grades, fund raisers, volunteering, etc. People say to me all the time, “I don’t know how you do it (homeschool)!” To which I often reply, “I don’t know how YOU do it!” I guess, though it’s not the primary reason we homeschool, homeschooling HAS protected our family from a lot of over-loading of activities and allowed my children the much-needed free time to explore, create and live in unstructured space.

    Looking forward to the next post, Helen!”

  7. Helen, thank you for this excellent and insightful post. It resonated with me in many ways. I particularly like your challenge to stop imitating what “everyone is doing” without examining why. I think this is a key issue for all of us in parenting and beyond. I’m glad you reminded me to reexamine my parenting and my own life in general.”

  8. A thoughtful piece! I’m guilty of spasms of overparenting too. WIll take the time to pause and ask why we’re doing what we’re doing!

  9. Stephanie and Ann, I’m glad you liked the post. I am still trying to figure it all out myself, but it was definitely eye-opening for me to take a step back and realize how often I just did things because that was the norm as opposed to truly evaluating how God might want us to live as a family and parent our kids. I appreciate your stopping by my blog! Blessings to you.

  10. Great post! I tend to be a rather laissez-faire parent (for better or for worse), and all my attempts at “overparenting” have bombed horribly. I still have nightmares about Cub Scout meetings, trying to keep an eye on my oldest (who has special needs) and second child (who was young enough that he was supposed to have a parent by him) while consoling my third who was wailing because he wasn’t old enough to take part in the activities and juggling a baby on my hip–all of this an hour after the kids normal bedtime. 0_0 THAT didn’t last long.

    I still feel the pressure to live up to those standards, but I guess having come to grips with the fact that I CAN’T helps a little. :-D”

  11. Great post!

    When we were back in the west this past spring because of unrest in our area, my 10 year old Charlie could not understand why his new-found neighbourhood buddy was always busy with extra-curricular activities like football and soccer and violin practice. “Why do they do that here, Mom?” he asked, bewildered at how little time there as to actually play. A new word in our vocabulary was “play date”. There is something really wrong when we have to schedule play into a childhood.”

  12. This is such an important point – and one I struggle with also! It’s all about trading up to God’s will and plans instead of our own. Thanks for sharing your insights. I am looking forward to your next post on doing this a better way, with missional parenting! ~ Ann

  13. Thank you so much! that was an excellent article! It is good to know we are not alone in the way we have chosen to raise our kids.

    “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

  14. Helen,

    It’s easy to be overextended as a parent and person. Isn’t that the constant lesson we’re learning as Christians — balance? It is hard to get it “right.” I’ve noticed over the years as I tried to focus on Bible study, my prayer life declined a bit and vice versa. It is so hard to get it right amidst all our roles, especially parenting.

    Your description reminded me of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — even though you aren’t Chinese-American, you have your kids going to Chinese School to improve their piano playing. I don’t know what the answer is for each individual parent’s situation, but appreciate your honesty. I do remember one time when I turned down my son going to join a mini-basketball league (it was year-round basketball with a one week break between the ten-week sessions). We had two young children and all the practices and games and running around made us all exhausted. When I told my friend who was like an “adoptive grandmother” to our children and came to all the games, she applauded my decision. “Good for you — sometimes we need to take a break and say no.” That is the key — not thinking we have to do it all — even those that fit in the extra-curricular categories we set up for our children — one sport, one music and all the driving around that entails.

    And I love your book The Missional Mom. Can’t wait to read your next post on how being missional helps us in our overparenting. God gave us our children as our disciples and as joint-heirs with Christ, we have the awesome challenge to raise them to help build God’s kingdom.


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