Over-Protective Child-Rearing Ruining Kids’ Lives

A childhood without a skinned knee? A college co-ed phoning her mom at midnight over a term paper? A parent going with his son on a job interview? These scenarios are so common today that professionals working with Gen Y (those born between 1980 and 1999) have coined a few terms for overprotective child rearing:

“The Tethered Generation.” This term, first used in HR Magazine, refers to young people who have to be in constant contact with their parents and each other via cellphones and Instant Message. A teen’s life becomes a continuous voice recording to Mom and Dad. The conversations are completely trivial and never-ending: “I’m getting out of class now and I’m on my way to the cafeteria.” “Dad, can you do this job application?” “Mom, what should I do about my crappy roommate? Today she wouldn’t empty the garbage.”

The “tethered generation” has no sense of human boundaries – no sense of where one life begins and another ends. There is no sense of space on MySpace: everything from how you got drunk the night before to details of your mall experience is written up for public consumption. Everything is communicated and nothing is personal or private. Just as you know everything about Brad and Angelina, so you know everything about the lives of your friends.

“Helicopter Parents.” This phrase invented by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss refers to parents who constantly hover over their child in search of dangers. If anything, no matter how trivial, upsets their ward, they swoop down to fix it. This means they meet with teachers over a failing test grade, they negotiate raises with their teen’s employer, they “fix” messy break-ups with their teen’s lover, they write term papers and college applications – and on and on.

“Childhood without Play.” There are no more pick-up baseball games or playing dolls under big trees. Childhood is all about Scouts, Little League, piano lessons and Story Hour. Children never get to play freely with other children – there is always adult supervision. This means they don’t learn to be “streetwise” by exploring and roaming their neighborhoods. Supervised play also has the effect of cushioning children against the natural and sometimes nasty give-and-take between peers – a process that provides valuable life lessons. Children need to learn how to negotiate their own disagreements and choose their natural leaders.

“Childhood without End.” If age sixty is the new forty, then twenty is the new ten. Because parents are infantilizing adolescents by making even the smallest decisions for them, childhood is extending well past age twenty. For example, in 1960, 65% of males and 77% of females were married, through school, holding down jobs, and in their own homes by age 30. Today that’s true of only 31% of the males and 46% of females.

Therapists, teachers and other professionals working with Gen Y point to such overly protective child-rearing practices as the reason that so many teens are at risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and binge drinking.

“This has been the most protected generation in history,” says Mark Thompson, director of counseling at Colgate University. He points to car seats, bicycle helmets, and even wood chips under park swings. Because Gen Y has been reared in a “risk adverse” way, they tend to be psychologically fragile, robbed of their own identities, and unable to feel a real sense of accomplishment for their efforts.

They have no sense of accomplishment because Mom praised and posted every single drawing on the refrigerator. Psychologist David Angeregg says, “They were not free to goof up, make mistakes or just fool around.” Parents forget that no one child is good at everything and people learn by failing. Yet Gen Y is not allowed to fail or even do average – 94% of Harvard students graduate with honors.

Because they were not allowed to explore, take risks or fail, many in Gen Y feel disconnected from themselves. Some campus psychologists like Dr. Paul Joffe of the University of Illinois link binge drinking, experiments with drugs and sex and self-cutting to their need to have an authentic experience that is truly their own.

Up until 1966, college students sought counseling because of problems in relationships. Today the most common problem is anxiety. For the first time depression is increasing among children, and not among people over 40. Therapists tell us that depression and anxiety result from an inability to cope with life’s little vicissitudes. People who are used to getting their way instantly will not be able to handle even small rejections. This has lead to increased problems on campus with stalking.

More and more colleges such as Seton Hall, Notre Dame, University of Vermont, Oberlin, Utah State, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many others, are holding workshops for parents to help them let go of their children. Here are some of the tips offered in such workshops:

  1. Limit cell phone calls and instant messaging. Remember your own college days when your parents were lucky to get a hasty phone call once a week from their student who was more than happy to be on his own and away from them.
  2. You may have become your child’s best friend, but your job is to teach him to rely on himself. Let him make his own decisions, especially on everyday matters.
  3. Let your child take age-appropriate risks.
  4. Don’t think of your child’s friends as his or her competition.
  5. Worry about the right things. Some authorities say today’s parents are overly concerned about kidnapping and Internet predators. Yet they don’t worry that their child is not getting enough outdoor exercise and age-appropriate freedoms or if he is playing too many video games or she is wearing too sexy clothes.
  6. Don’t rush in to defend your child from teachers or others in authority who are critical of his performance.
  7. Don’t expect your child to perform perfectly at everything he tries.
  8. Let your child know that you have every confidence in his ability to solve his own problems, make friends, master schoolwork, handle a job, and the other work of his age group.