Overparenting is the new buzzword among parenting experts. It is fast becoming the next big threat, poised to overtake screen time as the go-to boogeyman. Yet for all the attention we are giving overparenting, we are not yet seeing the real problem clearly.
Those who warn us against overparenting usually open their arguments with some well-founded conclusions taken from recent studies. They cite the desire for parents to push their children into extracurricular activities as a problem. They note that the drive for parents to manage their kids’ homework is harmful. They rightfully bemoan helicopter parenting tactics as factors that stifle children’s independence. These points present a pretty solid foundation to argue from. The overparenting problem is real, and it is creating stress and anxiety for both parents and children. So far, so good.
But then many overparenting critics go astray by focusing on the wrong aspect of the overparenting phenomenon: the fact that it is intensive for parents. Modern parenting is indeed intensive. Parental involvement requires time, energy, resources, and emotional labor. The critics imply that too much parent-child interaction is the problem—that it displaces the child’s potential to develop independence, and that it causes undue stress. They place a large part of the blame on the rise of extracurricular activities, and the demands it places on parents. They long for independent outdoor playtime, bored children, and more time for parental self-care. Their solution seems self-evident: to be less involved with our children.
This undertone of anti-involvement is not always fully articulated, but it is clearly present. If you have read an article on overparenting and felt guilty for taking your child to swim class, then you know what I mean. We are being led to conclude that our involvement is the problem.
The anti-involvement sentiment is wrong-headed. Any notion that parents should be less present, and less invested, in their children’s daily lives should be stifled before it can gain any more momentum. Being less involved would certainly curtail the intensity of being a parent, but that is not the real problem with overparenting.
If intensiveness is the wrong aspect of overparenting to focus on, then what aspect should we be scrutinizing? Before we get to the real problem with overparenting, we need to review optimal parenting as defined by self-determination theory. There are three dimensions to optimal parenting: involvement, structure, and autonomy support.
Involvement concerns being a vital and benevolent figure in a child’s life. A parent exhibiting a high degree of involvement is present and engaged in a child’s activities, commits means and effort to support the child, demonstrates warmth and caring in interactions with the child, and fosters a general atmosphere of love.
Structure involves setting up the child’s environment for competence to blossom. A parent using a high degree of structure communicates boundaries to the child, explains the consequences of going beyond those boundaries, provides objective information about the child’s impact on his environment in real time, and emphasizes the self-improvement aspects of growth rather than using comparisons to other children. A parent using a low degree of structure does not create such a structured environment, but instead allows disorder to reign.
Autonomy support involves empowering the child to author his actions and to own the outcomes. A parent providing a high degree of autonomy support allows choices, respects the child’s interests, encourages self-advocacy, supports volitional activities, gives reasons for expectations, and takes the child’s viewpoint into consideration. A parent providing a low degree of autonomy support is directive and controlling.
The three dimensions of involvement, structure, and autonomy support are interdependent. You can think of them like the legs of a three-legged stool. If any of the three dimensions are deficient, then the child’s development is suboptimal—like a wobbly stool.
Now let’s go to the study that has energized overparenting as a new hot topic. This study surveyed parents about how they would like to handle their bored children. The parents were overwhelmingly reported as responding that they wanted to do things to the children. The prevailing mindset is that parents “verb” their children. They enroll their children in something. They have their children do homework. They have their child read. They have their child do chores. That is the essence of the problem—that they “have their child do.”
Why are children mere subjects in the parent-child dynamic? How did we get to a place where scientific studies presume parents to be the doers, and children to be props, lacking in agency? How did parental control become so prevalent that its excess is taken as a given?
Parental control—nothing else—is the problem with overparenting. Parents taking too much control of their children’s activities is the source of stress and anxiety. Overcontrol is what is stunting children’s development toward independence. It should be called overcontrolling, not overparenting.
The opposite of control is autonomy support. So, stated differently, the problem with overparenting is a deficit of autonomy support.
A child should never be viewed as a subject under our control. Children have agency. They have valid perspectives. They have desires, feelings, and ambitions, all of which are worthy of respect. Children deserve dignity. They deserve verbs.
The prescription many people seem to be offering is to withdraw involvement—to withhold resources, to devote less time, and to give less attention. After all, if you are not there with your children, then you can’t be controlling. Your absence will let the children get bored, and that will nurture their creative thinking and independence. Problem solved. Except the solution doesn’t even address the root of the problem.
Withdrawing parental involvement just shifts the problem. A child with uninvolved parents may no longer be suffering from overcontrol, but they will suffer from parental under-involvement. Involvement is one of the three dimensions of optimal parenting. If we shorten the involvement “leg”, we are left with a wobbly stool.
If you have burned too many dinners, do you banish yourself from the kitchen? Instead of home-cooked dinners, do you opt for microwave meals and take-out food? That might solve your problem about burnt dinners, but it is an overkill solution that just creates other problems. The fact that you were in the kitchen was never the problem. The problem was that you just needed to cook differently. In the same way, we shouldn’t stop being involved with our kids—we just need to do it differently, without exerting control.
If you are busy taking your children to their choice activities, then you don’t need to feel guilty about it. The fact that you are juggling multiple priorities is not ruining your children. You are not the problem.
My children do extracurricular activities. Why do I have them do this, you may wonder? Well, I don’t have them do activities. They asked for their piano lessons, guitar lessons, and gymnastics classes, sometimes taking months to convince me that their interests were keen enough to warrant the investments. They understand the level of commitment they are asking from me. My children are volitional actors in our family dynamic, and that is why they are enrolled in activities. The very notion that I “had the child do” any of these things as unilateral parenting measures should be absurd.
Should I have refused my son the opportunity to join an organized rock band on the grounds that I had more unstructured time growing up? Should I tell my daughter I don’t have time to play Uno with her tonight, that she should learn to play solitaire instead, to build her character, to understand boredom, and to get creative? Of course not, those measures should be seen as equally absurd.
My children also get plenty of free play and independence, primarily because those are things they choose to have. Yes, it is important for them to have those things. But it is not necessary for parents to regulate those things, or to coerce children to meet some kind of free play quota. Children will make time for free play when given a chance, and they will grow their ‘independence muscles’ through their own motivation.
Let’s not allow the movement to combat parental involvement gain any more steam. That would only create more problems. It would be to fix the part that isn’t broken. Let’s instead concentrate on the part that does need fixing—parental control.
Children don’t need our control. They are plenty competent and have minds of their own. Let them direct their own free time, however many extracurricular activities that entails. Let them learn guitar chords at their own pace. Let them skip some practices, even if it means they are not ready to play perfectly at the recital. Let them struggle with that back bend even if they are the last child in the gymnastics class to perfect it. Let them quit their extracurricular activities if they want to. Play with them when you can. Let them play alone when they want. Let them manage their own homework. Let them skip their homework. If they want help in any of those things, then of course we can stay involved, provide structure and, most importantly, offer autonomy support.
Once we learn how to stay involved without exerting control, both children and parents will be much better off. And this misguided fad of guilting parents for being involved will go away.
How to Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “The Real Problem with Overparenting”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/overparenting.