Grounding the helicopter parents

The New Yorker has an extended review and discussion of various new books critical of the increasing trend for parents to be overinvolved in their children’s lives owing to the trend for ‘intelligence boosting’ products and activities.

It’s a nicely balanced article that highlights some of the worst trends in ‘overparenting’ while also pointing out some of the flaws with the recent wave of criticism.

To get some perspective, look at “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood” (2004), by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia. Mintz’s story begins with the beginning of the United States, and therefore he describes children with troubles greater than overparenting: boys dispatched to coal mines, and girls to textile mills, at age nine or ten.

As for the current outbreak of worry over the young, Mintz reminds us that America has seen such panics before—for example, in the nineteen-fifties, with the outcry over hot rods, teen sex, and rock and roll. The fifties even had its own campaign against overparenting, or overmothering—Momism, as it was called. This was thought to turn boys into homosexuals. For the past three decades, Mintz writes, discussions of child-rearing in the United States have been dominated by a “discourse of crisis,” and yet America’s youth are now, on average, “bigger, richer, better educated, and healthier than at any other time in history.”

There have been some losses. Middle-class white boys from the suburbs have fallen behind their predecessors, but middle-class girls and minority children are far better off. Mintz thinks that we worry too much, or about the wrong things. Despite general prosperity—at least until recently—the percentage of poor children in America is greater today than it was thirty years ago. One in six children lives below the poverty line. If you want an emergency, Mintz says, there’s one

Over-involvement is certainly a risk, however, and this can be seen even in the very beginning of infancy. One of the key skills psychologists talk about in early life is the ability to self-soothe – in other words, learning to independently manage discomfort and strong emotions.

This begins when babies are getting into sleep routines in the months after being born. There is a temptation to attend to the baby and soothe it as soon as it cries but this can have the opposite effect and the child actually sleeps worse because they don’t have the opportunity to learn to settle themselves.

A recent large study helped to confirm this and found that parents that encouraged independence and self-soothing by not attending to their baby at every cry reported that their child had extended and more consolidated sleep.

Link to New Yorker ‘The Child Trap’ article.

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