The Kids Are All Right: The Scientific Case Against Overprotective Parenting
It has happened again. A little after five in the evening last Sunday, two children, 6 and 10, were taken by a stranger just two blocks from their home in Silver Spring, Maryland. But fortunately, this wasn't a kidnapping in the true sense of the word. The stranger was a police officer responding to a call from a concerned parent who reported two children playing by themselves in a park. Rather than take the kids home, a mere thirty seconds away, the officer instead drove the kids ten miles to Child Protective Services (CPS) in Rockville.
One can only imagine how agonizing this ordeal must have been for Danielle and Sasha Meitiv, the parents of the two kids. Danielle had asked her children to be home by six, and when they did not show up by 6:30, she and her husband frantically started searching for them. It wasn't until 8:00 PM that CPS notified them of their kids' whereabouts.
Believe it or not, it's the Meitiv's second brush with CPS. In February, the two were found responsible of "unsubstantiated" child neglect (yes, that is actually a thing) for allowing their two children to play at a nearby park and walk home unsupervised, a crime formerly known as "letting kids be kids."
Letting kids be kids is something that seems to be happening less and less these days, replaced by overprotective "helicopter" parenting (so called for parents who incessantly "hover" overhead). While parenting could once be as simple as telling kids to "do their homework" and "be back in time for supper," today it's hallmarked by child locks, tracking devices, never-ending praise, and enduring parental oversight.
Ironically, all that extra attention seems to benefit parents far more than children. Helicopter parents report living happier and more meaningful lives than hands-off parents. Contrast that with a plethora of studies examining the effects of overbearing parenting on kids: A study from Ohio State University found that excessive praise can cause children to develop over-inflated egos and narcisstic tendencies later in life. College students with controlling parents report significantly higher rates of depression and less satisfaction with life. Another survey found that students with helicopter parents have reduced psychological well being and are more likely to use anxiety medications.
Overprotective parenting isn't always salubrious for kids' physical health either. For example, many parents commonly withhold potentially allergenic foods from their young kids, lest they by some chance suffer a severe reaction. But, as landmark research published earlier this year demonstrated, preventing kids from eating those foods may be contributing to the rise in allergies! According to the CDC, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. Hyper-parented kids also exercise less and are more likely to be bullied.
What's strange is that all this worry about the safety of our children has arisen during one of the safest times in history to be a child growing up in the developed world.
"Bluntly put: It’s hard to think of a safer time and a better place than the United States of 2015 to raise children — but we act as though the opposite were true," Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, recently wrote at Science of Us.
A quick scan of the data, provided by the meticulous researcher David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire: The physical abuse of children declined by 55 percent between 1992 and 2011, while sexual abuse declined 64 percent; between 1997 and 2012, abductions by strangers also went down by 51 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle deaths among kids 12 and under declined by 43 percent in the last decade.
Maintaining a more watchful eye and fixating on our kids may simply be the new normal in this "Age of Irrational Parenting," Senior says. After all, we're having far fewer of them than we used to, so it only makes sense that we would treasure them to a more obsessive degree.
But common sense, and even a healthy amount of science, indicates that taking a slight step back is the best course of action. Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Human Development, at the University of California - Berkeley is one of the foremost experts on parenting. For decades, she has held that the best parents strike a balance between discipline and autonomy. They don't shower their children with praise, nor do they hem them in with excessive restrictions. They step in when necessary, but generally allow children to figure things out for themselves. Baumrind calls it the authoritative style of parenting.
The bond between parent and child is unique in every circumstance. The best science can do is offer a general framework. If decades of research could be distilled to a couple of suggestions, they might go something like this: Be responsive, not overprotective. Nurture, don't coddle. Above all, your children's lives are their own. Don't live through them.
Despite being labeled as neglectful, Danielle Meitiv seems to parent well within these recommendations. As she told ABC's Nightline, "Frankly I think that raising independent children and responsible children and giving them the freedom that I enjoyed is a risk worth taking."