I know, I should be happy. There is, after all, a revolution under way — a movement to end the overhyped, overprotective phenomenon known as Overparenting. So sayeth Time magazine:
“The insurgency goes by many names — slow parenting, simplicity parenting, free-range parenting — but the message is the same: Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher.”
At the forefront of the struggle are people like Lenore Skenazy, whose “Free-Range Kids” aims to return us to a time when 9-year-olds could ride the subway alone. Elementary-school principals and college administrators are starting to resist the overparents who ghostwrite their kids’ times-tables homework or give their 19-year-olds wake-up calls every morning. Soon, perhaps, we’ll be raising our children to be tough, resilient, independent-minded—not the ninnies and ready-to-crack teacups of the past decade or so. Viva la revolución!
Me, I’m skeptical—and not just because the online version of the article is larded with links blurbing “the 25 best back-to-school gadgets” and “pictures of Barack Obama’s college years.” The insane protectiveness of today’s overparents was not bred by a logic that can be reversed with reason and statistics. So what if only 1 in 1.5 million kids is kidnapped and killed by a stranger? The fear that induces parents to buy three-foot animal leashes for their progeny will not be assuaged. “A kind of parenting fungus” is how Time’s Nancy Gibbs refers to the fear, and as anyone who’s had mold in their walls knows, it’s not so easily eradicated.
And I’m saying this as a free-ranger myself! I grew up walking to school and biking (without a helmet!) all over Amherst, Massachusetts, rarely giving my parents an idea of where I was going, or with whom. Somehow I survived. I’d love my Sasha to grow up the same way, and am as dedicated an underparent as you’ll find in my small corner of Brooklyn.
But there are obstacles, even at home. My wife, Jean, for one. While she’s not about to start helicopter parenting at Sasha’s preschool, the idea of letting Sasha ride the subway solo strikes her as crazy. Okay, Sasha’s only 1 year old, but still: Jean successfully grew to adulthood in Taipei, a very big city, so shouldn’t she be cool with this? And mightn’t Sasha be better off growing up in Taipei herself, away from American educational insanity? As a child in elementary school, Jean had to do things like clean the bathrooms, and the disciplinarian in me quivers with delight at the thought that Sasha would have to do the same.
I’m actually in Taipei right now, staying with the in-laws, and things seem just as screwed up here. Sasha was crabby this morning, so we left her sitting slack-jawed in front of the in-laws’ copy of Baby Einstein while I started work on this story. (Actually, I wanted her to watch the rip-off Brainy Baby®, but the DVD wasn’t in the case.) She sneezed—once!—and my mother-in-law rushed in to make sure Sasha was okay. “Warm clothes,” she just now told me. I did nothing, so she put a bib on the baby. She hasn’t sneezed again.
Then we put Sasha down for a nap, and as soon as she started crying—which was about five minutes in—some in-law or other retrieved her from the crib, effectively ending any chance we’d get a break from her. In other words, I WANT to leave her alone, let her learn to deal with her world on her own (yes, she’s only 1, I know), but the rest of the world, it seems, has other plans. If I’m not overparenting, someone else will be: an in-law, a neighbor, a teacher, a parent whose love of lawsuits ensures that everyone else falls fearfully into line.
It takes a village, they say, but you know what? There’s a reason some of us move to the city.