Over-Parenting

Benches in playground are deserted these days. Instead, parents are swinging their children while chanting the ABC. Raising my small children, I have observed that parenting has changed dramatically since I was a child – today’s parents are much more involved in their children’s lives than ever before.  In our paper titled: “Over-Parenting,” my co-author Zvi Triger and I describe this new trend of parenting, which we call “Intensive Parenting.” We show that the law already enforces Intensive Praneting and argue that despite  the advantages of Intensive Parenting, its norms should not be hastily incorporated into the law.

The intensive parent is on a constant quest to obtain updated knowledge of best child rearing practices and use this information actively to cultivate her child and monitor all aspects of the child’s life.  Intensive parenting begins as the pregnant mother accesses an ever increasing amount of information instructing her on how to achieve an optimal pregnancy and does not end when the child enters college. Colleges and more recently even law schools have adjusted to accommodate a new generation of parents who insist on being in direct contact with administrators and professors in order to continue to monitor their children’s life.

But, Intensive Parenting is not just about social norms. We show that it is actually a socio-technological trend. Parents use new information technologies to enhance their ability to monitor and be informed. For example, parents use the cellular phone to stay in constant touch with their children. Commentators observing Intensive parents using the cell phone to communicate with college aged children about the smallest anecdotes of life, have called it “the world’s longest umbilical cord.”

And what does the law have to do with it? We find that the law is already enforcing Intensive Parenting norms, and is particularly powerful in molding parental rearing norms during custody disputes. For example, courts determining custody allocations consider as a factor the parents’ pre-divorce care taking roles and division of labor. The parent who was more involved in the child’s life before divorce has an advantage in custody resolutions. In practice, attorneys are advising their clients on the eve of divorce to engage in Intensive Parenting. The time period before custody determinations becomes a race for involvement, particularly for the parent who was not originally the primary caretaker. Unfortunately, parents eager to gain custody and operating in a world governed by Intensive Parenting norms often become overly dominating in their interaction with children. For instance, by taking over sport practices leaving their child with no independent outlet or by overwhelming their child with constant messages and phone calls.

In addition, several legal structures open the door for the incorporation of additional Intensive Parenting norms into the law. For example, the law repeatedly incorporates monitoring norms that are based on newly acquired knowledge of best child rearing practices. A recent example involves childhood obesity. As the dangers of childhood obesity became known, courts increasingly consider child obesity as a cause for removing a child from her home to foster care. We expect increasing pressure on courts and legislatures to turn forms of sophisticated child rearing practices adopted by intensive parents into legal standards.

We acknowledge that Intensive Parenting has important advantages, such as improved academic achievements and enhanced ability to negotiate institutions. Yet, we caution that Intensive Parenting can be excessive and has the potential of becoming over-parenting. Intensive Parenting is a culture and class dependent practice originating from the American middle-class and affecting particularly women. Members of other cultures or social classes tend to resist Intensive Parenting, whether for lack of resources or desire to engage in its practice. And, furthermore, new research indicates that Intensive Parenting can carry adverse ramifications for children’s psychological well-being. Studies tied Intensive Parenting to an impaired sense of independence and higher rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

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7 Responses

  1. This sounds interesting…and all too familiar! My wife and I we’re just having a conversation about this phenomenon (sans the perfectly descriptive label) the other day, recounting how the parents who behaved this way would often criticize (either overtly or by insinuation) the way in which we raised our children (which, admittedly, was rather off-the-cuff and intuitive, although we did deliberately eschew some specific and perhaps ‘generational’ practices of our parents that bothered us). It was my wife who often heard these criticisims (at daycare, school, in playgroups and so on). [Anecdotal evidence alert:] Our son and daughter are young adults now and, thus far at any rate, have been spared the various afflictions that appear to have affected an unusually high number of the offspring of the aforementioned parents, including such things as “an impaired sense of independence and higher rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse” (indeed, that list is uncanny for capturing the very things we noted about these children). I used to assure my wife that we were “good enough” parents but she clearly resented the lecturess and scolding she received from others. We even joked that we should co-write a book: How Not to Raise Your Kids!

    I’ve yet to read the paper but I wonder if you’ve found that “intensive” or “over” -parenting involves a reluctance on the part of parents to discipline children or, conversely, a tendency to (over-)indulge them. This is one of the things we both agreed, ironically perhaps, was common to “over-parenting.” Also, I wonder if the age of the parents is a significant variable (we married fairly young compared to those we associated with). Finally, I’m very intrigued by the reference to this as a “culture and class dependent practice,” as that explains, by my lights anyway, quite a bit.

    So, while I’m convinced by the conclusion of your argument before becoming acquainted with its premises, I still look forward to reading the article.

  2. erratum: “My wife and I were….”

  3. Gaia Bernstein says:

    Patrick,
    Thank you for bringing up the relationship between Intensive Parenting, discipline and age. Parents engaging in Intensive Parenting tend to have a different style of discipline. They do not issue orders but explain their reasons to their child. I am not sure that I would say that they over-indulge their children though. On the one hand, they keep intervening on their behalf to make things easier for them but at the same time they expect them to participate in quite a hectic schedule in order to achieve their full potential.
    As for age, I have not seen a study connecting age and Intensive Parenting – it would be fascinating to see the results.

  4. Gaia,

    Thanks.

    I would just add that one often cannot explain or proffer reasons to children until they reach the “age of reason.”

    Here’s an example of over-indulgence: one enters the household of parents in which every room looks as if it is the (or a) child’s room…. I could give other examples: I often worked as a carpenter in the households of those who exemplified intensive parenting (they were the only ones who could afford us) and I think it’s no exaggeration to say that while the children were being honed for “success” according to conventional criteria in our society, they were at the same time clearly (what we used to call) “spoiled” (i.e., over-indulged), at least that’s how it appeared from the outside looking in (and again, I appreciate the anecdotal nature of such evidence).

  5. Suzanna says:

    Like Patrick and his wife, my husband and I raised our kids, now 18 and 20, with what some might call benign neglect; they’re doing very well. We always marvelled at the combination that Patrick identified: parents who simultaneously overindulged their kids and ran their lives. But we also noticed a third factor that seemed to go hand in hand: The parents wanted to be the kids’ friends rather than their parents. Sometimes this took extreme forms (dressing like teenagers, listening to teenage music), but even the mild form always made discipline more difficult if not impossible. I’m looking forward to reading the paper.

  6. MBG says:

    I write this as a 20-something yuppie mother in Manhattan who hopes to have several children and often feels a real disconnect from my the parents of my child’s playmates – hyper-parents-of-infants in their late 30s.
    It seems to me that intensive parenting (great term!) is facilitated by small families of 1-2 children. (1) There is greater motive to ensure an only child’s success – all the eggs in one proverbial basket. (2) Intensive parenting is just harder with more kids to micromanage in the same amount of parental time, and lack of clear boundaries can create real chaos with multiple children.
    Mothers who have children later tend, as part of their initial plan as well as by biological necessity, to have few children; perhaps this is the source of the age-related observation above. Of course, advanced age at first childbirth also correlates with social class. For both of these reasons, I suspect age is not an independent cause of intensive parenting but rather correlates with other causes.
    I look forward to reading the full article!

  7. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Fascinating! Wonderful post and paper.