F.Birchman / MSNBC.com  /  F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/7/2004 1:43:15 PM ET 2004-12-07T18:43:15

You can spot them in the grocery store. They’re the moms with the shopping cart cover that’s supposed to protect babies from lurking germs. You can see them on the playground hovering over their toddlers, negotiating toy disputes for their 7-year-olds. They’re in high school, phoning teachers if their children bring home anything other than A's. They’re even at college -– intervening with professors, setting up their children’s dorm rooms and bank accounts and keeping in near-constant contact with their kids via cell phone and instant messaging.

They’re not just parents, they’re superparents.

And while in many communities the above behavior is par for the parental course, experts say that superparenting is really not so super. It’s more like over-anxious, over-vigilant and just plain overdone.

Fragile creatures?
Certainly, there are plenty of neglected children in America. But in middle class and upper middle class communities the coddled kid is becoming the norm, says Peter N. Stearns, a social historian at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of "Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America."

“In the last few decades the belief became popular that children are exceptionally fragile creatures and we should treat them that way,” says Stearns.

The fact that many Americans are waiting longer to become parents and are having fewer children has also contributed greatly to the phenomenon. “If you have one or two children -– rather than four or five -- obviously, the individual child becomes much more precious,” he says.

Andrea J. Buchanan, author of "Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It," says she sees a clear link between uber-parenting and today’s highly educated mommyforce. When it comes time to have children, she says, many career-oriented women still end up putting their career on the backburner and their children on the front. At the same time, many mothers (and fathers) try to bring the same work ethic to parenting as they once did to their careers: they’re willing to work hard, they’re ambitious and competitive, and they have a desire for accomplishment, control and results.

Buchanan says she thinks the problem starts even before the baby arrives. “I like to use the trip analogy," she says. "Instead of just packing your suitcase and reading the tour book, many pregnant women are now made to feel they must learn how to fly the plane. So this is where it begins. You get sucked into it right then.” Parents are given this false notion that they can and should control all aspects of child-rearing from conception to the child’s post-doctoral work, she says.

The sum effect has been that parenting has become complicated beyond what most of us believe we can handle on our own, says Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, a professor of psychology at Indiana University in New Albany, Ind., and the director of its Shyness Research Institute.

“As we make parenting more and more complicated," he says, "what happens is people are uncertain what to do. Every time you have uncertainty, you have anxiety.” According to Carducci, fear is the stuff of overparenting.

Maternal bling-bling
Much of the $6 billion that Americans spend annually on baby gear is spent because marketers have scared us into buying it or because everyone we know has a certain stroller or diaper bag, Carducci says. It’s what he calls maternal bling-bling -- stuff we get to make us feel like we’re good parents.

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“To alleviate your anxiety you buy what the marketers say you need and what the other mothers in Mommy and Me have," he says. "That’s conformity. You can look at a suburban mom and a rapper and see the same thing. They’re surrounded by this stuff. It’s a way to compare yourself to others and announce to the world that you’re a ‘good’ mom.”

Then, once a child starts school, the chances for overparenting and the pitfalls for not doing so abound, says Dr. Alexandra Barzvi, clinical coordinator for the Institute of Anxiety and Mood at the New York University Child Study Center. “Many parents are even worked up about which preschool their child gets into," she says. "They see it as a very competitive world and they introduce this to their children right away.” By the time the children are ready to try to get into college, the parental anxiety -- as well as the child’s -- is often out of control. The Child Study Center recently introduced a workshop to help teens and their parents deal with the anxiety of applying for college.

“In our society now, a child’s success in school has become emblematic of your success as a parent,” says Stearns. So if you have a kid who gets into (never mind graduates from) Harvard, that’s as good as a stellar (although long-awaited) performance review.

While over-anxious parenting may make us feel better in the short-term, says Carducci, there are long-term consequences. Over-anxious parents raise emotionally fragile kids -- kids who can’t stand on their own. They don’t know how to make sound decisions and they aren’t equipped to deal with failure and frustration.

“Frustration tolerance is the best predictor of self-esteem,” notes Carducci. When a child can endure failing, pick himself up and carry on, he gains strength and confidence. When he knows he’s done something on his own -– whether he succeeds or fails -- he’ll be proud of his effort.

Charting their own course
On the other hand, if a child is made to believe that he couldn’t survive without his dad or mom bailing him out or somehow protecting him, it has the opposite result. Carducci says it sends a clear message to kids that they are incapable of success or decision-making without their parents. Furthermore, many professionals contend overparented kids are at a higher risk for anxiety disorders and depression. They also tend to have trouble charting their course later in life.

“Hot-house raised kids often need a period in which they need to wander later,” says Stearns. “This isn’t bad necessarily, but it’s not how life used to be. Kids used to graduate college and then enter the workforce.” He sees the delayed growing up, where kids meander after college, as their way of reclaiming their childhood -- leading the less directed and controlled life that they probably should’ve had as youngsters.

Another impact, says Stearns, has been on something even less intangible. “Parenting has become less enjoyable and that’s really the shame,” says Stearns.

Dr. George Cohen, a clinical professor of pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that while overparenting can be a problem, there’s also the good side of it –- at least the children are lucky enough to have parents who are vigilant and care, albeit perhaps a little too much. “Finding a happy medium -– parenting enough but not too much -- is sometimes easier said than done,” says Cohen.

It’s not even that people who overparent are fanatics necessarily. They’re more than likely just confused and uncertain. “A lot of times the reason some parents are overly anxious is because they don’t know what to do," he says. "They read one article and it tells them to do one thing, another article tells them to do the opposite. Parents often don’t know what to believe or where to turn."

A good pediatrician can do an anxious parent a world of good, according to Cohen. "Sometimes people can start out as an overanxious parent but as they become much more comfortable they strike a better balance," he says.

Love them the way they are
Nobody is suggesting that parenthood can or should be anxiety-free. What they are suggesting is that parents love their children for who they are, not what they want them to be. Most people don’t excel in every subject. So getting straight A's is probably more about what you want rather than a true reflection of your child’s abilities.

Also, allowing your child to fail, experience frustration and negotiate his or her own way in school and life –- suffering consequences and reaping the benefits -– is not only wise, it’s essential.

So next time you’re tempted to phone your child’s teacher because of a bad test score, ask yourself: Is this as important as I think it is? Remember, the world will continue to exist even if your child fails his French test. The idea is that you want to take the pressure off of yourself and allow your child to learn on his own as often as possible.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the new book "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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