Problem parent

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Article by: Tzafi Sa’ar

The little girls were in second grade. None of them were allowed to go anywhere without their mother or father or babysitter, or at least a big sister. The revelation that one of the mothers let her daughter go to the grocery store on the corner by herself was met with outright condemnation to tacit envy of how she dared to allow her.

This exception testified to the rule. And the rule was – and still is – be anxious. I’m not going to let my daughter go anywhere alone until she’s 30, joked one of the mothers, but the joke came from a very real place, a place of fear.

This question is being discussed, inter alia, in Britain in a public debate that has developed there of late. A survey by the ICM research institute has found that parents today are too cautious, ruining their children’s playtime and depriving them of experiences and adventures. Half of the children aged 7 to 12 in Britain are not allowed to climb a tree without adult supervision and 42 percent are not allowed to play in the neighborhood park without the presence of an adult.In the wake of this survey, warning bells were sounded that children who are wrapped in cotton-wool do not acquire the appropriate tools for dealing with challenges that are likely to come their way later in life. Adventurous play challenges children, stimulates them and helps them develop essential life skills.

Culture of fear

A new book, “Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear” by Helene Guldberg, warns that over-protectiveness and excessive supervision are liable to prevent children from growing up to be capable and confident adults. Guldberg, the editor of the online magazine Spiked, writes that children today are losing out on what previous generations took for granted.

“Children need space away from adults’ watchful eyes – in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts,” she writes. “Today, they are increasingly denied these opportunities.”

However, according to Guldberg, blaming anxious parents is too easy and unfair.

“The cause of the cotton-wool kids phenomenon is a broader cultural obsession with risk, which has had a major impact upon policymakers, public institutions and media debate, as well as upon teachers and parents,” she writes.

The culture of fear, which was discussed by sociologist Professor Frank Furedi in his book “Paranoid Parenting,” is exactly what leads parents to restrict their children’s freedom.

“The fact is,” writes Guldberg, “that parents are continually told to be ‘better safe than sorry,’ and it is far from easy for parents to go against the grain and give their children more freedom than society currently deems acceptable.”

However, one American mother decided to take action, reports Guldberg: Last year, New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote an article entitled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride The Subway Alone.” She told about how she gave her son a subway map, a fare card, a $20 bill, and several quarters, “just in case he had to make a call, waved him goodbye, and told him she’d see him at home,” adding that she trusted her son to manage. (He made it.)

Skenazy received innumerable reactions to her column. Many condemned her, but there were also many who supported her. Then she started a blog FreeRangeKids ( which featured stories of parents who allow their children to do things alone and of parents who would like to, but don’t dare do it.

Dr. Edna Katzenelson, a clinical psychologist and author of the books, “Dialogue with Children” and “Parents, Children and What’s Between Them”, both in Hebrew, presents a series of reasons for the over-protectiveness. Among them, guilty feelings: Parents who work long hours try to compensate their children by providing them with things like riding in a taxi instead of walking, so as to assuage their pangs of conscience for not being at their children’s side. In addition, society puts parents to strict tests of good parenting and these lead them to seek irrelevant ways of feeling like good parents, for example through over-protectiveness.

According to Katzenelson, placing the child at the center, which is characteristic of these times, is connected to this. Children become hard to please and make unreasonable demands.

Another reason for the anxieties is changes in the ways of spending time. Nowadays children go out at hours when in the past children had already come home. They also go out further away from home. The local playground is a place where only tykes go to have fun. Children in fourth and fifth grades are already going out to cinemas and malls.

Of course, the security situation also has a part in this: In times of emergency, parents protect their children and this protectiveness becomes a habit. The society as a whole is more violent, asserts Katzenelson, and there is also more information about violence. The media transmit a great deal of information about violence that had not been known in the past, even if it existed (pedophilia, for example).

As for the damage, this is manifested in children becoming less independent, says Katzenelson. For example, they have no idea of how to ride a bus alone, for lack of experience. Over-protection also can have an opposite effect and expose children to more risks. They have no idea of how to look after themselves, because they have developed dependence on the parent as a protector.

Children are less responsible: The parent takes responsibility upon himself even when the child is of an age when he should be responsible. The schools, too, see the parents as responsible if their children do not do their homework or for problematic behavior. Out of all this, children today are more fearful, living in a sense that they are constantly in danger, says Katzenelson.

Not on autopilot

But the problem is that dangers do indeed exist. How can parents avoid over-protectiveness and nevertheless ensure their children’s safety? Katzenelson suggests that parents consult their consciences every once in a while.

“Don’t operate on autopilot; Think things over, also consult your partner or friends. Out of this awareness, it is worth trying to understand when we sometimes act only out of anxiety, perhaps in the wake of a message that was transmitted to us by our own parents, and when we act out of appropriate considerations,” she says.

“As children get older, it is worth remembering to update the prohibitions,” she says. “A child up until the age of 9 cannot cross a street alone, but afterwards he can. It is necessary to know how to let go, gradually. This is also true when circumstances change: At a time when buses are blowing up, it is reasonable to drive children places, but there are also other times. It is also worth examining the extent to which we surrender to pressure from the children. Lots of times they nag, ‘Drive me,’ and this is not a proper situation.”

Another issue is parents’ desire for control. “Often we act from our need for control over our children”, she says. “It’s nice sometimes to go with them and watch their activities, but this is a kind of control, which over time makes the child dependent.”

Katzenelson also suggests, “If we see that the children are especially anxious, it is worth examining how connected this is to the messages that we have transmitted to them.”

Thus, parents who are living in a confused world transmit a contradictory message to their children, one of many: They want them to become independent and they also don’t really enable them to do so.

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One Response to Problem parent

  1. Julie Dalton says:

    Your write up is really true. Sometimes we undermine the capacity of our children, yet we do this unconsciously.

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