Saturday, June 14, 2008

Are You an Overprotective Parent . . . Like Me?

I admit that I tend to be a bit on the overprotective side when it comes to my kids. My husband will suggest that my teenage boys ride their bikes to the beach, and I’ll say, “What? All that way? Across two busy streets? No, I’ll drive them!” I’ve seen too many news reports about kids getting hit on their bicycles. When my boys really want to do something and I say it’s too dangerous, they accuse me of not trusting them. “I trust you completely,” I’ll tell them. “It’s other people I don’t trust!” So, you can imagine my shock when I read that Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for the New York Sun, left her nine-year-old son alone at Bloomingdale’s with a subway pass, four quarters for a phone call, a subway map and a $20 bill. Then she told him to get himself home. She’s either the bravest mom I’ve ever known or the stupidest. I haven’t decided which yet. Thankfully, the kid got home safely, proud of his accomplishment.

Skenazy has been nominated by parents around the globe for both “Mom of the Year” and “Worst Mother” after reading her column and seeing her on TV. (Needless to say, her stunt got her a lot of publicity.) So, why did she do it? To make a point, of course. She said that today’s “helicopter parents” hover over their children too much, robbing kids of the ability to make their own decisions and be independent, skills that raise their self-esteem and empower them. By overprotecting them, we’re raising children who are over-reliant on their parents, not learning to be self-sufficient because of their parents’ fears.

Could Skenazy be right? Experts say that crime rates have been going down. And almost all child abductions are done by people known to the children, especially parents involved in child custody cases. And crimes against children tend to get a disproportionate amount of news coverage, making it appear that they are widespread, when they are not. As for me, it’s not so much the crime that I’m worried about, but just their physical safety. What if a driver doesn’t see my kid? What if my son gets hurt? But at the same time, I can see where my own fears have held me back in my life, and I don’t want to do that to my children. I want them to be adventurous and courageous, not fearful and paranoid (like me).

I still think that Skenazy perhaps went a bit too far, but I do appreciate the point she made. We need to let our kids grow up and learn to be responsible for themselves. We need to let them make decisions because that’s a skill they’ll need as adults. And we need to fight our fears so they don’t cause us to overprotect our kids. It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn. I recently let my 15-year-old sign up for Junior Lifeguard classes at the beach. He’s going to ride his bike several miles there (with two friends), three days a week all summer. I’m sure my fist will be in my mouth for the first week or so, but at the same time I’ll know that I’m doing the best thing for him. My decision doesn’t make me feel good yet, but it will. And it will definitely make my son feel good about himself. That’s good parenting.

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