Thanks to the internet, social media and a 24/7 news cycle, today’s world is saturated in fear. As a result, parenting has changed. We now have terminology to help define the behaviors that seem to be creating a generation of children who are overly connected to their parents and who have lost the skills needed to problem solve:
- Helicopter parents hover over everything their children do.
- Lawnmower parents mow a perfect path for their children to walk down.
- Bulldozer parents knock down every obstacle to help their children succeed.
These ways of parenting have created children who are affected by our fears. Planned playdates, structured activities, kids inside instead of outside, instant grade checks, less independence, tracking, texting — and the list goes on. If we are overly involved because of our fears, we are inevitably creating children who are unable to problem solve for themselves. The moment something happens that is uncomfortable, frustrating, anger-inducing or confusing, children often run to or text mom and dad looking for help.
Back in the day, children learned problem-solving skills because they had to. The moment they walked out the door, depending on their age, they were, for the most part, on their own. They were free to make mistakes, fall down and stand back up. They were able to experiment with what worked and what didn’t.
The moment something happens that is uncomfortable, frustrating, anger-inducing or confusing, children often run to or text mom and dad looking for help.”
Because they had no other choice, parents gave them the gift of figuring out life, and for the most part, they did. If they got a flat tire, they figured it out. If they forgot their assignment at home, they figured it out. If they had no money for lunch, they figured it out. Today, we are changing tires, dropping off assignments and Venmo-ing money all to keep them safe, content, mistake-free and happy.
But is it working? Are our children safe? Are they happy?
Child mortality rates are lower than they’ve ever been. The American Academy of Pediatrics compiled research regarding child health trends in the United States. Between 1984 and 2018, they saw a drop in:
- Infant mortality rates
- Fatal and non-fatal unintentional injuries among children
- Child and adolescent motor vehicle deaths
On the flip side of the coin, the American Academy of Pediatrics saw a rise in:
Have we created a world where children are physically safer but are struggling emotionally? I am not going to claim that I have all the answers because it is too early in the race to predict the outcome, but in a relatively short period, we hurled ourselves into a world of 24/7 news, iEverything, overparenting and fear-based living. Have we concocted the perfect mix of fear combined with technology to take away our children’s ability to problem solve? Time and research will tell, but we must, at the very least, begin looking at the correlation.
We once said, “Give them roots and give them wings.” Today this seems to have morphed into, “Give them roots and make them into a kite.” We are creating a generation of kites who are connected by an invisible string because of our fears. The problem is when our children are on their own, and life cuts the string, the kite will fall. Not exactly what we want. So what do we do? Being connected to our children is important, but being overly connected can cause fear and a dependency that does not help anyone.
Playing the game of ‘what if?’
It’s important to step back and realize that the two simple words “what if” have a way of playing into our fears. We may find ourselves wondering: What if I don’t use technology to track my kids and something horrible happens? What if they make a poor choice and they can’t text me? What if they are being teased at school and they can’t handle it? What if I am going to be late to pick them up from practice and I need to tell them? What if they are at camp and they are homesick? What if they need my help and I am not available?
Being connected to our children is important, but being overly connected can cause fear and a dependency that does not help anyone.”
We have become so fearful of the “what ifs” that we have given our children a crutch that is taking away their ability to problem solve or simply learn to deal with life’s ups and downs.
Jessica was a fourth grade girl who was fearful of going to school. She was worried that the girls would be mean to her. Every morning she cried and cried begging her mom to let her stay home. On most days, mom stuck to her game plan which was, “I know you are scared, but your job is to go to school. If anything happens you can email me.”
The first half of her game plan was solid: she validated Jessica (I know you are scared) and followed up with a strong boundary (your job is to go to school). The second half of mom’s game plan became game-ending. She had given Jessica the ability to drop her worries on mom all day long, and she did. Mom would receive email after email from Jessica, “Mom, I am scared. Please pick me up! What if girls are mean? Please mom! I need you! I feel sick! I can’t do this alone! You need to come get me! I want to cry! MOM?”
Mom was distraught. She felt horrible for Jessica. She spent her days trying to figure out what to do with her daughter’s painful emails. Some days she would pick her up. On other days, she would tearfully watch the clock wishing that she could wave her magic wand and take all the worry away. Her fears overtook her ability to empower her daughter to problem solve.
I work as a school counselor, and Jessica’s mom reached out to me. Together, we came up with a plan. To start, mom would reach out to Jessica’s teachers and clarify that it wasn’t a bullying situation. Assuming it wasn’t bullying, mom would then sit Jessica down and share with her that she would no longer be able to email mom throughout the day. She explained that Jessica was much more powerful than she knew and emailing mom took some of that power away.
They discussed problem-solving ideas and decided that when Jessica became fearful and felt the need to reach out to mom, she could connect with her teacher, and she could write her fears on a piece of notebook paper in her binder. After school, mom and Jessica would sit down for a snack and chat about all her worries that she had written down. It was their time to connect, Jessica’s time to process her feelings, and mom’s time to help empower Jessica. Once she shared her feelings, she felt better and so did mom. When empathetic boundaries are set, children feel safe and secure.
Recognize the dark side of the ‘what if?’ game
When we focus on the “what ifs,” we begin parenting from our fears, and we can create outcomes we don’t like. When difficult things like mistakes or disappointments happen, we begin asking questions at turbo speed, create a problem-solving checklist, force feed advice, and sometimes completely take over. I call it emotional strangulation.
When we parent from our fears, we emotionally strangle our children, and this causes stress. This will create many different child outcomes depending on how they handle stress:
Emotionally strangling your children because of your fears doesn’t work. Ever. It might stop the behavior in the moment, but the lessons we want them to internalize are lost in translation. To teach our children how to problem solve and stand on their own two feet, we must switch from fear to empowerment.
Susie Garlick is a certified school counselor with a master’s degree in professional counseling. This essay was excerpted from her new book, “The Parenting Backpack: Strategies and Tools to Help You Parent with Confidence.” Connect with Susie at SusieGarlick.com.