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Guest post: "Our overprotective parenting style has undermined a generation"

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MumsnetGuestPosts · 03/09/2015 14:26

I became a parent and a secondary school teacher in the same year, and these twin roles have shaped the way I've raised my children and educated my students. During my first decade raising two boys and teaching hundreds of children, I began to feel a creeping sense of unease, a suspicion that something was rotten in the state of my parenting. But it was only when my elder child started secondary school that my worlds collided and the source of the problem became clear to me: today's overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence and academic potential of an entire generation.

From my vantage point at the front of a classroom, I'd long viewed myself as part of the solution, a champion of my students' intellectual and emotional bravery. However, as the same caution and fear I witnessed in my students began to show up in my own children's lives, I had to admit that I was part of the problem, too.

I am as guilty as the next parent; I have inadvertently extended my children's dependence in order to feel good about my parenting. Every time I pack my child's lunch for him or drive his forgotten homework to school, I am rewarded with tangible proof of my conscientious mothering. I love, therefore I provide. I provide, therefore I love. While I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my children really should be doing these kinds of tasks for themselves, it makes me feel good to give them these small displays of my deep, unconditional love.

The day I finally came to terms with my over-parenting, I was determined to start making amends at home with my own children. I needed to do something immediate, something symbolic, and I knew just where to start. My younger son, then aged nine, had never learned to tie his shoes. I blamed this oversight on the invention of Velcro and his preference for slip-on shoes, but if I'm completely honest, I knew I was falling down on the job. He freaked out when I mentioned the situation, even in my most enthusiastic "Won't this be a fun project we can do together?" voice. He got frustrated with my instruction, I got frustrated with his helplessness, and the entire endeavour dissolved into anger and tears. When I began to look closely at the source of his issue with the shoelaces, I realised that what he was feeling – the frustration and helplessness – was my fault, not his.

For every time I tied his shoes, rather than teaching him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him. One day before school, when he'd left his Velcro shoes at a friend's house and had to wear the back-up pair with laces, he said he'd rather wear his wellington boots than try to tie his shoes. He didn't even care that wearing boots meant he'd have to sit out PE. My son was so convinced of his inability that he was willing to forfeit an hour of games with his friends.

So that afternoon, I took out his back-up trainers, and prepared to remedy the situation. Over a snack, I told him I'd made a mistake and that I thought I'd figured out how to be a better mum. I empathised with his worry and told him that while the task might be hard for him at first, with some effort and perseverance, I knew he could conquer it. I was so confident he would, that we were going to stick with it until he mastered those darn shoelaces. In less than an hour, the embarrassment he'd felt about being the only child in his year who could not tie his shoes was gone. He had succeeded and I've hardly ever seen him so proud of himself. All it took was a little time, a little faith in each other, and the patience to work through the tangle of knots and loops.

No, it’s not always going to be this simple. Lumpy knots and uneven shoelaces give way in the blink of an eye to flawed university dissertations and botched job interviews, and there's only so much time available to instill confidence and resilience in our children. The work begins the first moment our babies fail to grasp a toy, or fall as they toddle across the room, and continues until they head out into their own lives.

It's up to us. Parents have the power to grant this freedom to fail. Teachers have the ability to transform that failure into an education. And together? Together, we have the potential to nurture a generation of confident, competent adults.

This is an adapted extract from The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, published by HarperCollins

OP posts:
TheHoneyBadger · 03/09/2015 16:05

lot of projection here.

i don't parent like you - lots of people don't - having realised YOU have overprotected/whatever phrase you want to give it YOUR children don't then assume it's a parenting style that a whole generation of children have been raised in.

ah i have just seen this is a book extract.

how bizarre, 'i messed it up myself so now i'm an expert and will write a book?' Confused

jonicomelately · 03/09/2015 16:10

I agree with Honey I don't know who this author is. I think she has a point that some parents are overprotective but please don't tell us that we have all collectively let down an entire generation. I'm sure there are lots of things I could've done better but I'm not about to start being hard on myself and talking about having failed them, as this woman does because frankly, I have tried my best. My dc had to grow up having a disabled and then chronically ill parent and I believe this has given them a lot of resilience.

MajesticWhine · 03/09/2015 16:11

Yes, I was wondering how you extrapolated to an entire generation. It's an interesting point though, I guess. I wonder if there is any actual evidence that this is a real phenomenon, that children of this generation are genuinely less independent or more fearing of failure, than a previous generation. It is often spoken of anecdotally, but has it actually been demonstrated?

coffeeisnectar · 03/09/2015 16:28

You speak for yourself and some parents but not all. My 9 year old can tie her laces, make lunch and remember what she needs. My teen is pretty much self sufficient at 17 and I know she will thrive at university as she has life skills and independence.

I do know parents who think that doing everything for their child is, in their eyes, seen as proof of their superior parenting and that anyone who lets their child walk to school or carry their own bags or make any decisions about their lives is obviously an inferior parent and their children are doomed to a life of shelf stacking and living in a crappy bedsit.

In fact, after my teen took part in ncs where they learned life skills and budgeting I was stunned to find 17 year olds incapable of making a cup of tea or coffee, that they had no idea about cooking or food shopping. Because they have never had to do it because their parents have not let them grow up and spread their will be.

I will give my kids the skills to survive and independence. I have no money but I can teach my kids how to cook, do washing and get by.

LBOCS2 · 03/09/2015 16:50

But this isn't new. I started university over ten years ago and a number of my contemporaries were unable to look after themselves in a fairly basic manner; had never used a washing machine, cooked a meal or had to learn how to budget. They learned pretty quickly but even then there were parents who weren't equipping their offspring appropriately for life without them.

bigbuttons · 03/09/2015 16:54

There are a lot of hideously over protective parents around. I
am not one of them. There are consequently a lot of young adults unable to fend for themselves.
It's not really rocket science.

steppemum · 03/09/2015 16:57

I don't parent like the OP, but I do recognise what she is saying as symptomatic of our kids generation.

helicopter parenting, rushing in to school whenever things go wrong, not wanting children to be exposed to anything which is difficult etc etc.

Look at any of the threads comparing 1970s parents and modern parents and today's parents are much more protective/over protective.

elQuintoConyo · 03/09/2015 17:23

You could be describing Spanish children. Friend still cuts up her son's food, he is a NT 8yo.

I don't parent like how you describe. Sounds hideous.

MsMarthaMay · 03/09/2015 17:43

I agree with other posters. Just because that's how you parented it doesn't mean that how others have done it! I have 3 dc and always knew that bringing them up to be self reliant was a key aspect of parenting.
You're giving yourself a huge pat on the back for taking 9 years to figure out something many parents already knew!

ShrewDriver · 03/09/2015 18:22

I'm guilty of this too in many ways, OP.

Sure, its an overgeneralisation to say it applies to all, but I agree it applies to many (including myself). Even if not always at the level of practical skills, many of us tend to protect our children from failure, rather than celebrate it (so long as it follows a genuine attempt).

You will find many on MN, however, whose children have been cooking full three course meals from the age of four Grin

I also think that sometimes these things are harder to spot in yourself than they are to spot in others, because there are many different manifestations of the mindset.

Good luck with the book OP.

Jw35 · 03/09/2015 18:37

Interesting! I've been guilty of this to a certain extent but not massively I don't think. I've seen it a lot with other parents I know. I do think children are less independent than in my day partly because they have less freedom. If you're 9 years old and 2 miles away from home on your bike there's nobody to tie your shoelaces when they have come undone!

PurpleSkyatthewateringhole · 03/09/2015 19:04

Don't project. Whilst my 6&4 year olds cannot tie shoelaces, they can peel and chop vegetables without cutting their fingers off. They can get their own breakfasts if I put everything on the table. They can dress and undress themselves, shower, wash their hair and rinse, towel dry and put pyjamas on. At KS2 I will be teaching them basic meal cookery skills. They already wash and dry the pots occasionally.

sanfairyanne · 03/09/2015 19:14

Tying shoelaces is such a strange example to use. My kids are crap at shoelaces, big shrug, they get there in the end meanwhile velcro is fabulous so its not like it affects their independence in any way at all. They might not have that olden days skill, but they have others instead.

BoboChic · 03/09/2015 20:25

I really don't think that a whole generation has been sheltered and mollycoddled as never before. My DD (10) started secondary school this week and nearly all DC seem pretty independent and organised to me, getting themselves to and from school alone on foot or public transport and managing their books and equipment. They all have mobiles and house keys. Are polite and hardworking.

80sMum · 03/09/2015 21:11

I do think that children of my own generation (born in the '50s) were expected to be much more independent than today's youngsters.
When I started school in 1963, velcro hadn't been invented and we all had lace up shoes. Five-year-olds were expected to be able to tie their own laces - and most of us could.
The other day, a friend of mine was talking about her DD's first trip to the local big town with a couple of friends of the same age. It was the first time that she had been anywhere without her parents - she's nearly 14 years old! I started walking three quarters of a mile to and from school on my own from the age of 7 and at age 9 I was responsible for walking my 5-year-old sister to school.

ivykaty44 · 03/09/2015 21:34

Those parents that don't let their dc fail make life harder for those parents that have to let their dc fail. If DD forgot her lunch she had to go without or sort out her own solution as o couldn't drive to school with lunch.

Recently DD enrolled for college, I was working and DD took herself of to enrol on a course she wants to attend after GCSE. On arriving horror struck as every other person enroling had taken a parent and she didn't have one with her. But much to her relief all the parents were sent to a special tooom to wait whilst all those students were taken away with the parents to do their enrolling - so I got away with not attending a waiting room for and hour.

Solopower1 · 03/09/2015 22:51

H'mm. Not sure helping children to be independent actually has that much to do with letting them tie their own shoelaces or teaching them to cook. Typical children will learn all the skills they need when they need them.

I think it's more about giving them space, not trying to control their thoughts or mould them into the people you think they need to be. It's letting them lead, a lot of the time, and it's about keeping your nerve when they are in risky or difficult situations. It's about being vigilant, but standing back, and letting them make mistakes. Then letting them learn what they need to from their mistakes.

We should still teach them safety and social things eg not to run into the road, how to swim, ride a bike, be polite and considerate, obv. The rest we model for them - they learn by watching us. And that's scary ...

BackforGood · 03/09/2015 23:30

I was going to say the same as the majority of posters. Not sure how you have reached the conclusion this is an entire generation Hmm
Doesn't apply to the way we've brought up our dc, nor so many of the delightful, mature, capable, independent teens I meet in life.

Baconyum · 04/09/2015 01:05

Agree its a generalisation but disagree overly so. Oddly in a conversation with a friend earlier I remarked that dd has commented recently (accompanied by eye rolling) that many of her classmates can barely make a sandwich without supervision (they're 14/15!!) Loads are not ALLOWED to make/have hot drinks as its 'dangerous' and they certainly couldnt cook a meal from scratch.

I come at this not only as a parent but with several friends that are teachers (primary and secondary, all over UK and 1 overseas - I was a military brat as is dd) and as a previous guide leader.

I would estimate that more than half of children that are now aged 25 and under have not been parented to be independent. Admittedly only my experience but also from some quite bizarre posts I've seen on mn about kids eg not being allowed to walk to School from age 7/8, not being expected to cope with homework ('teachers expect too much'), ffs even one not realising her dd about to start school proper after nursery school would be expected to wipe her own backside in the loo!!!

I've met kids at guides who've expected to be told to brush their teeth, frightened of using a sharp knife (or even a vegetable peeler!) or boiled water God forbid a frying pan!

How on earth do these parents expect these children to cope when they leave home? Answer they don't!

I went to uni as a mature student at around the same time as a pp mentioning uni did.

Again about half the 18 yr olds didn't have a clue!! They'd no idea how to shop, cook (I use the term v loosely they were even a few of them nervous about doing a meal in the oven from frozen!) Budget, launder clothes, organise bill payments, open a bank account, Christ one needed taught how to read a BUS TIMETABLE I kid you not!!

From speaking to the lecturers/support staff this was not unusual. They were telling me a number of students leave uni altogether each year not because they lack intelligence or academic skills but because they can't cope living alone and end up running off home. So all lighthearted comments aside that's kids missing out on a great opportunity because they haven't been parented to be independant by the time they're 18 !!!

BoboChic · 04/09/2015 05:59

80sMum - when my DD was 7 she flew Paris-Boston with her brother (14) for three weeks at a summer camp. That's possible now because the cost of flights and ease of communication have changed radically. But DD didn't ride her bike alone to the shops at 7 as I used to - the traffic makes that too dangerous these days.

By and large circumstances, not unfounded parental angst, dictate what our DC are able to do.

Roonerspism · 04/09/2015 06:52

The shoelace analogy amused me. DH bought shoes with laces for DD (6) at the weekend and I disapproved. Well, she she surpassed my expectations and could tie the laces within a day or so (slowly, but still....)

I think the author makes a fair point. My mum was a parent who refused to bring in school kit when we forgot, I took the bus to school from age 9, had weekend work from very young and I think she got it right. She then had a late last baby and for some reason completely changed her parenting style and our brother really struggles. Many of his friends are similar.

I think I am very likely to over parent and welcome any discussion in this area

sanfairyanne · 04/09/2015 07:25

Nothing new in a lot of that though. I was at uni 25 years ago and all your comments applied then too. My mum couldnt cook when she got married age 24 'back in the day'.my kids can operate computers tablets and smartphones, unlike their grandparents!


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NotCitrus · 04/09/2015 07:43

The level of skills to look after oneself probably hasn't changed much in 25 years (some kids managed fine age 18, most muddled through, some couldn't) - there's a reason why reading a bus timetable was included in GCSE maths.

But the level of fear of accidents etc has rocketed since I was a kid - people suggest I'm neglectful for letting my 6yo in the gents alone (I shout as he goes in that if he's more than 5 min, I'm coming to fetch him!) and when I mentioned finding loos to my dad when ds was a baby, he asked whether I was really worried about him being kidnapped if I parked him outside the cubicle.

Not really, I said - but I'm terrified of all the ladies who will tell me I should be!

Currently trying to train lazy ds to get his own breakfast cereal - helps that his little sister wants to do everything herself...

sanfairyanne · 04/09/2015 08:30

That i would agree with! You see it on mumsnet all the time. My parents though think i am horribly lax and have forgotten what they used to let us do

ppeatfruit · 04/09/2015 10:07

Agree with the pp who said it's like some continental parents have been for many years. my cousin's greek sil used to (probably still does Grin) look after her adult daughters' sanpro, collect and wash her clothes Etc. It's as if their children give them a reason to exist.

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