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Over-Parenting and the Spiritual Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 30, 2009

Nancy Gibbs’ article on over-parenting in Time is a jewel. If you’re killing yourself living your kids’ lives, you really do need to read it and get a grip. But it’s Time, after all, so don’t expect a spiritual context.

Gibbs’ article appeared in the printed issue of November 30th under the humorous title “Can These Parents Be Saved?”. On Time’s web site the title is more descriptive: The Growing Backlash against Overparenting. It’s not a comprehensive study, but it is engaging, funny and essentially on-target. As Gibbs’ puts it at one point: “Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and strollers suddenly needed the warning label REMOVE CHILD BEFORE FOLDING.” (The latter is probably irrelevant to over-protective parenting; surely it reflects our liability culture instead; but it does nicely capture the absurdity of our national mood.)

Parents who put their kids in a protective bubble, fill their time with adult-orchestrated activities, make sure they’re driven everywhere, act as perpetual advocates in the schools, ghost-write their kids assignments, and regard their admission to college as a “grade report on how they did as a parent” (the phrase comes from Willamette University’s dean of students) need to back off and give their kids room to play, experiment, problem-solve on their own, and grow. That’s the thesis, and it is a good one. There is also an encouraging reaction to over-parenting setting in. But I’ll add to it by suggesting a spiritual dimension.

Both under-parenting and over-parenting can, I think, stem from a similar spiritual weakness. For example, a family which is too focused on material and social success may well leave the kids in daycare while both parents work, and they may not even be capable of recognizing that a different spiritual outlook on the meaning and purpose of life could enable them to conceive the impossible: a lifestyle in which Mom stays at home, or mostly at home, during the children’s formative years. The result is under-parenting. On the other hand, the same excessive focus on material and social success can lead parents to live their own lives through their children, attempting to ensure that their children “have everything”, and thinking that “everything” is necessary to a fulfilled life. The result is over-parenting.

Now if Mom really must work so that the family can keep body and soul together, the kids will most likely interpret this as love rather than neglect. But in many cases of both under-parenting and over-parenting, the lives of the parents are spiritually empty. That’s why they sell their very selves to meet worldly standards of success; that’s why they (especially mothers) tend to live vicariously through their children; and that’s why they think it is so important that everything be manipulated “just so” for junior. In the last analysis, there is something missing in their own lives. They simply are not happy, and they don’t want their kids to experience this same emptiness. They also haven’t a clue how to prevent it.

Good Christian parents are, I like to think, less prone to these excesses. I’ve seen no statistics to bear this out, but if I’m right about the spiritual part of the cause, then I should be right about this too. But of course the spiritual issue is not the only cause. Another cause is smaller family size (which, of course, might also stem from spiritual emptiness), giving us perhaps too much time to focus on an only child. And yet another is that we live in a highly-connected world in which the media constantly bombard us with stories of danger and loss from around the globe, making us fear that such dangers are the norm in our own communities. We are also constantly bombarded with the latest studies and findings about this and that (most of which will be reversed or modified in the not-too-distant future), making us feel responsible for implementing a constantly-changing array of protective measures in raising our children.

And there are many more causes besides. The other day I received a direct-mail solicitation from the university my youngest son attends. The university was selling “exam survival kits”—baskets of goodies to help kids through the trauma of examination week. So many students were now being given these survival kits by their parents, the letter claimed, that those left out were bound to feel bad and score more poorly. Ah the anxiety! Perhaps some parents would have bought the deluxe kit and delivered it in person. Me, I tossed out the flyer. My motto? Well, Marie Antoinette never really said it, but I will: Let them eat cake.

We are all of us constantly in need of getting a life; first and foremost, this means a spiritual life. That’s also the best thing we can do for our kids.

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