Why Parents Are So Afraid: The Overprotected Kid Syndrome

Why Parents Are So Afraid: The Overprotected Kid Syndrome April 21, 2014

Last month Hanna Rosin penned a much-discussed article entitled “The Overprotected Kid,” lamenting how parents have worked mightily to strip virtually every perceived risk from childhood without actually making childhood that much safer. I suspect the main effect of the article has been to give worrying, fearful parents one more thing to be afraid about — whether they’re too fearful.

I read the article in light of many of our own important parenting decisions over the past several years. We’ve had our own questions about safety: How young is too young to fire a rifle? How young is too young to have a gun of your own? Do we take our elementary- and middle-school-age son and daughter to rural Ethiopia when we adopt their youngest sibling? In light of new information regarding concussion risks, do we steer our son away from football, toward football, or do we take our thumb off the scales entirely? How far in the neighborhood do we let the kids roam? And that of course leaves off all the questions and concerns raised about diet, entertainment, and the countless other issues raised in the course of parenting your kids. In short, like all parents, we think a lot about safety.

At the same time, however, we want to raise kids who will value others over themselves and who won’t be afraid to take risks as they follow God’s call on their lives. Our son expressed interest in joining the Army and becoming a sniper (he dressed up as Chris Kyle on a school “dress like your hero” day.) We want our son to grow to be the kind of man who would defend our nation’s liberty. Our oldest daughter has long said she wants to serve overseas as a missionary. We want our daughter to grow up to be the kind of woman who would share the Gospel and serve others even in the most difficult environments. (Our youngest daughter can’t decide if she wants to be Sofia the First or Doc McStuffins; we’re tabling any career discussions for now.)

This tug-of-war between our protective instincts and our desire to raise kids to be fearless and self-sacrificing is difficult enough, but it’s made much more difficult in an environment of declining faith. As our nation’s parents lose their eternal perspective (indeed, even the “faithful” are less likely to believe in Heaven and Hell), self-actualization trumps self-sacrifice, and the notion that we raise kids to follow God’s call — wherever that may lead — is more alien. I submit that my generation of parents has more fear not because we love our kids more but because we lack not just faith (after all, most of my peers believe in God), but the kind of faith that provides an urgent sense of eternal purpose.

Even worse, as Rosin points out, many of our fears are irrational. We waste our anxiety on nonsense. ”Stranger danger” is largely a myth, playgrounds with soft surfaces aren’t all that much safer than old-school concrete, and the elite focus on organic foods is basically a waste of time and money. But what is dangerous — to our culture, our churches, and our nation — is teaching our children that they’re the center of their own little universe and that nothing is more important than their own happiness and achievement. We don’t just teach by our words – we teach selfishness through our own actions. While it’s true that Millennials are less likely than other generations to believe in God and less likely to serve others, they are merely continuing and amplifying a multi-generational trend.

In other words, they’re simply learning (quite well) the lessons their parents taught them.

My faith teaches me that my kids are not called to live for themselves. My faith teaches me that they are in fact called to “take up their cross” in service to God. Any desire on my part to manipulate their childhoods so that they live joyful, pain-free, high-achieving lives isn’t sacrificial, giving parenting — it’s selfish, controlling parenting. It’s the kind of parenting that is most destructive to our child’s character.

But knowing that truth and living that truth are two separate things. And thus — like many millions of parents — I struggle to overcome the desire to make the wrong decisions each and every day. After all, what’s more satisfying than protecting the people you love the most?

Read more on the Patheos Faith and Family Channel and follow David on Twitter.


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  • Jim Bales

    Mr. French, I believe a link in this post was lost.

    The post states, “it’s true that Millennials are less likely than other generations ,,, to serve others,” but the link for “to server others” leads to a NPR that does not make that claim.

    The closest the NPR piece comes to that claim is the statement by Prof. Putnam that the Millenials who clam no religious affiliation are “the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club … I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.”

    Of course, there are many ways for a person to serve others outside of “main institutions” such as the Elks or Rotary!

    Searching the internet led me to this 2010 study from the Pew Research Center (http://pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf)

    In particular, let me note on page 83 of the report where they find: “Volunteering for an organization or helping others without being paid is one way many Americans are involved in their communities. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) Millennials say that they had volunteered in the past 12 months, which is no higher than the
    proportion of Gen Xers (54%) who said they had done this. About half of Baby Boomers (52%) and just 39% of those in the Silent generation say they volunteered in the past year.”

    A different result is presented by The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS — an independent federal agency), which finds volunteering rates for all groups substantially lower than the Pew study above, and finds that Millenials volunteer at a slightly lower level than the general populace. http://www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/special/Millennials

    Additionally,in 2006, CNCS reported that volunteering among college students was dramatically higher than in 2002.

    Another 2006 study by CNCS showed that volunteering in 2005 across all age groups was substantially higher than in 1989.

    So, I (for one) am curious to see what source was used for the assertion that “it’s true that Millennials are less likely than other generations … to serve others,” given both the studies cited here and my personal experience as a student, researcher, or instructor at major universities since 1979.

    Jim Bales

  • kimtylerscruggs

    The seventh paragraph nailed it. Thanks for not being afraid to say the hard stuff!

  • manunitedftw

    I also appreciated the directness of the seventh paragraph. Western culture has helped us understand the value of the individual; the rights and self-defining characteristics that one can use to craft one’s “identity.”
    Unfortunately, we’ve done a terrible job at teaching/learning/understanding our place in the community – our responsibility as part of the fabric of society. I hope that forcing (and eventually inviting) my 6 year old to serve others will help her gain this latter understanding. I fear I have helped re-reinforce her understanding of the former way too much.