Avoiding Over-Parenting Means Being Comfortable Living With Mistakes

Kate Green Tripp is not a helicopter parent, but when her patience or time is running low, she often insists that her children do things the right way: her way. So is she sending them mixed messages?

I am humbled by Madeline Levine’s recent New York Times editorial, “Raising Successful Children.” In fact, I am more than humbled. Upon digesting the piece, I am left with a topsy-turvy stomach and a sense that my self-reflection high beams have since been amped to maximum capacity. Has Levine been listening in on late night conversations with my husband as we stack dirty dishes, drain the toy-filled bathtub, and tiptoe past little sleepers? Her words strike me at a place of deep resonance, reminding me of what I already know but often fail to make good on.

After positing that the current culture of pervasive overparenting is indeed damaging to kids’ psyche and development, Levine pushes further to remind those parents who are well aware of this fact to actually be different. She speaks of parents uncovering “the courage to discard the malpractice of overparenting.” In that phrase, she hits me between the eyes. And it stings. 

Ironically, I am not a helicopter parent. My kids are free to play as they choose, explore as they choose, and develop likes and dislikes at they choose. Instead of pushing them to perform, I encourage them to persist—often without my help, praise, or involvement. However, I am still guilty of the malpractice. In my case, it takes the form of often orchestrating our collective life so that my children behave in ways that satisfy my needs, as opposed to their own.

I have three kids and have, for the past seven years, been a fairly devout stay-at-home mother. Unable to sit still and truly focus on only one thing, I work a handful of hours each week in a variety of self-initiated directions. As a result, the kids spend a good deal of time with my highly capable co-pilots: their father, grandmother, teachers, and part-time nanny. However, my programming is on-air longer than anyone else’s and by that fact alone, it is my messaging that most deeply penetrates their growing minds and hearts. I like to think of myself as offering mindful, educational, appreciative, and yet challenging guidance as I parent. Insight, however, tells me that the reality of my live streaming is far less consistently valuable.

When our house is disastrously messy, I fall prey to militaristic indoctrination. When we are running late in multiple directions, I abandon allegiance to process and care more about result. When my own emotional sensibilities run high, I yearn for order and start kiboshing open-ended fun lest it become chaos. Am I aware of these outbursts and their harmful effects on my precious audience? Yes and no. Thankfully, I am married to someone who is masterful at switching on the self-reflection high beams and pulling me over. The issue, as Levine points out, is that unless I learn to trash those tendencies, I risk creating a lasting harm.

Once they cross the basic threshold of involvement with awareness, investment, and attachment in tow, it seems all parents are at potential risk of falling into the dangerous abyss of overparenting. What exactly makes some of us more likely than others to wander negligently (or perhaps even knowingly) into the trap, I don’t know, but Levine seems to have a hunch. She speaks, for one thing, of parents’ inability to live with the discomfort produced by mistakes, reminding that often, children can live quite comfortably with mistakes and even failure. So, why can’t we?

Amen. Why can’t we? Or more specifically, why can’t I? The unvarnished truth is that my expectations of myself are sky high and likely never to be met. Oddly, I honestly don’t believe I apply these crazy standards to my children, but I DO apply them to how I (and we as a family) move through the world. Although I don’t need my children to love math, score every goal on the soccer team, or wear pretty dresses with matching bows, I often need them to conform to my best practices and do things my way. 

So what of this paradox? How can my kids ever truly absorb the lessons of following their hearts, enjoying the journey, and not sweating the small stuff (all of which I talk endlessly to them about) if their chief does not model these lessons herself? I suspect most parents, myself included, brush up against behavioral contradictions that have haunted or humored them throughout adulthood. The difference now is the stakes involved. When children enter our personal equations, those ghosts and jokes are infused with a scary potency. Simply by ignoring them, they can injure and distort our young, observant, and absorbent counterparts. Why take the risk?

Kate Green Tripp is a mother, journalist, and co-founder of Luma Yoga and Family Center in Santa Cruz, Calif. In 2005, she opted out of the traditional work sphere to launch the epic journey of raising her three children. Kate lives, writes, and plays in Capitola, Calif. Read more of her work at spoonfulofkale.com.

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