Friday, March 13, 2009

Overprotective Underprotection

My parents were overprotective. Watching Goonies, riding my bike with my friends to the 7-Eleven, going to so & so's house for a name it, I wasn't allowed to do it. This caused considerable frustration. It also fostered a sense of distrust in the people around me and my own abilities. The world must be a horrible place, full of evil influences, and cruel or careless people just waiting to pounce! And clearly, I was weak, naive and easily corrupted...just a milk-skinned little girl, ripe for harm or victimization, with no power of my own or even over myself. Certainly not my parents intended message, but a strong one nevertheless.

So I swore that I would not be overprotective when my turn came. I would let my children test boundaries, and try and fail on their own, plumbing the depths of their own strengths and weaknesses and learning about the world around them, in their own time. Mmmmm, uh huh.

Fast forward to the moment when the nurses laid two tiny babies in our arms. At around 4 pounds each they seemed impossibly small, impossibly frail...and we were to take them home? ourselves!? How could they even survive? I would drop them. The dog would sit on them. Some mysterious thing would go ever so slightly wrong and the newness and fragility of their impossibly tiny selves would be ended. The responsibility felt crushing. I freaked out if their socks were mismatched, and beat myself up for days over having the bath water off optimal temperature by a couple degrees. The crazy had set in.

The dog did not sit on them, nobody dropped anybody and lots of little things went wrong, but they somehow survived and thrived. But still there were first steps, bumped heads, viruses and infections, stitches and the time one of them ate half a bottle of Bengay rub. We were very careful, not only about what happened to their small bodies, but about what went into their minds. We didn't allow much TV, and none with commercials. We wanted to avoid all the violence, gender typing and consumer priming that we could. We wanted their blossoming senses of themselves and the world to have only the best influences possible. The most inspiring and educational books, songs, activities and outings were painstakingly chosen. ...I am exhausting myself just writing about it...yup, definitely in the grip of crazy (otherwise known as idealistic new parenthood).

Fast forward a bit more, and they are each developing their own distinct tastes, and we ease up to make room for this. And they now have little peers to keep up with, we make room for this too, but did we ever have a rude awakening! Little Suzy eats cheetos and orange pop for snack time. Little Jimmy has an Xbox, and little Calvin has watched all of Star Wars; Revenge of the Sith. Why can't we watch all of Star Wars; Revenge of the Sith? ( the age of almost 5.)

More years pass, in which anaphylactic food allergies and severe environmental allergies are diagnosed. They are both sick a lot. And there are differences...gaps between them and their peers, growing ever wider, that have nothing to do with not being allowed to watch R rated movies and play M for mature video games (yup, the ante has been upped). More diagnoses... Aspergers, ADHD, GAD...more reasons to keep holding on a little too tightly. Until my son says to me the other day, with all the same frustration I used to feel, "Mom you never let me do anything! You are overprotective!"


The balance is hard. Harder still if your child has any special needs, any concrete reasons why they really can't or shouldn't for at least part of the time. We swim upstream, against the torrent of ridiculous media misrepresentation about what a childhood or family should resemble (or more importantly, should buy!), and all the other under-protective parents, who seem to be too busy, jaded or invested in that consumer vision, to really stop and make thoughtful choices for their kids bodies and minds. And certainly the world can be dangerous, there are a few cruel people out there and many careless ones. In the midst of all this pressure and risk, we still need to give our kids enough freedom to foster a sense of competency and encourage growth. It is hard.

So we realized that it's time to loosen up a bit more. Letting that frustration at too many limits build and build, is at least as dangerous as half the stuff we'd like to protect them from (as many parents discover when their kid hits the "wait a minute, you can't make me anymore!?" age, and does a downward spiral into PAAAAAAAAAAARRRTY, having never learned self control and responsibility in increments along the way). We will be saying "yes" a bit more. They are smart, strong, thoughtful kids, and we've got to make sure we show them our confidence in that, often.


  1. I can relate to this- not because of the physical problems, but emotional. Because of how my dad was, I have had to work very hard not to be overprotective with my children and men, or letting them 'out' in the world. Or even defining what overprotective IS! Great post, i really enjoyed reading.

  2. Thanks Maggie May!
    Yeah, defining what over protective even is...therein lies the rub. Sometimes it is so hard even to decide what is enough vs. too much. Oh well, muddling through one day at a time... :)


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