Hax: Why do parents do too much for kids?

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • Updated: November 13, 2011 - 4:10 PM

Dear Carolyn: A nonparent here with a gripe about today's parents: I don't remember my parents helping me with my homework on a daily (or even weekly) basis.

Isn't it their homework? I don't remember my parents playing with me (read, entertaining) every day, either. We played with our friends. Why do parents today feel the need to do everything with their kids?

Carolyn says: Whenever you find yourself drawing a conclusion about millions of people, and especially when you find yourself comparing people of one era unfavorably with those of another, please bite down on a kitchen sponge so you form an unpleasant sensory connection to such self-indulgent thinking.

And self-indulgent it is, because, whether you mean to or not, you're implying (1) that you, as a parent, would have the sense not to make these perceived mistakes, and (2) that you turned out well because your parents didn't make them, either.

Now to your specific question: Unless they choose to homestead and home-school, each generation has to raise children in the context of current society -- including but not limited to neighborhoods, schools, media, best scientific and medical practices, scientific and medical fads, and other ideas gone aerosol, not to mention whatever the lawyers dictate.

Some examples: Working parents are the majority now, single or married, so fewer kids come straight home after school, translating to fewer neighborhood kids out scratching together a kickball game. Plus, compared with 25 years ago, fewer households even have kids in them, with fewer kids per home, spaced farther apart -- meaning fewer local playmates altogether.

Also, grandparents are healthier and staying in their own homes thus diluting their influence on new generations -- yet, better communications technology means more people have more ways to scrutinize parents' choices, and more ways to pull kids away from their parents' values.

Meanwhile, ever-emerging research into early childhood education means different homework now. Sometimes the assignments are complex and assume parental guidance, thereby forcing decisions on parents: Buck or comply?

I've tried both; neither satisfies. Teachers have their own cultural pressures to bear.

And, more working parents mean more reliance on structured activities, with each imposing rules and rhythms that parents ignore at the risk of their child's participation. Parents can, do and should sit out competitive frenzies when their (perfectly normal) children have no burning interests yet -- but if the interest is there, families become at least partially subject to that culture. Little gymnasts and violinists have been this way for generations, but there are more joiners now, and more things to join.

These are just some of the obvious forces that shape, supersede or even subvert individual parental choice.

Then there's the subtle stuff. Have you buckled a child into any kiddie gear lately? Here's what you see when you do: WARNING: DEATH or SERIOUS INJURY CAN OCCUR.

Thanks! I hadn't fully appreciated human mortality until now, and since I'm also presently wrapping my head around being fully responsible for this helpless creature I love to an aching degree, I now have vivid images of his death filling my mind every time I dutifully employ the safety equipment that now constitutes the baseline obligation for responsible parents but that didn't even exist in my parents' day!

A lot of us remember our childhoods, too, and want to re-create the best elements in our children's. We just can't import them wholesale from memory; we can only adapt them to now.

Do look around for parents who are finding ways to teach self-reliance using present-day variables, because that's probably what your parents would have done. Feel free to form strong opinions, even, of parents you know well and routinely witness in action.

But, please, before you mass-judge "today's parents," consider that they didn't fall off a wisdom cliff. Consider that they stayed pretty much the same, as people tend to do, and that conditions changed -- as conditions tend to do.

Not that I have an opinion.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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