What Critics Misunderstand About Overparenting

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


April 21, 2015

What Critics Misunderstand About Overparenting

Compared to the way that kids were raised in decades past, it is far less common for today’s parents to allow their children the freedom to wander the neighborhood or use public transit unsupervised. Many commentators account for this new norm by reflexively blaming the media for stoking parents’ fears with sensationalist accounts of children in peril. But in their search for causes, critics of this phenomenon have failed consider the impact of the social and legal scrutiny that parents face.

Critics charge that children are spoiled, sheltered, showered them with unearned praise, protected from every source of pain and discomfort to the point that they never get the chance to experience any challenges and develop self-reliance and independence. They believe that children should be given the chance to climb trees, walk home alone from school, take public transit unattended and otherwise take risks, make mistakes and encounter small amounts of danger in life.

Who could possibly disagree? It’s true that American society tends to view children as profoundly vulnerable and in need of protection, and for many critics, this tendency is exemplified by parents’ exaggerated fears of stranger abductions. But even a cursory review of the legal and governmental infrastructure dedicated to child welfare reveals a society that overwhelmingly believes that the primary threat to children is their parents.

With the exception of drug users, parents are one of the few groups that has local, state and federal agencies dedicated to monitoring and controlling their behavior inside their homes. And when the US ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, parental actions will also fall under the supervision of international law the moment they welcome their bundles of joy into the world.

The modern child welfare legal regime begins with the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act which created a federal mandate for states to establish child protective services agencies. This legislation emerged after an explosion of public interest and media of the issue of child neglect and abuse in the 1960s, driven partly by reports physicians who treated children for ailments that could only be explained as the result of abuse by parents and caregivers.

In reaction to what has been portrayed as an epidemic, members of the general public are hypervigilant to any possible hint that parents are abusive and eager to do their civic duty by reporting parents to child protective services. According to statistics kept by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, of the 498,000 reports of suspected child maltreatment made by non-professional reporters in 2003, only 22% were substantiated by child protection agencies. (The substantiation rate for reporters like education, medical, mental health, social services and law enforcement personnel was higher, at 37%).

The evidentiary standards to substantiate findings of child maltreatment should also be noted. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, 15 states require a “preponderance of evidence” to substantiate a report, a standard which is satisifed if there is a 50% or greater chance that the claim is true. In 15 other states, the standard is even lower.

The moral case for aggressively combatting child maltreatment is obviously compelling, and collectively, we have decided that the benefit of rescuing children from abuse is worth the trade-off of some false accusations and parents incorrectly judged to be neglectful.

Many social workers believe that prevention of child neglect through adequate mental health services and poverty relief is more effective than punishment, but let’s assume for the time being that we have judged well.

In a society ever watchful for traces of their abuse and neglect, we shouldn’t be surprised if parents absorb the message and learn to reflect this same hypervigilance. If parents worry over child predators and abduction, it is not so much because the media exaggerates stranger danger, although that plays some role. It is because the intense public and legal scrutiny of parents’ behavior has established the principle that paranoia is the gold standard of guardianship.

Some parents may agree that this principle is sound. Others, like free range parents, may not. But all must obey it, or risk the scarlet letter of neglect and the intervention of police and child protective services.

The problems of so-called overparenting are frequently portrayed as a kind of harm done to children. Some critics even view it as a form of child abuse—there’s a deep perversity to these claims. Overparenting is a product of a society that demands from parents excessive demonstrations of concern for child welfare to prove they aren’t a danger to their children. But now with these critiques of so-called overparenting, these very same demonstrations are turned into indicators of parental pathology and evidence of child abuse. By making parents into the primary actors driving this phenomenon, critics of overparenting inadvertently feed the very paranoia they claim to oppose.