Remember when particularly awful or unruly children were labeled "spoiled," and their parents condemned for the sins of overindulgence and underdiscipline? I hadn't thought of that term in years, until it turned up in Joan Acocella's marvelously cranky essay on difficult parents and their potentially damaged offspring in this week's New Yorker. Acocella laments the special kind of horror that comes when one is invited to dine with the adults of a family only to discover that one is expected to express an opinion on the death of a child's hamster, suffer through a child's screams and express admiration of his talents, until the long-suffering adult guest goes home "swearing never to have kids or, if you already did, never to visit your grandchildren. You'll just send checks."
The act of producing such hell children, says Acocella, used to be known as "spoiling," but now is known variously as "overparenting," "helicopter parenting," "hothouse parenting" or "death-grip parenting." Is it an accident that our bad-parenting metaphors have shifted from one that seems to imply that kids can be permanently ruined, like rancid food products, to ones that skip the kid altogether and instead focus on the seemingly pathologically insane adult at the helm? One can spoil a kid, I suppose, merely by neglecting to restrain the id or whatever we're calling the dark impulses that cause children to scream and eat too much ice cream these days -- Acocella cites too few rules and too many toys -- but death-grip parenting takes real effort.
Anyone who has opened a magazine in the past decade can probably enumerate the various symptoms of those parents who seem to have confused raising a child with breeding a champion racehorse (or its intellectual equivalent). Acocella culls the choicest bits from three recent books on overparenting that "deplore it in the strongest possible terms."
Yes, most of us (I hope) giggle over those parents who still think starting their 3-month-old on Baby Einstein DVDs will shoot them to the head of the kindergarten class, but it's kind of depressing when Acocella points out that the infant education trend can be traced back to the "brain plasticity" research of the early '90s -- which initially came about, in part, to explain and correct the developmental gap between children of different classes and ended up being used by hyper upper-middle-class parents to attempt to push their kids even further ahead of others. Those with $30,000 to $40,000 to spare can enroll their kid in IvyWise, an academic boot camp. But don't stop there! Some parents, having safely ensconced their offspring in the Ivy of their choice, continue to harangue them by e-mail and cellphone and (the worst of the bunch actually) buying a second home in their kid's college town. (OK, so many parents may just freak out over elementary school placement, pester their kids teachers and "edit" their seniors' college application essays).
After such flagrant examples of entitlement gone amok (but all in name of the children!) I confess I dissolved into evil cackles when I read some of the more dire predictions for the overparented hothouse offspring. Author Hara Estroff Marano sounds nearly gleeful when she reports that younger children who are not allowed to learn through trial and error may find their nervous systems "literally shrink"; suffer psychological breakdowns in college; and grow up to be "risk adverse, pessimistic" and "poor stewards of democracy." Didn't think you were buying that along with the SAT prep course, did you?
In the objections of Marano and others, Acocella sees the influence of '60s and '70s idealism and disdain for materialism. Paraphrasing Marano, she writes: "Why ... aren't parents "manning the barricades," demanding benefits for all children? Why do they care only about their own? And doesn't it bother them that the extra help they can buy for their children -- the college-admissions courses, the tutoring -- is tilting the playing field?"
Acocella, as it happens, is 68 (I checked Wikipedia) and thus doesn't necessarily have a horse in this particularly fraught race (except possibly check-receiving grandchildren). She is, then, able to view the whole mess with a certain detachment. At the end of her essay, she invokes Columbia professor Steven Mintz, whose book "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood" begins at the beginning of American childhood, with forced child labor, and reminds us that in the '50s "overparenting" was called "Momism" and thought to produce homosexuals. She concludes: "Despite general prosperity -- at least until recently -- the percentage of poor children in America is greater today than it was 30 years ago. One in six children lives below the poverty line. If you want an emergency, Mintz says, there's one."