The end of overparenting?

A new wave of writing supplants the petty anxieties of a tiny group of very privileged families. Finally.


Amy Benfer
June 2, 2009 9:03PM (UTC)

Hark, hark! That flapping sound you hear is the sound of the helicopter parent officially sputtering back down to its heliopad. The sound has become so thunderous that it has even reached the ears of Lisa Belkin, the New York Times Magazine writer, work-life balance columnist, and Motherlode blogger who was arguably one of the prime movers behind the trend in the first place.

In this week's magazine piece titled "Let the Kid Be" -- rich from a woman who has spent the better part of a decade writing about all the ways in which parents don't just let their kids be -- Belkin joins the latest chorus of writers complaining that some parents are just too into their kids. Ding, dong, there's a witch joke in there somewhere. Funny how some people don't notice something might seem objectionable until it spawns a host of derisive nicknames. In her opening graph, Belkin throws out a few: "helicoptering, smothering mothering, alpha-parenting, child-centered parenting." She then adds a few gems parents may have kept to themselves: "Overly enmeshed parenting? Get-them-into-Harvard-or-bust parenting? My own mother never breast-fed-me-so-I-am-never-going-to-let-my-kid-out-of-my-sight parenting?" My own personal nickname for such parents? People-who-have-read-too-many-Lisa-Belkin-articles-on-parenting parenting.

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Now Lisa Belkin certainly isn't the only person responsible for the shameful way in which our discussion of parenting in the past decade has shifted to focus almost exclusively on the trials, tribulations, petty competitions and anxieties of a tiny group of very privileged families with children who seem to consider their individual child's prospects of getting into the most exclusive schools more important than, say, ensuring an equitable access to education for this entire generation of children. But her 2003 cover story "The Opt-Out Revolution," which claimed that tiny pockets of affluent, Ivy League-educated women (like, ahem, herself) were choosing to stay home with their children (supported, of course, by their affluent, Ivy League-educated husbands), will go down as a classic of this decade and one of the first shots in the stupidity that became known as "the Mommy Wars." Her cohorts in the sandbox -- if sandboxes are not yet considered too unsanitary -- included Peggy Orenstein; hedge-fund manager turned novelist Allison Pearson; fake stay-at-home mom Caitlin Flanagan; Linda Hirshman, who told women to get a job already; and Judith Warner, who noticed that educated, affluent women were, gosh, looking a little anxious. Since then, Belkin has been sending us regular dispatches from the war front. (God, I will be happy when this topic is finally, finally, finally dead!)  

Belkin points out that much of what we think of "parenting" -- a verb she wagers was probably never used before the 20th century -- is not so much truth as prejudicial preference. Modern parenting, as she puts it, is about "building an artificial scaffold, which supports what we have come to think of as parenting truths but are really only parenting trends."  She runs us through these trends -- the feeding schedules of the 1920s, Dr. Spock in the '40s, "Barry Brazelton (touchy feely parenting), William Sears (attachment parenting), and John Rosemond (Christian parenting)." 

Her list of the new "wave" of parenting writing will be familiar to Salon readers: former Salon columnist Ayelet Waldman, a self-identified "Bad Mother"; Lenore Skenazy, who founded a Web site and wrote a book about the virtues of "free range parenting" after she was pilloried for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone; "slow parenting" advocate Carl Honore; and British writer Tom Hodgkinson, whose book cover -- Mom and Dad lounging while their kid mixes up a martini -- brings to mind this lament we published in Salon nearly a decade ago. It hasn't escaped Belkin's attention that some of this revisionism may "dovetail nicely with new economic realities." But I hear a thinly disguised dis when she writes that: "When you can't afford those violin lessons or a babysitter to accompany your 10-year-old to the park, you can turn it on its head and call it a parenting philosophy."

And she seems unable to conceive of parenting without competition, and thus speculates that: "We may even see parents stop aiming to prove how perfect they are and start trying to prove how nonchalant they are." There's some truth to this: Waldman admits in her book that, "We bad moms are happy to confess our sins because we're confident that those who come closest, and with the most sanctimony, to emulating the self-effacing, self-sacrificing, soft-spoken, cheerful, infinitely patient Good Mother are the real Bad Mothers."

Parenting trends do come and go. But it is genuinely shameful that over this past decade, women on both sides of the Mommy Wars -- often self-identified feminist women -- have allowed so many definitions of "good" parenting to become inextricably tied up with "affluence." While all children need good food, healthcare, shelter and good schools, the helicopter parents, whoever the hell they were, allowed parenting to become a competition between children, in which your child's well-being was directly proportionate to how much advantage he or she could score over the next kid. That, to me, is frankly immoral, and those are the kids I worry about. Hopefully they will grow up to be wiser -- and kinder -- than their own parents. But this trend is one that just can't die fast enough.


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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