COMMENTARY

Giving kids no autonomy at all has become a parenting norm — and the pandemic is worsening the trend

Teaching children independence breeds confidence and social skills. Why aren’t we encouraging this?

By Gail Cornwall

Published January 17, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Woman with Child on Leash (Getty Images)
Woman with Child on Leash (Getty Images)

The studio audience showered me with hisses, "nuh-uh's," and boos as I answered questions about my parenting. I was on an episode of a nationally syndicated talk show that aired on March 3, 2020, just weeks before parenting became a fuller-time job for millions of American women. 

My sin? I let my 10-year-old ride public transportation without me. I reassured those at the show's taping that the regular drivers and riders of my daughter's route would be there to help in an emergency that she and/or her travel companions — two other fifth-graders — couldn't handle. Mel Robbins, the life-coach-turned-TV-personality who hosted the show, responded with a chilling judgment: "You're outsourcing your parenting."

This, I thought, as I burned with studio lighting and the insecure indignation of the accused, is why so many mothers I know are dependent on anti-anxiety meds, alcohol, and other substances. It's also why colleges have instituted hand-holding measures that would have been unthinkable two decades ago, including text messages reminding students about professors' office hours and even where to find food. 

We've heard about rising rates of maternal anxiety. We've heard about rising rates of young adult anxiety. Screens often take the blame, and they may yet play a role (especially when considering their impact on sleep), but there's another culprit driving these phenomena: this common take on parental "outsourcing."

The rise of intensive parenting

The belief that children must be attended—or even attended to—at all times by their parents or a direct proxy came to dominate America's child-rearing philosophy from the last decade of the 20th century forward. My style, which revolves around limiting kids' independence only to the extent necessary to protect them from risks that are both serious and fairly likely to materialize, is now known as "free-range parenting" in the United States, despite the fact that much of the world—including the majority in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, France, and Israel—just calls it "parenting."

In New Zealand, for example, "kids roam the streets," Slate editor Dan Kois wrote in "How To Be a Family," and "Kiwi parents let their kids figure things out themselves." In the U.S. though, the police have been called, women arrested, and children taken into custody for finishing out a stroller nap in an enclosed backyard, using an iPad in a car for a few minutes, and playing in a park

The norm these incidents both reflect and reinforce has been dubbed "intensive parenting," an umbrella term that covers, among other subtypes, "helicopter parenting," "snowplow parenting," and, in some cases, "tiger parenting." 

Paula Fass, a historian of childhood and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, says that at our nation's founding, Americans were unique in "endowing their children with independence and flexibility because they believed that the future held better possibilities and opportunities for their children." This view "lowered the degree of publicly approved control that parents exercised," she wrote in "The End of American Childhood." Yet the rise of the parenting expert starting in the 1930s and growing parental fears after World War II eroded this ethos. In recent decades, constantly monitoring and directing kids, or scheduling them to be monitored and directed, not only became the norm for parents who can afford it, but the model of parenting. Indeed, research indicates parents across the class spectrum now consider it the ideal way to parent. 

It shouldn't be. 

For starters, the rise of helicopter and snowplow parenting has been tied to a brand of forced helplessness first thoroughly decried by Julie Lythcott-Haims after she spent a decade as Stanford University's Dean of Freshmen. In 2015's "How To Raise an Adult," Lythcott-Haims described college students, old enough to go to war and vote, whose parents acted as if they could not choose courses, complete homework, or handle roommate issues without assistance. Caregivers "overdirecting, overprotecting, or over-involving" themselves for the first 18 years of these students' lives, she theorized, led to a lack of agency and resilience in college.

Why? Because safeguarding children from disappointment, removing all obstacles in their way, and providing external incentives—in other words, shielding and controlling—is a short-term strategy. A parent doing so may protect the bodies of their progeny and even win (or buy) admission to a school like Stanford, but the approach can deprive kids of the chance to develop the resilience, resourcefulness, and inner compass necessary to navigate life independently. Not being equipped to problem-solve, not feeling competent, and not having faith that one can stumble and recover, Lythcott-Haims argued, with backing from scientific research, leaves the children of helicopter parents "more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious."

Fast forward five years, and pre-Covid, "college campuses [were] overwhelmed with kids coming in and asking for help," says Joanna A. Robin Ph.D., co-author of "The OCD Workbook for Kids." Young Americans reported higher levels of serious psychological stress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts in the late 2010s versus the mid-2000s. At some schools, it can take months for a student in distress to be seen, and that was true before the pandemic increased rates of anxiety and suicidal ideation in adolescents. 

Dr. Robin, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Society of America who practices in White Plains, New York, says scientists haven't yet teased out how much of this rise is attributable not to an increased incidence of mood disorders but to an increased awareness of them (and decreased stigma). However, Alan "Woody" Schwitzer, Ph.D. presented an illuminating ongoing study of over 2,000 undergraduates at the 2019 meeting of the American College Health Association. Though the attendant paper is still under peer review, Schwitzer shared his results with me: While the percent of diagnosable students may not have increased much over the years, the day-to-day problems associated with their distress have.

I can hazard a guess at why, backed by a study that came out after Lythcott-Haims's book. This 2017 paper in the Journal of Child and Family Studies reported that helicoptered kids wound up with "higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower levels of self-efficacy, leading to poorer college adjustment." (Another 2017 study showed a negative impact on academic motivation.)

What's a university to do? In a recent article—the same one that highlighted colleges using texts to replicate "parental nagging"—veteran education journalist Jon Marcus documented counselors also "sending encouraging messages about good work." He quoted a provost who said, "'this is just how they've been raised and what they've come to expect.'" 

It would seem the "hovering" norm is doing what norms do best: self-perpetuating.

And children aren't the only ones affected. Women began taking "mother's little helpers," pharmaceuticals meant to relieve the stress attending that role, as early as the 1950s. As the logistical and emotional burden of "good" parenting grew over the decades, so too did prescription rates and reported anxiety. Mothers who were themselves parented in the 1990s are more stressed out than previous generations. Though there's no research proving that being parented intensively or attempting to parent like a helicopter caused that uptick, a 2013 study linked intensive mothering to increased depression and stress. And at least one report says we've seen a resurgence in mother's little helpers during the pandemic.

In "Child, Please," Ylonda Gault described "beginning to chafe over this idea of modern motherhood":

There was apparently a memo that went out to the world at large. And in it, there were new parenting guidelines laid down. Rules dictating that all of us with kids were to forfeit our lives—our souls, even—to the single-minded pursuit of child rearing. 24/7. Without ceasing. This role, it seems to have been written, should govern our every thought and supersede all prior conventions of sound judgment, discernment, and plain old motherwit.

What happened to raising kids with autonomy?

A sizable minority of parents would like to join Gault in bucking the trend of consumed mothers and micro-managed children. Like Lenore Skenazy, who was dubbed "America's Worst Mom" in 2008 for letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone, they understand that the only way kids can acquire judgment is to exercise judgment and then experience the natural consequences of their choices. (If, for example, a child leaves their backpack at home, not having it rushed up to school by a parent provides them with an opportunity to figure out how to find food that day, to realize an independent desire to remember their lunch the next, and to develop the conscientiousness necessary to make that happen.)

Parents like her have come to realize, either by gut or from the research, that scaffolded independence breeds executive function, confidence, social skills, and more. They can feel how unsustainable and counterproductive helicopter parenting is for their families, and they want something different, something many call "autonomy-supportive parenting" or "panda parenting."

But, increasingly, we aren't permitted that alternative. In "Small Animals," Kim Brooks—the woman who couldn't see a safety risk to leaving her son, for just a few minutes, locked in a car with windows cracked on a temperate day and who was prosecuted despite no one being able to prove otherwise—traced the belief that children must always be in sight of an adult specifically charged with their care. She believes it has its origin in two waves of high-profile yet aberrant events: stranger kidnappings in the 1980s and hot-car deaths in the 1990s. Sugary beverages and riding in a parent's car present risk to a kid's health orders of magnitude higher; a child is, after all, more likely to be hit by lightning than abducted by a stranger, she says, and "statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger." Yet parents got spooked, and they stayed spooked.

Others, including the authors of "Love, Money, and Parenting," posit economic anxiety as the driving force. Patrick Ishizuka, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, explains: "In contexts like the U.S. where economic inequality is high and there is a limited social safety net, the high costs of children falling behind academically may motivate parents to adopt more intensive parenting approaches to improve their children's future economic prospects." In essence, as the opportunity of the early America described by Professor Fass shrinks, so too does the nation's collective commitment to high child agency and low parental involvement.

Regardless of the precise causation, time-use diaries indicate that mothers spent twice as much time engaging with their children in 2012 as they did in 1965. On the other side of the same coin, "unstructured play and outdoor activities for children three to 11 declined nearly 40 percent between the early 1980s and the late 1990s," according to Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

And the fewer kids who roamed both urban and suburban neighborhoods because of imaginary risk, the more truly legitimate risk increased. Research from an entirely different field, transportation studies, helps explain why. Drivers slow when roads seem unsafe to them. That makes being one in a gaggle of kids walking the sidewalk much safer for both the expected reason, that it's harder to see a single child, and another: baseline speeds will be higher when drivers assume the absence of unattended kids.

Without a critical mass of parents allowing their children to run to the store for milk or bike to the library, the proposition becomes dodgier for adults too; for some more than others. Though this part of the discussion didn't make the producers' final cut, I clarified during the show's taping in February that I would never moralize, saying another parent ought to permit their kids the autonomy I allow mine, since I know that neighborhoods differ in safety when it comes to traffic and crime; and, that my white skin and my daughter's confer a degree of protection upon us. I understand that low-income parents and parents of color, including those who have long given their children independence out of some combination of necessity and wisdom, are at a higher risk than me of having a stranger call the police or Child Protective Services. Once those government entities become involved, events are likely to unfold differently for people with brown skin, non-English speakers, and those less able to "present their class credentials," as Sheila Connolly, a stay-at-home mom from Northern Virginia, puts it, offering as examples "a childproofed house and cupboards full of food."

"I admit to hovering out of fear," she told an online community of mothers last spring, "but not of crime, of the police." 

Those with contentious co-parenting relationships also can't safely deviate from the hovering norm. My own ex-husband is nothing but reasonable and flexible. I didn't worry, on the day an adult threatened to call the police on me for allowing our children to sit on the sidewalk while I ran inside to grab a forgotten potluck contribution, that I'd given their dad an excuse to take them away from me. But for someone engaged in a custody battle—as well as for people of color, first-generation immigrants, and the poor—"free-range" or "autonomy-supportive" can quickly be recast as "neglectful."

Back in New Zealand, one Kiwi mother told Kois that she and her friends view the parental role as "to push your kid away and make sure they can be a fully functioning adult." But that doesn't mean their children go entirely unsupervised: "There's always eyes on," another added. Professor Fass says that though "mothers in the U.S. have borne the great weight of responsibility for children since at least the middle of the 19th century without an enmeshed village of extended kin," they were not expected to keep them within sight at all times and in many places a community of neighbors could be relied upon to watch out for, and report back on, children's doings. In other words, not only was the job of parenting smaller before the advent of hovering, but it was spread out over more people. That makes sense, because most who've tried it can attest that intensive parenting is just too big a job for one, regardless of whether they work outside the home as well.

Mel Robbins saying that permitting an eager, competent child to explore her world means I "outsourced" parental responsibility, sends a clear message: I am no longer entitled to a village. Especially now, with a pandemic raging and schools closed, we are conscripted to personally watch over our children every minute of every day or hire or recruit someone else to do so, regardless of whether it benefits the kids, is financially feasible, or is good for society. 

Stopping "insourced" parenting

This dominant ideology of intensive mothering, researchers say, affects everyone, regardless of whether we consciously buy into it. It influences both women's professional horizons and their emotional interiors. Before the pandemic, I did my best to remain calm when my daughter took longer than expected to return home from chorus practice or a trip to the bookstore — reminding myself that the independence she craves is best for her and my real job is to make like a Kiwi and get out of her way whenever feasible. But after experiencing public shaming in the CBS building, it was harder to resist my urge to check the GPS she wore and make sure she really got there safe. The calm felt less natural and the panic more so.

This contagious anxiety, the one that has infected American parenting, is also spreading across the globe, with parents in other countries reporting shrinking levels of childhood freedom. Frances "Frank" Wilson McColl of Wellington, New Zealand says her eight-year-old "walks/bikes to school or friends' houses or the shops or to play at school without an adult." That said, numerous Kiwi parents told me that though their children would still be considered free-range in the U.S., they have less freedom than prior generations. Scott Duncan, Ph.D., a professor at Auckland University of Technology known for his research on the value of risky play, confirms: "We used to allow kids to wander neighborhoods, but it doesn't really happen much anymore in urban areas." He says the dominant parenting ethos among Kiwis is still to allow kids to sort out their own problems, but that too "is decreasing in the modern age."

To the credit of Mel Robbins and her team, she told another mother that her helicopter parenting can cause anxiety. And they tried to shift gears when splicing together the episode. You can barely hear the extreme audience response to my daughter's use of public transportation in the final product. They left the "you're outsourcing" accusation on the cutting room floor too, though hundreds of thousands of viewers at home heard Robbins repeatedly render judgment, including suggesting that children who are permitted autonomy "feel some level of neglect, emotionally."

Kearie Daniel, producer of the podcast Woke Mommy Chatter, was tapped as a representative of tiger mothers for the episode. Refusing to be pigeonholed, she acknowledged the value of unstructured time and undirected play but explained she felt compelled to also schedule organized activities in order to help her kids beat the dismal odds Black children face in Canada's education system. Yet viewers watched her too be chastised, told her children's schedule wore them out. 

At the end of the day, well, at the end of the episode, none of the three parenting styles profiled was safe from recrimination.

That jibes with a new wrinkle revealed by research published in 2015. That study, entitled "The Price Mothers Pay, Even When They Are Not Buying It: Mental Health Consequences of Idealized Motherhood," confirmed earlier ones showing "how intensive mothering ideology can negatively impact one's life satisfaction." But it found that the pressure to be a perfect mother, and the guilt that comes with inevitably failing, is detrimental, regardless of the subtype of parenting in question. In other words, any style of parenting intensively, not just helicoptering, is liable to increase maternal anxiety.

That is an even bigger problem now that COVID-19 and its attendant school and daycare closures have made all parenting more intensive. An August 2020 survey by Care.com indicated that "73% of parents plan to make major changes to their professional lives with 15% considering leaving the workplace altogether." This is particularly true for mothers, whose work hours fell, by one estimate, four to five times as much as fathers' did over the first months of quarantine. Recently, we learned that 865,000 of them were indeed pushed out of the workforce in September and another 140,000 Black women and Latinas saw their jobs cut in December. And with homeschooling numbers on the rise, even doubling in Colorado, it seems some may not be heading back. 

Though some parents reported a "Lord of the Flies"-esque summer, with children overrunning the house while parents huddled over laptops in closets, I struggled to find ways to give my children independence safely with the library and school play yards closed. My own bottom line (in terms of both labor and sanity) argued in favor of channeling their energy into specific activities rather than allowing their forts, gauntlets, and self-sufficient meal prep to ransack my living room, backyard, and kitchen, respectively. Their omnipresence rendered it hard to resist the urge to issue logistical and social-emotional corrections and redirections. 

Now that we're back to distance learning, I encourage them to get their own computers online, but there are WiFi snafus, pages to print, awkwardly phrased instructions to explain, and photos of completed work to upload in addition to issuing daily, sometimes hourly, reminders about where the rulers, pencil sharpeners, and erasers can be found. And that's the hands-off approach. Others sit by their children's sides, walking through each assignment, or wrestling through them, as the case often is. A 2020 study based on a survey of 3,338 U.S. households in April and May of that year linked a child struggling with distance learning to increased parental anxiety and depression, as well as trouble sleeping, across all socioeconomic levels. 

With most large school districts across the country saying in-person learning will have to continue to wait, we have yet more months to inculcate our children's dependence and our own subjugation.

With each passing day, intensive parenting feels less a choice than an inevitability.

"Heaven forbid anything happen," Mel Robbins said on-air, referencing the possibility that my daughter's city bus could be involved in a crash, "that is the one thing I would never be able to forgive myself for."

But something has happened. Intensive parenting has happened, creating a nation of increasingly overtaxed, under-resourced, and isolated mothers, a not-insignificant proportion of whom are raising junkies dependent on external motivation, affirmation, and direction. And when the passage of time allows a future generation to see it that way, we will all struggle to forgive ourselves.


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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