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Book review

A scathing commentary on today's parenting

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Barbara F. Meltz
June 5, 2008

A Nation of Wimps: The High
Cost of Invasive Parenting

By Hara Estroff Marano
Broadway, 320 pp., $23.95

Helicopter parenting is so passe. Why waste your time hovering, waiting to swoop in on a moment's notice to rescue your child from a crisis, when you can clear potential obstacles ahead of time and make the path as smooth and safe and stress-free as possible? Kind of like, well, a snowplow.

But wait. A snowplow can rip up chunks of grass now and then, or dent a tree so badly it will eventually die.

In "A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting," Hara Estroff Marano spares no detail telling us that snowplow parenting is risky business, shortsighted and selfish, even stupid.

Parents, gird your loins. This is not bedtime reading. Marano lays out a scary story.

Protective parents have morphed into "death-grip" parents who hold on to their children so tightly that nothing is left to chance, raising them in "hothouses" where every aspect of life is under parental control. The normal course of child development gets short shrift, if it's not completely short-circuited. The results, writes Marano, are "teacup kids": "Without opportunities to experience [for] themselves, to develop and call on their own inner resources, to test their own limits, to develop confidence in themselves as problem-solvers, they are fragile and shatter easily."

Researchers, educators, and authors before Marano have been saying in one way or another for a number of years that childhood is in trouble, particularly because of a cultural devaluing of imaginative play. They have linked the loss of play to a demise in creativity and self-esteem. Marano takes it a step further: She claims that nothing less than the survival of democracy and, indeed, all of humanity is at stake.

Marano, the former editor of Psychology Today, lays out cogent arguments. Chapter 7, "Crisis on the Campus," shows that our country is churning out a well-credentialed generation of people who can't - and often don't want to - think for themselves. "College is where the fragility factor is having its greatest impact," she writes. "By all accounts, psychological distress is rampant on college campuses. . . . There isn't a meeting of college presidents where the subject of student mental health doesn't come up."

Afraid to take risks, afraid to fail, these students don't know who they are. Extensions of their parents? Trophies for their parents? They don't even know how to separate long enough to figure it out.

The book is a scathing commentary on contemporary parenting, particularly the parenting of the affluent. (She predicts the children of the current generation who will be most successful are those with immigrant parents, because these parents could not run interference.) When she rails about how children and their accoutrements and accomplishments provide parents with status, she is harsh and unforgiving.

Here's an example of her comments about micro-managing parents, from Chapter 3, "We're All Jewish Mothers Now": "The desire of parents for a wholly sanitized environment for their kids, totally free of uncertainty, couldn't be clearer than in the rash of new hand-cleansing agents intended for children to take with them to school. . . . It reflects a dream of total control over the child's safety and, consequently, development, a kind of parental panopticon in which children are under the constant gaze, literally and metaphorically, of adults. Among teens, the means change but the principle stays the same; nanny cams give way to Internet activity monitors and cellphones with GPS monitors."

Surely every reader will acknowledge a bit of him- or herself or someone they know somewhere in the book. But even when Marano's facts convince, her tone is off-putting. Consider this passage toward the end of the book: "In this perspective, parents are far more worthy of sympathy than of ridicule. They are more stressed and depressed than anyone else in the culture, doing their best to cope with an adverse climate. That is, they would be worthy of sympathy - if their efforts were not all so tirelessly, relentlessly self-focused."

Marano has important things to say. Her arguments may upset and anger some, but her research is exhaustive, and many of her points deserve national conversation. But the book comes across as an overdue spanking of parents. You can't be a wimp to read it.

Barbara Meltz is the former Globe parenting columnist. Contact her at bfm801@rcn.com

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