The second type of overprotection involves micro-managing parents – those who try to meticulously manage every aspect of a child’s life. They act almost like agents or business managers to their children’s affairs. A child’s experiences are carefully curated and staged so that they face as little discomfort as humanly possible. Parents dote on the child in the same way celebrity managers will pick out all the green M & M’s from a bowl to keep a fussy rock star happy. If there’s a problem, Mom will fix it.
Because their parents are managing their lives like this, children don’t develop the type of competencies necessary to handle things on their own. “It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” says Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard University. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’” (Gottlieb, 2011, p. 67)
Psychologist Lori Gottlieb gives an example described by one teacher (who chose to remain anonymous for fear of backlash by overbearing parents) of a dispute over a toy. Let’s say while being dropped off at school, a child runs off to play with his friends. As the one child is playing with a dump truck, a classmate rudely yanks it away and says “No, that’s mine!” The child protests and the two argue for a bit, until the other kid tosses the child who originally had the dump truck a less desirable toy and says “This one is yours!” Tired of arguing and realizing it’s not all that important, the first child says “okay” and settles for playing with a different toy. Conflict averted. But as the overprotective parent watches this scene, her instinct is to rush in on this situation and defend her child against what she naturally sees as unfair treatment by another child.
“Her kid is fine,” the teacher says. “But the mother will come running over and say, ‘But that’s not fair! Little Johnnie had the big truck, and you can’t just grab it away. It was his turn.’ Well, the kids were fine with it. Little Johnnie was resilient! We do teach the kids not to grab, but it’s going to happen sometimes, and kids need to learn how to work things out themselves. The kid can cope with adversity, but the parent is reeling, and I end up spending my time calming down the parent while her kid is off happily playing.” (Gottlieb, 2011, p. 76)
The result of all this problem solving by parents is twofold. One, it’s often intrusive, and it prevents kids from learning how to handle their own problems. Second, it teaches kids to be dependent on their parents. “As children get older,” states Dr. Michael Finkelstein, “they get more capable and need to be able to spread wings so they can fly on their own. Parents who inhibit this by solving problems and taking away initiative to learn by taking things over, enabling, entitling – they raise children who to some degree are incompetent. They create a state of prolonged dependency that could be lifelong. . . . It sends a signal you’re unable to do things on your own.” (Collins, 2012) Social psychologist Jean Twenge also weighs in, saying that because these kids grew up in a bubble, “they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right – they don’t.” (Gottlieb, 2011, p. 74)