Do you wrap the kids in cotton wool?
We all want to make life easier for our little ones. But, asks Alison Tyler, is stepping in really making things better for them, or are we creating a generation of cotton-wool kids?
Until recently, I'd never thought of myself as a 'helicopter' parent, the kind who hovers over their offspring, monitoring their every move – in fact I actively try not to be. But last week it took my three-year-old to point out that I was over-parenting.
'Mummy, you should let Henry feed himself. He's very good with a spoon you know,' she said as I shovelled bolognese into my 17-month-old. She was right. He can, and should, be feeding himself, and I was taking away his independence and a chance to work on his co-ordination and fine motor skills.
Helicopter parenting has become so popular – the term entered the dictionary in 2011 – that most of us aren't even aware that we're doing it. Maybe you 'help' finish their puzzles, give them a hand when they're climbing stairs, check on them while they're napping even though you have a monitor, cut up their food and even finish their sentences. If more than a couple of those sound familiar, you've probably earned your wings as a helicopter parent.
Helicopter parenting refers to 'a style of parents who are over-focused on their children,' says Carolyn Daitch, director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in the USA and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide (£19.99, WW Norton). 'They typically take too much responsibility for their children's experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.'
Some of this is down to peer pressure that starts as soon as you're pregnant (don't eat this, don't do that, don't buy one of those), some of it is fear for your child, part of it is that it's easier to spoonfeed or keep carrying them even though they can walk. And some of it is because we simply want to be more involved with our children than ever before – it's become part of the bonding process.
But is this new normal the best way to raise a healthy, independent child? If it's your style of parenting, should you be concerned? Time to call in the experts...
What's going on?
Those NCT gatherings can sometimes feel like a competition; who's rolling first, who's waving, saying words, or walking. But even though you may not want to compete with other mothers, it can feel so important, and possibly worrying, if yours is the laid-back baby taking his time.
One of the key changes in recent years is the rise of endless parenting information and advice, thanks to the internet, media interest and more government intervention around pregnancy and childhood. Such an information overload can breed a sense of anxiety that you're not doing enough for your baby, or that you're not parenting the right way, and you only need to turn to Google to have your worst parenting fears confirmed about absolutely anything.
As a result we're all more involved in our children's lives than ever before, but not many people have stopped to question whether this is actually the best thing for them. Babies and young children need to discover and learn, through play, food and their daily experiences. The more their parents take responsibility for them or try to protect them from knocks, germs and perceived danger, the more they shield their children from real life, and from learning to be independent, rounded people.
So forget worrying about whether you're doing enough for your baby and instead start asking, 'Am I actually doing too much?'
As sociologist Margaret Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (£44, New York University Press), explains, 'You ask yourself, "What should I provide for him?" and, without an answer, you start trying to provide absolutely everything you possibly can, including too much help.'
The good news is that there are some easy ways to undo the 'cotton wool' that we're wrapping around today's kids.
Let go of structure
Is your week like a military timetable, going from soft play to sing-and-sign followed by structured playtime with those lovely wooden toys you bought for them? Now think back to your own childhood: can you remember your parents being as involved as you are now?
There's a fine line between being engaged with your children and being so involved you lose perspective of what they need, or start to tie their achievements in with your own. And there's growing evidence that too much hovering and micro-managing can backfire. In a recent study from North Carolina State University, researchers watched children and their parents in 20 parks over a two-month period. They found that children whose parents hovered and fretted were far less able to engage in spontaneous play and missed out on exercise and social engagement with other children.
Another study by University of Washington psychologists found that children whose mothers provided too much guidance and not enough independence were at an increased risk of becoming anxious or depressed. So start by stripping back some of the structured routine. Do nothing for a day. Go at your baby's pace. If they can walk, why don't you let them lead the way in the park? And let them lead the play session too – what do they want to play with? It might not be those lovely toys – perhaps they just want to 'post' things into the bin, or bang on a pot with a wooden spoon, or pour rice from one cup to another. Give them a cardboard box and let them go wild.
Illustration by Jenna Lee Alldread