Safety Reconsidered

From bubble-wrapping kids and helicopter parenting to brick-wall families and striving for parenting perfection, there are many ways of describing overprotective parents.

There's much to be considered when it comes to raising our kids today-and much to be frightened about. Parents are bombarded with stories of unsafe toys, violence in schools, cyber-bullying, teen sex, cyber-sexual predators, pedophiles loose on the streets, drugs, alcohol, obesity and the list goes on. When faced with this, who wouldn't worry?

However, many of these worries are overblown and unfounded. Crime-rates, early pregnancies, violence, school drop out rates and smoking have declined in recent years. In fact, children are generally safer today than in the past. Education, enforced safety measures and engineering of safety devices combine to make up this improvement.

Experts however recognize that fear and anxiety are at the root of overprotective parenting. Kimberly Bezaire, from the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE at the University of Toronto, is among a growing chorus who argue that adult fretting, hovering and second-guessing are hazardous.

In fact, skinned knees and school yard spats can carry hidden rewards. The research from early childhood educators, psychologists and pediatric health specialists confirms the importance of unstructured activity and the need for parents to back off.  Overprotective parenting can lead to the illusion of control, unnecessary intrusion by parents, failure to instill self-confidence, and, when kids are older, greater risk-taking behaviour.
Michael Ungar, a social worker, family therapist and associate professor in the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University, writes about the harm fearful parenting has on children in his new book Too Safe for Their Own Good. He says children respond to parents' fears.  When those fears are real, kids feel respected and protected.  When fears are unfounded or based on perceptions not fact, children feel suffocated which may develop into anxiety or rebellion.

What are the different Forms of Overprotective Parenting?

Bubble-Wrapped Kids
Michael Ungar says in his book that overprotective parenting is damaging in situations that involve stable, nurturing, middle class families.  Parents in these situations may coddle their kids and provide too much safety.

When kids are "bubble-wrapped", they are denied opportunities to experience risk and responsibility.  An overprotective upbringing can contribute to an unusually compliant personality or dangerous risk-taking behaviours.
Helicopter Parents 
Helicopter Parents are those who keep close tabs on their children.  They are known to hover closely, often rushing in to prevent any harm or failure in school settings.  This prevents their children learning from their own mistakes or experiences.

Brick-Wall and Jellyfish Parenting 

Parent-educator and author Barbara Coloroso talks about the effects of "brick-wall" and "jellyfish" parenting.  Jellyfish parents do not enforce needed structure, rules or guidelines for children. Brick-wall parents enforce rigid rules which never give their children space to learn to think independently.  Children in these families can become adults who lack independence or the ability to lead satisfying lives.

What are the consequences of overprotective parenting?

Children raised in overprotective homes are not prepared for life in the world as adults.  Without the safety-net and protection of their parents, they haven't learned from experience and making mistakes. When they become teens, some kids become complacent, anxious or depressed.  Others take dangerous risks.

Ungar argues that kids need a healthy dose of risk.  He defines risk as the potential that something bad might happen. Why?

  • When kids are exposed to appropriate risks and challenges, they learn about limits and common sense.
  • When kids are involved in activities that require responsibility, they learn maturity, job skills and how to give to others.
  • However, too much risk endangers a child.
  • Too little risk means fewer opportunities for kids to grow up healthy.
  • The "risk-taker's advantage" shows positive effects by the time kids become adolescents.  They feel that they belong, are trustworthy, responsible and capable.

Take this quiz to see where you fit on the protective-parent spectrum.

Are there Balanced Solutions?

Parents should strive for a balance between chance-taking and undue risks. 

Barbara Coloroso talks about "backbone families" in contrast to "brick-wall" and "jellyfish" families.  "Backbone" families provide kids with structure and flexibility to negotiate for what they need as they grow up and take on responsibility for their own decisions. 

Try to "read" your child's risk tolerance, and work with your family to gain a mutual understanding.  Kids themselves say they want boundaries, observes Michael Ungar.  They want limits that tell them someone's watching them and monitoring their well-being.  They also really want opportunities to take risks and learn responsibility from their actions.