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The Over-Protected Child

The Over-Protected Child

Give up the illusion: we can't fight our children's battles, nor should we.


You know which parents I mean. The ones who hover over their children, superman capes in hand, ready to leap in and rescue them from any unpleasantness. The ones who follow their children around your (professionally) child-proofed home. The ones who validate every feeling and turn every boo-boo into a serious illness.

These parents are making two crucial mistakes: 1) that they can shelter and protect their children from life's vicissitudes, from its daunting challenges and confusing choices; and 2) that this protection is good for them.

“Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind. “Through failure, we learn how to cope.” What will make our children real and unique individuals, what will help them become mature and successful adults, is independence and choice, not our control. The greatest gift that the Almighty gave us -- His children -- is free will. Why, then, do we seek to rob our own children of this opportunity?

If we don't want a life without without falling down and getting up and trying again, why do we believe it would be desirous for our offspring?

If we don't want a life without challenge, without falling down and getting up and trying again, why do we believe it would be desirous for our offspring?

“Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the lumps and bumps out of life for their children. However well-intentioned, parental hyperconcern and microscrutiny have the net effect of making kids more fragile,” writes Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today (November/December 2004). When my children go to study in Israel for the year, they call home -- frequently. Usually it's just the end of the day check-in. Sometimes it's to complain -- about roommates, teachers, other difficulties. Much as I would like their year to be perfect for them, I can't engineer it. And I can no longer kiss the boo-boos and make them go away. And while there may be particularly egregious situations that call for parental intervention, in general I encourage them to work it out on their own. Because that's how they'll learn, that's how they'll grow, that's how they'll mature. And that's a big part of what being away from home is all about. Maybe we just have to redefine “perfect.”

Years ago, I tried to intervene in an ongoing fight between 5th grade girls. It had deteriorated to a point where my daughter was coming home crying every day. Armed with all my psychological wisdom and tools, I called the mother of the “other” girl.

“I know there are two sides to every story,” I said. “And I'm sure my daughter has played a role in this fight, but perhaps we could work together to make shalom.”

“There are not two sides,” she responded in an offended tone. “Your daughter is wrong and has been hurtful to mine.”

This was, shall we say, an unsuccessful intervention. The wrong issue, the wrong time.

Certainly there are times when parents need to be concerned. But what are they? When a young child believes that in some way a teacher is “picking” on him, it may be appropriate to call the teacher. But I would not begin with the assumption that the teacher is in the wrong. I would begin with an innocuous statement about the child's discomfort, and discuss with the teacher how you can work together.

If it's extreme physical or emotional abuse, of course parents have to step in (I don't think I even have to say that) but otherwise, even for young children, part of their learning process is figuring how to cope and succeed with the less loving or talented of the teachers. (I say this as someone who made the mistake of too much intervention!)

You can apply the same principle to the famous “schoolyard bully.” If there is serious physical or emotional damage, then something needs to be done. If not, perhaps the administration needs to know about the behavior of the bully in order to help that unhappy child (see The Berenstain Bears and The School Bully) but our own children need to be given tools to cope with meanness and cruelty, to deal with name-calling and bullying, and to learn whose opinion to value and whose to dismiss.

Not only is it an illusion to believe we can protect our children, it displays a certain lack of trust in the Almighty. That is perhaps the hardest illusion of all to relinquish -- the one that suggests that we're in control, not Him. But oh the relief… it's not all in our hands. When our third child was born, my husband prayed, (and yes, we should have done it earlier), “We're outnumbered now; we need Your help.”

We need to be responsible but not compulsive, compassionate but not suffocating. We need to give our children the foundation and tools to cope on their own, knowing we are there if they need us.

We shouldn't fight their battles for them. We can't fight their battles for them. We need to help them fashion their best weapons and plot their best strategies. And we need to pray that they will succeed.

December 4, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 14

(13) Dee, December 23, 2013 8:17 PM

totally agree. bullying does not equal terrible life

Yes, bullying is terrible and should be vanquished, but we are not the ones who can protect each child from every scrape and mean word. We need to encourage standing up for oneself and allowing children to make mistakes. Allow your child to shine in whichever way they can, but don't hover over their shoulders!
You already had your childhood. You know that it was annoying and not at all beneficial to have a parent over your shoulders. Please don't squelch your child, turning them into a hypochondriac or an emotionally flimsy adult. They're resilient, so let them be!

(12) Elise Renee Gingerich, October 9, 2013 10:47 PM

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder And Being Over Protected

I think my a lot of my obsessive compulsive disorder, is related to my parents, being way to over protective, at times. I really do think that a lot of my obsessive compulsive disorder, is indeed related, to my parents being way too over protective, at times!

(11) Kyle, November 3, 2010 6:03 AM

I'm writing a speech on this topic

This info was very very helpful in my speech making efforts thanks a lot and if you have any other out standing quotes pleas send them to my email .

(10) leanne, October 25, 2010 9:07 AM

i cant help him all the time

not sure how to advise my 8 year old son how to cope with name calling and hitting, he gets very upset and then lashes out at the child who hurting his feelings he then gets into trouble from his teachers so his self esteam is at an all time low ,, i tell him to tell the teachers or dinner lady or to ignnore the cruel kids that do this, he tells me he does try but they wont stop, ive spoken to his teacher and hes says my son has got to tell him every time it happens,but teachers are not always there at the right time. how do i help my son to stand up for himself without him lashing out and getting so upset and angry/

(9) help, June 7, 2010 9:34 PM

My daughter is now 24 an i have over proctected her all her lif

I need to stop but do not know how....can someone suggest how to stop? I love her so much.

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