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The Over-Protected Child

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

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 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.

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