A Hovering Mother Reconsiders

Hi Readers: I really enjoyed this Boston Magazine story, by Katherine Ozment. Here’s a snippet from this mom of 2:

In my nine years as a parent, I’ve followed the rules, protocols, and cultural cues that have promised to churn out well-rounded, happy, successful children. I’ve psychoanalyzed my kids’ behavior, supervised an avalanche of activities, and photo-documented their day-to-day existence as if I were a wildlife photographer on the Serengeti. I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence, while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if, by becoming so attuned to their every need and so controlling of their every move, I’ve somehow played a small part in changing the very nature of their childhood.

The rest of the article is her talking to people who believe in the value of independence and play (a lot of the folks I like talking to, too), and realizing that unsupervised time is at least as valuable to kids as the super-saturated parent time she had been bathing them in. Not that the answer is to neglect our kids. (Well, maybe a little.) But anyway: giving them space is not neglect.

My favorite anecdote came from her chat with Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd who —

… tells a story about how, years ago, his 11-year-old daughter and several of her friends were planning an overnight campout with some younger neighborhood kids in his backyard. Before the big night, the parents of the younger kids began scouring his lawn for nails and shards of glass. “It just seemed like, Whoa, what is going on with this anxiety?” Weissbourd recalls. The problem wasn’t just the parental anxiety itself — it was how it was actually reshaping the experience for those kids: “I felt like these 10- and 11-year-old girls were so conscientious and these parents came and undermined them.”

Shards of glass they were looking for? What a perfect example of Worst-First thinking: Gee, it’s a suburban lawn. What terror could lurk there?

Great article, great stories, great revelation. In short: Great reading! — L.

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38 Responses to A Hovering Mother Reconsiders

  1. Hineata December 6, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Was this guy some kind of wino who regularly tossed beer bottles into his back yard, LOL! As for the nails, maybe if you lived atop an old horse farm, and tetanus was an issue, but really – a nail in the foot, even were there to be nails lying around, which there just aren’t in most suburban backyards, just isn’t that big a deal. I’ve done it to myself, and still have the use of both legs!

  2. Maureen December 6, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Wow, does this guy run the local junk yard? And do these parents really not have any better way to spend their time? I’d say they all need to go in the house and have a drink, but I’m sure that grownups consuming alcohol would harm the children.

  3. Marie December 6, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    My kids find rusty nails in our yard regularly, thanks sloppy construction guys! That said, it has never been a problem. We just pay them for each nail found.

    Is their lawn so rarely used that they wouldn’t know if there was usually glass to be concerned about? If it were a regular problem, I can’t imagine such parents letting the kids camp out at all

  4. Lollipoplover December 6, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    We had a backyard sleepover a few years ago when the boys were 7 and 8. I hid stuffed teddy bears in the bushes and trees of our fenced-in yard and gave each kid a flash light to go find them in the dark. The bear hunt was a great success, but of course several kids couldn’t sleep outside.

    They thought that real bears would eat them.

  5. Michelle Potter December 6, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Let’s hope the author of that article finds this site! I know it’s already been a huge inspiration to me, and I’ve only been reading a few days. I never thought of myself as an overprotective parent, but lately I’ve been realizing how often my kids miss out on things just because I was unavailable to supervise.

    Just today the kids wanted to decorate for Christmas, but I was feeling ill. I thought about Free Range Kids, and I asked my kids, “Would you guys like to do the decorating yourselves?” They were so excited by the idea! They put up the tree, hung lights and garlands and stockings, and more. They were so proud when they were done!

  6. Cheryl W December 6, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Oh, looking for glass in the back yard brings back memories. My youngest at age 3 or 4 started a glass collection made up of sharp broken glass from our back yard. Now, this place was a rental for hicks for about 80 years, and trash was buried in the back, and gophers kicked it out of the ground on a regular basis. Along with glass, almost every day for the 1st 6 months we found toys, like army men, match box cars, even a whole Tonka truck with a gold wedding band near by!

    But, no one from Harvard would ever live in a place like that (I think we were the only grad/post grad people to live there.) My kids had the rule that they had to have on shoes in the back yard, or they got no sympathy if they got cut. I did make sure they were up on their tetanus shots though!

    Yes, we could have rented a place that wasn’t covered in glass, but then we would have had a yard the size of a postage stamp. Yes, friends and parents would pick up glass too if they saw it, but not going out of their way to look like the above parents – I would have been greatly offended if I had a nice place and people did that. I would be offended at my place now if people did that. We keep nails and screws and such out of the grass because the geese and ducks will eat them, which is fatal for them. Now, people are much more likely to track in goose poop into the sleeping bags. Ah, the farm life!

  7. justanotherjen December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    I don’t even know what to say about the glass police. Geesh. Ever since we moved here last year the kids have been doing camp outs in our back yard. My 11yo had a camp out for her birthday in June. Two girls came along with her and her younger sister. Then the rest of the week all 4 of my older kids slept out there (11, 9 1/2, 8 1/2 and 5 at the time). I never thought twice about it. They had a blast. The tent was up for almost 2 weeks and the kids slept out there most of that time, having their friends over (between 7 and 11) several times. We’ll be doing it again next summer. Luckily, around here, camping in a backyard is a pretty normal thing to do in the summer.

  8. Meagan December 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    If my kids camp out in our lawn they’d better NOT trample all over my glass shard garden. I worked hard on that! It’s very zen.

  9. This girl loves to talk December 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    I just read your book recently Lenore – a neighbour lent it to me – thought it was up my alley 😉 – I’ve been reading the website for years 😉 I enjoyed the tips on how to go freerange or the babystep ideas etc. At the end of the chapters with three levels of freerange.

    I think it could be beneficial to start posting similar things here – How to let kids go to the park, how to teach kids/get ready for them to catch the bus, organise their own outdoor sleepovers. I know it sounds silly cause the answer is – um just do it!! but I think it would be beneficial to those of us who are sorta freerangers. Plus it would mention proactive stuff instead of letting the ‘outrages’ get to us. I let my kids do lots of the things mentioned here and dont fit in with most hovering parents, but I’m still nervous when they are out alone (they are walking home from school as I type this!!)

  10. Diane December 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Off topic, but you may be interested in this:

  11. Cheryl W December 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Meagan, oh, that is how that rental should have been marketed – it had a zen glass shard garden! Reality though, word was guys put their glass jars on the stump and shot them. My neighbors (on one side, also renting) did that while we were there…putting a few more fresh pieces in my son’s collection. Sigh. Some of the older ones were those shades of pink, purple and blue that only comes from age in the sun, and tended to not be so sharp, and are actually pretty cool.

  12. Robin from Israel December 6, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Wow, if I were Weissbourd I’d have been furious and highly offended – other parents looking for glass and hazards in HIS BACKYARD? AFTER he’d already given the kids the go-ahead (and presumably felt just dandy about the state of his yard)? Holy emasculation Batman… If it were me the mere thought that these parents thought I had such poor judgement would have killed the friendship right then and there.

    My photography is available for purchase – visit Around the Island Photography on etsy and Society6 and bring home something beautiful today!

  13. Lola December 6, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    How very rude, scavenging a neighbour’s yard in search of broken bits and pieces! And how stupid of them, expecting to bubble-wrap a garden! I mean, a single stump or a root can eventually hurt someone’s foot. Not to mention thorns, stones or bugs.
    What’s the matter with them? A single “take care” is enough for kids 6 years and up. And you can trust anyone to have iodine and band aids at home, can’t you? Duh!

  14. Selby December 6, 2011 at 9:41 pm #

    Fantastic article, definitely sharing!

  15. Forsythia December 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    If there were nails and shards of glass in that lawn, there would have been bloody mayhem every time a lawn mower was used!

    Although I could see doing this if a recent storm had felled a tree into the house and workers had used the area for repairs.

  16. Chaumierelesiris December 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    Thought provoking – particularly how overly protective parenting can change the very nature of their childhood. It’s partly cultural pressure, from what other parents do, and partly environment. We love going to Normandy in part because the kids can roam and make their own experiences. That’s harder to allow (though not impossible) in urban environments.

  17. Heather P. December 6, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    I can see the glass hunt under the circumstances above, and the nails if there had been a recent visit from a roofer. But as a regular thing? No.
    As to bears, the vast majority of time it’s a no. However, my husband’s uncle lives in Alaska and he has to take his dogs with him to the outhouse for that very reason. And his late grandma in northern Michigan did find bear tracks around her mailbox, and a neighbor saw one at the end of their street.
    There are predators, and there are PREDATORS. :)

  18. Teri December 6, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    We’ve lived in our house (original owners) for seven years and still find glass in the yard. At first I chalked it up to careless construction workers, but it wasn’t typical glass. I have picked up and picked up, yet it seems it is still be making it’s way to the top. So, I guess if the house for the campout was relatively new and the neighbors have all had problems with it, it could be a legit concern. But, it’s ridiculous to have a gathering for the sole purpose of picking through the yard looking for glass. Let the kids have a seek and find. My daughter has found most of it here – some she will pick up, but some she will come get me to pull out. She spends most of her time looking for bones and is convinced the house is built on some Indian burial ground. What she mostly finds, though, is glass and round rocks (which she used to believe were petrified dinosaur eggs in her younger days). Those round rocks are quite interesting (some have cracked open and you can see fossils inside) as are some of the older pieces of glass. Never know what you’ll find around here. Every once in awhile we’ll find a piece of glass in the driveway or on the sidewalk or even on the raised front porch. How does that get there???

  19. katie December 6, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    The funny thing to me is that my mom still says, after 31years in their house, that her garden “grows” glass. Old pieces turn up every year, but not in the lawn itself. why, no vclue.

  20. Brian December 7, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    go read the article. it is really good.

    my only complaint is that I am still not sure exactly what the alternative is to saying “good job” when my 2.5 year old does things he is supposed to. It isn’t good management at work or home to only criticize the bad. You should also point out when people do things right.

    I guess it is just a question of the line. Is eating a good dinner assumed or complimented? What about cleaning up blocks?

    Too much over thinking for me. If my kid does something I want him to do again, I am going to compliment so that he learns to repeat the behavior. Same for being smart. when a 2.5 year old figures out a connection between a poem and a conversation at dinner, it might really be hard work but it is much more natural to say “wow, you are right. that was really smart to make that connection.”

  21. sassystep December 7, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    Brian, I think it’s okay to tell your child that they are smart when they do something that really did use their smarts. It’s the parents who are constantly telling their kids that they are smart, good, beautiful, etc. who are doing damage because the kids don’t understand the reality of a world where we aren’t praised every two seconds for just going about regular life.

  22. pentamom December 7, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    Okay, I get the idea that there could be glass in the yard. I used to live in a reasonably nice spot, but it was on a very busy street and across the street from a college, so yes, broken glass did sometimes wind up in our yard.

    And one time one of our kids stepped on it and got cut. Said kid had had a routine tetanus shot within the last couple of years, so we cleaned it up, told the kids to wear shoes in the front yard, and moved on.

    That’s the thing — you don’t have to live on skid row to have glass in the yard, but just because you COULD have glass in the yard is no reason to treat your yard like a minefield or a nuclear waste dump. Just be careful, and if someone gets a minor injury, deal with it.

    I think the point about “good job” is that it gets overused. I still say “good job” or something along those lines to my younger kids when they accomplish something a bit challenging or new for them, or do something particularly well. And it’s good to sprinkle encouragement here and there for just generally doing things right. “Thank you” is a phrase I’ve heard somewhere before, that we could use for more ordinary occasions of being thoughtful, courteous, or fulfilling basic responsibilities. But “good job” for every instance of moving a muscle in keeping with good order without screwing up becomes meaningless. To riff on the beloved “The Incredibles” aphorism: If absolutely everything you do is a good job, then nothing is.

  23. Damon December 7, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    That was an excellent read, thanks for sharing! I wonder where her graphics came from? They are both alarming and hilarious.

  24. Tara December 7, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    I had a chance to encourage a mom to loosen the reigns a little. On Saturday we had our first really good snow. I was talking with a 15 year old boy on Sunday whos mother would not let him run the snowblower because she was afraid (of what?). I pointed out to her that in a year he’d be able to drive a car by himself and that certainly a snowblower would be just fine. (He went outside and voluntarily shoveled every square inch of their three car wide driveway voluntarily going over and above what NEEDED to be done; very responsible young man.) She choked a bit and passed the “no kids use the snowblower” edict to her hubby. :)

  25. Lollipoplover December 7, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    “The modern parent thinks he or she is always value added,” Thompson says calmly, then delivers the shiv: “But you aren’t. At some point you realize you’re a burden to your kids.”

    I think many parents I know want the best for their kids and feel that THEY have to give it to them, not have the child discover it on their own.
    I see as my kids get older that letting them enjoy their free playtime with out my interference is critical. They can call up friends, figure out logistics, and organize their games or adventures.

  26. Ruth December 7, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I really needed to read this right now.

    On my way home from the library, I ran into a mom I recently started talking to. She remarked that she didn’t want to go to the bus stop to pick up the kids in the rain, then she joked that the oldest was 14 and they could fend for themselves. “He’s certainly old enough,” I said. “Oh, no!” she replied. “Can’t leave them out here alone!”

    She lives within a block of the bus stop. She could walk to the edge of her property and see the kids walk the whole way home if it made her feel more secure. Better yet, she could let them walk themselves home and maybe even play on the swingset on their way. This is a little town on a state road. The kids don’t have to cross the main road or travel on it at all. There was at least one car waiting at the bus stop to pick up another child.

    I was so upset, so I came here for a pick me up. I read the whole article while my toddler happily played with toys, occasionally coming up to me to say hi. (And while we were at the library, I allowed him to walk off and “help” a library volunteer set up a little Christmas tree… He was out of sight, but I could hear his happy little voice singing, “Twee! Twee! Twee!” the whole time.)

  27. Jennifer Hansen December 7, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    To the poster who wondered why bits of glass keep showing up on her porch, etc.: Do you have magpies in your neighborhood?

    I agree with everyone who pointed out that it makes no sense to comb a lawn for sharps if a family has lived in a home for a while and never stepped on glass or nails and there hasn’t been a storm or a building project on the property recently (or slobs heaving glass bottles out of their car windows). This kind of thinking is deeply irrational. Do glass and nails have minds of their own? Will they crawl into your yard, laughing in tiny metallic and glassy voices, if they happen to overhear that your kids are planning a campout?

    Not to mention the insult to the property owners!

  28. C. S. P. Schofield December 7, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    Two thoughts;

    1) “But then I read a study by Columbia University psychology professor Suniya Luthar. It turns out that pushing kids can be just as bad for them as attending to their every desire. Luthar found that the children of upper-class, highly educated parents in the Northeast are increasingly anxious and depressed.”

    I seem to recall that Japan, where kids are constantly pushed to get into a good middle school so they can get into a good high school, so they can get into a good college (where they will lounge around for four years, as I understand it), has a serious teenage suicide problem. Mostly kids who have failed entrance exams. Ouch!

    2) One of the things that has gone missing since I was a child is beach glass. All kinds of bottles that used to be glass are now made of plastic (lest some godsdamned fool cut himself and sue). All that lovely glass, polished by sand and surf until is was like misty gemstones, gone! Red, from running lights of boats, was the rarest (unless you count real oddballs like purple or orange, which I have no idea where they would have come from), but I always liked well aged (returnable) coke bottle glass best. Something about longterm exposure to sun and salt water intensified the slightly green color to a beautiful aquamarine.

    As for cutting yourself on it; you were far likelier to be scraped bloody by barnacles. And if you were, sea water has both salt and iodine in it. It stings, but I don’t remember anyone getting infected.

  29. hineata December 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    Off topic, but I was really impressed with the kindness of strangers today. My 12-year old, who looks about 7, had a final half day of school, and she planned to take the bus to my school, as we’re still full on. She takes buses a lot, but has never taken this route, and ended up overshooting the right bus stop by several km. The bus driver dropped her off as close as he was to the police station, then a nice older couple followed her off and took her there. (She could have got there herself, but as I say, she looks much younger than she is, and cute goes a long way!) She asked there for directions to the school, and the police went one better and dropped her off, without any fuss. No telling off for me or her, just neighbourliness.

    I could, of course, just have got her to head for home, but she’s one of those people who likes company, and loves to help out with the kids.

  30. Dauber December 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm #


    I couldn’t find any contact info, so I am posting here. I thought this article, about kids working on farms, would be something you’d like to read:

    A misguided effort to protect the farm team


  31. anon December 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    Wendy McElroy has a wonderful new column up:


  32. motherbear December 8, 2011 at 5:17 am #

    great article! I need to remind myself more often that space to explore & maybe make mistakes doesn’t = neglect! One thing though i have to disagree with is the glass on the lawn! I was cleaning up my backyard dinner party last month when I dropped & shattered 2 wine glasses. It was dark & I didn’t know where to flew off to but did the best I could to pick up the pieces in the morning. Sure enough i cut myself this week just walking through the grass to water the plants! The moral of the story is get the word out that I’m a clumsy drunk, my house is a dangerous place & my son’s friends will most likely be traumatized from playing in our grass.

  33. kiesha December 8, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    The shared backyard of our apartment seemed pretty glass-free until I decided I wanted to put in a small garden. I took a hoe to one area of the yard and proceeded to dig up enough glass to fill a trash bag. I couldn’t believe it. Whole, intact beer bottles were buried two inches underground. It was a beer bottle graveyard.

    If we have friends with kids over, I am not comfortable letting them go barefoot. I know I haven’t found all the glass.

  34. Vanessa December 8, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    We used to live in a house with a back yard full of long, rusty nails. I picked them up for five years and never stopped finding them. My daughter (who was between ages 2-7 when we lived there) still played outside, she just wore shoes when she did it.

  35. raquel December 8, 2011 at 6:33 pm #


    Your kids eats the food. “I’m very happy you ate all the food”
    Your kids pick up the blocks. “Thank you” then kiss them
    Your kids does something smart. “You must be very proud of yourself”
    Your kids succeeds at something hard, “WOW, look at that, you tried 3 times and then you got it! How did it feel? You must be very proud of yourself!”
    Your kids play nicely with each other or friends, share nicely, etc. “Thank you for XXX.”

    Notice I never said: you are smart, a genius, etc. This are the types of compliments I tell me kids. I have plenty of relatives who tell my kids they are geniuses because they drew a house with windows. I cringe every time I hear them. Once you get used to telling kids things that compliment their effort it’s horrible to hear the how smart are you type

    As for a 1 year old walking down the stairs, they are usually so happy they don’t need anything just a smile from you and a kiss, even just say “you did it by yourself!”

  36. goingtogermany0693 December 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    @ Brian on Dec 7, just say thank you for cleaning up the blocks and you are glad that child wants to help take care of toys. no praise necessary.

  37. Sara December 11, 2011 at 10:54 pm #

    Actually, we forget that the earth is ancient. Other families have lived on the land before the current house was built there. And soil is constantly turned over. Our home was a 100+ year old homestead to a family–and shed, servant houses, an outhouse, and other remnants of long-ago structures are hinted at various spots on the acreage. We also routinely find glass and pottery shards on the ground as erosion and soil turnover occurs. That pesky mole or snake that you didn’t realize lived on the edge of the property may have moved a glass shard to the top of the soil, ready to slice someone’s foot. We find glass shards routinely, and have found even more glass bits since we aerated the soil and planted new grass seed. Your suburban lot may have beem someone’s farm land, an old garbage dump for the homestead, or the place where a family, 70 years ago, used to do practice shooting using old bottles or broken pottery. You just never know. And with over 200 years of families using the land in interesting ways, then if the family knows there are glass shards that like to pop up in their yard, then they weren’t being overprotective–they were being prudent in this day of litigation.

    If you don’t want criticism for being a free range parent, then perhaps you might consider other alternatives than “being overprotective” for the reason for the glass patrol. The practice might be rooted in practicality.

  38. pentamom December 14, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    Just had a Facebook friend with a three month old baby and a toddler decide that it was really okay to use a harness for her toddler, who likes to bolt on the subway platform TOWARD THE TRAINS when mom is busy with the baby. (Shudder! I guess he loves trains.) She said her mind was relieved by finding out that “the cops say” that a harness doesn’t make a child a target for kidnapers.

    Well, I’m glad she’s come to that conclusion (not specifically about using the harness, but that it’s “okay” to do it because her child won’t be snatched because of it), but what has society done to us that so many of us need reassurance about such a ridiculous fear????? So much so that it took her a while to break down and do it to *keep her child from running into a subway train*??????