Mothering vs. Smothering

Here’s what Psychology Today’s Susan Newman has to say on the smothering issue:

And knrfntzntn
here’s what I have to say: I really don’t believe that kids who are overprotected will all end up crippled with incompetence and fear when they grow up. In a way, that’s too bad, because it would probably be great for my book sales: Raise your kids “Free-Range” or forget it! They’ll be living in your guest room till they’re 60! And they STILL won’t make their beds.

But really, the reason I believe in raising kids Free-Range is this: They only get one childhood, and childhood’s magic words are these: “I did it myself.”

As in, “I rode without the training wheels!” Not, “I rode with mommy holding onto the back of my bike in case I fell!”

Equally exhilarating: I made dinner! I found this cool rock on my way to school! I bought a Father’s Day present with the money I got from babysitting! 

Take away all those opportunities, and kids are deprived. Not deprived of the things we can buy them — lessons and toys and the trophies they get for showing up for soccer. Deprived of adventures and self-confidence and responsibility, the Wonder Bread of childhood — the stuff they grow up on. (Imagine it as whole wheat Wonder Bread if that helps.)

Free-Range parents also get something out of the deal: A life not slavishly devoted to doing things 24/7 for their kids. Not that Free Rangers are slackers (well, maybe a little bit…). But is it necessary to drive our kids to the bus stop every morning? No. Not for safety’s sake. (Our crime rate is back to what it was in 1970.) Not because this new generation  melts in the rain.  And not because bus stops have somehow crept further from home.  So why spend every morning there, silently teaching our kids that they couldn’t possibly do this simple thing on their own? Free-Range parents know that not everything in childhood is so dangerous or difficult that it requires constant parental presence.

Some days I walk my younger son to school. (Yes, the boy who took the subway.) Some days I don’t. When we walk together, I find myself saying things  like, “LOOK UP!  THAT IS A CAR! WATCH OUT!” I grab his pre-teen hand. A little smothering, if you will.

But on the days he goes by himself, I don’t think that  he’ll feel abandonned or be snatched or forget to look both ways before crossing the street. Free-Range folks believe in their kids’ resourcefulness,  in the basic decency of most strangers, and in their own parenting abilities. 

How’s that for a radical approach to childrearing? “Give your kids some freedom, give them some hugs, and don’t worry so much about the perfect smothering/mothering ratio. The end.”

32 Responses to Mothering vs. Smothering

  1. Chris April 24, 2009 at 1:34 am #

    The tinyurl link isn’t working. Can you post the full link?


  2. Anette April 24, 2009 at 1:38 am #

    What a lovely post, Lenore.

  3. kherbert April 24, 2009 at 1:40 am #

    I have a life threatening peanut allergy. People are shocked at how my parents raised me. By Spring of my kinder year I was reading labels then having them double checked by adults. By end of 1st grade Mom still tended to double check – but didn’t have a heart attack if she didn’t.

    Restaurants, food stands I still had to have an adult ask about peanuts because people wouldn’t listen to the child asking with the same attention they listened to my 6′ 6″ Father.

    About the same time my Parents and Doctor started requiring me to give my full medical history to them – until I could recite it without mistake. Then I was allowed to go to with a wider circle of friends and their families. (My 2 best friends had families well versed in this type of thing so I went with them alone earlier).

    My parents were criticized for not insisting the entire school be peanut free. They did kick up a fuss about a couple of things.

    1) I was not allowed to refuse a peanut butter cookie on my tray – then was punished for refusing to eat the meal. (This after the lunch I had brought to school was destroyed by a bully)

    2) Bully smeared peanut butter on me and my parents were only called after I stood in the office screaming at the top of my voice. I was rushed to the ER – treated, left with relatives. My parents and doctor had words with the principal and nurse,

    (I can have a deadly reaction by skin contact not just eating)

    I think my parents struck a near perfect balance. When I went away on a ski trip and a classmate tried to sneak peanut products in my food – I knew how to handle it. Fortunately the leaders backed me. If they hadn’t I was prepared to leave the condo go call my parents and make alternative arrangements.

  4. Denise April 24, 2009 at 2:04 am #

    I agree…not all overprotected kids will end up unprepared for life…but I think many overprotected kids are not only missing out on some of childhood’s best moments, but also, sadly deficient in areas that will come back to haunt them as adults, like the opportunity to be confident in their own abilities and skills.

    There are some who think I should be doing more for my kids, but I feel confident that I am doing all that I should, and that they are doing the rest!

  5. Carol April 24, 2009 at 2:13 am #

    My sons say “you don’t have to remind me to say thank you”. They are label readers too. And are fully capable of reminding me to sign the darn permission slip and packing their own lunches. Not to mention getting homework in. (Really, now is the time to miss a deadline – in the 6th grade. Not in college.)

    Friend has kid that she doesn’t let do anything and he’s on the verge of getting suspended. And she has to be on him all the time about doing his schoolwork.

  6. BonnieBelle April 24, 2009 at 2:22 am #

    I agree completely. I sometimes get strange looks from other parents, because I let my 2yr old son play on the playground without me following him around and hovering. I keep a weather eye out, mostly for bigger kids not paying attention, but usually, I just listen and keep myself available if he needs me.

    I grew up running around the North woods of Michigan, and my mom would basically say, go play, be back by dark. And it was not that long ago. 15 years or so. I don’t think things have changed that much, and I’m not going to act like some helicopter parent. That’s not who I am, and that’s not how I want my kids to be raised. When he’s old enough to understand you don’t run out into the street and other common sense safety rules, I will push him out the door and say, go play! I love this blog.

  7. slowfamilyliving April 24, 2009 at 2:45 am #

    I think believing in kids resourcefulness is the key to it all. We have to trust that they can think things through. Especially 11 year olds who need to separate from their parents at that age and feel the glory of independence. All the while knowing they have a safe haven if they need it.

  8. Sunny1 April 24, 2009 at 3:03 am #

    What about smothered kids just growing up to be plain old boring?!! No adventures to pass on, no stories to tell unless its “I played soccer for 18 yrs and got 18 participation trophies!”

  9. Sunny1 April 24, 2009 at 3:33 am #

    Lenore, thank you for this website. Before i found it I thought there may have been a participation trophy entitled “I havent slept a single night away from my child for the past 25 years and am so proud of it” that i could anticipate. My oldest is only 16 so i figured i just hadnt heard about it yet but now i know like-minded moms do exist!!!!

  10. Ashley April 24, 2009 at 4:20 am #

    One thing to keep in mind is that smothering can be a sign of abusive hyper-control. My parents were very “strict” in a lot of ways, and I was by no means free range. However, for them it was a way to abuse me and mess with my head, and not necessarily the over protectiveness we see a lot today. So, for instance, if I left the house i had to check in with my mother every 30 minutes, as a teen I’d get grounded for being out 3 minutes past curfew, my mom needed the life history of friends before I’d be allowed to play with them, etc.

    BUT! I was still able to walk to school by myself, join school activities, bike 2+ miles at age 10, was left home alone some evening when I was 8 and during the day when I was 10, etc. etc. So, even though my parents were abusively controlling and very strict by my generation’s standards (graduated high school in 2002) they were not nearly as weird as the parents these days.

  11. The Mother April 24, 2009 at 6:47 am #

    Oh, I think they’ll grow up eventually. Usually. Most of them. (although I have a sister-in-law who pushes the envelope here), But they will miss out on all the opportunities they had to learn about freedom and responsibility a little earlier.

    Case in point: I sent my oldest to college, dropped him at the dorm and said goodbye.

    Two weeks later, we got a notice from the school, asking the parents to please GO HOME.

    If you are still smothering your college age kid, how is THAT affecting his school social life? My son just shakes his head at all the colleagues whose parents still control such ridiculous things as ROOMMATE choices–in their Junior Year!

    I know these kids will learn to function, probably more in spite of their parents than because of them. But it’s a disservice to your children. If they never get a chance to make mistakes when they’re petty, what happens when the choices get so much more important?

  12. Stephanie April 24, 2009 at 9:14 am #

    I love letting my kids run just a little freer as they grow. My oldest is 6, so I still walk her to school, but she knows that she is free to run ahead. Same for her younger brother. I just ask that they not cross any streets, because I know quite well that neither looks carefully enough just yet. They get 1-2 telephone poles away from me and think it’s just great.

    I can’t imagine smothering a college age kid. My mother and I talked about that when I went to college and she just couldn’t believe how many parents were asking the dorms about curfew and trying to find out how to get their kids’ report cards sent to them.

  13. Catherine April 24, 2009 at 9:28 am #

    Wow, KHerbert, you sound like you attended school with a bunch of sociopaths! :-0 I know someone who is home schooling her daughter because of severe food allergies, ie, not just nuts but dairy and a million other things as well.

    It is not just parents that smother children but some schools do as well, eg, ‘spoon feeding’ them before important exams, imposing unnecessarily strict rules about dress and behaviour, special school only buses to take them to and fro etc. I remember when I started college that these were the kids who always seem most likely to go off the rails during 1st year because they just weren’t used to having freedom or responsibility and found the heady mix too much to handle. Those of us who had gone to regular high schools were much more accustomed to managing our own lives and study habits and tended to have a much better retention rate.

  14. Angeline April 24, 2009 at 9:41 am #

    Here’s an example of how much kids understand about life even from an early age. Today my 5-year-old was whining too much so I ended the conversation and walked out of the room. Behind me I heard him say, “I just lost my audience.” These little munchkins have a lot going on between the ears. They understand and are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for at every age.

  15. From the Peanut Gallery April 24, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    A comment on the WATCH OUT crossing street thing: I’m basically the smothered kid…or former anyway. My grandmother and mother held my hand so tight whenever they took me anywhere, my hand would be all red. But the thing was when I got older, I watched out more crossing the street on my own than with a parent there. When a parent was there, I just..I guess got lazy and figured if a car comes, the parent’s there to stop me. But when I was alone, I’d be like “Hell you BETTER look both ways or you know you’ll never see light of day again if you live…” to myself.

  16. Sheila April 24, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    As usual I agree with you on all of your points. I let my 10 & 7 year-old daughters walk/bike/scoot to the mailbox and get the mail for me (down the road, turn right, all the way down another road). I went with them the other day, just so I could get out and take a walk with them, and I found myself doing the same thing you did waling your son to school. “Watch out for the cars” (we don’t have sidewalks here). “Cross the road here, not there”, etc. Mothering instict, I suppose!

    Also, I hate it that the neighborhood moms drive their kids to the bus stop. No one has ever been abducted from a bus stop (or anywhere else) around here.

    Thanks for all you do! I enjoy your blog and can’t wait to read your book.

  17. Renee April 24, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    I DO think it’s possible for kids to grow up at least somewhat neurotic as a result of over-smothering. My ex-stepmom was telling me several months ago about her niece who is now in college, and has to call mom a half-dozen times a day to ask how to handle this or that. Her daughter was having a really hard time figuring out how to live her life, and mom was having a hard time (in college!) figuring out when and how to cut the apron strings. Being afraid to make a decision or try to handle things meets my definition of neurosis. If you’re afraid to make a decision, afraid to make a mistake – afraid in general of failure or consequences of any sort, do you ever really live?

    It’s not just about safety. Lots of parents help the kids with the homework (or just do it for them – it’s easier), switch teachers if there’s any conflict, never criticize them, and either clean the room for them, or pick up the room when the kids are done, rather than teach the kid to do it properly. I do believe kids can’t learn to make mistakes unless they’re allowed to make them. They can’t learn to handle criticism unless they have to handle some. They can’t learn to work hard unless they are made to work.

    Maybe it’s not so much a psychological neurosis as a learned behavior pattern. So is speech, but if a child doesn’t learn to speak before puberty, they never will do it well enough to function. I think it’s possible that other social behaviors also have critical periods where we either learn to deal with them or struggle in that area the rest of our lives.

  18. Dave April 24, 2009 at 9:54 pm #

    I love this site. When we let our children go off on their own like walking to the bus stop by themselves then the times that we walk with them become special. We walk with them to enjoy their company and to spend time with them. Its not about avoiding being with our children its about leting them grow through challenges and enjoying experiencing life with them.

  19. Kate April 24, 2009 at 11:19 pm #

    You sound like a good normal mom to me – Just read that the media dubbed you America’s worst mom – which leaves me shocked considering the families the same media outlets feature on other shows.
    The most danger kids can get into is being so wrapped up in cotton wool that when they finally go off on their own they have no idea of how to be safe. Kids NEED freedom to learn.
    And parents need people like you to stand up and say ‘I do this’ so that they can do it too, especially with all the so called experts out there talking such nonsense

  20. Anna April 25, 2009 at 4:34 am #

    How about a post on financial free-ranging, Lenore? I think wealthy, middle-class, or poor, too many kids get out into the world with little idea how to manage money, stick to a budget, save, or invest (for that matter, neither do many parents).

    I read a terrific book a few years ago, titled How to Debt-Proof Your Kids, by Mary Hunt. Basically, the author learned the long & hard way (amassed a lot of debt despite good incomes) to manage money. The difficult task of setting right her financial household left her determined that her kids would learn how to manage money *before* they were all grown up and on their own (and they had already learned some bad financial attitudes from their parents).

    Starting at age 12, she put each of them on a monthly salary (not a small allowance for discretionary items) that took into account all she and her husband would have spent on them anyway every month. Then the kids were responsible for ALL their own expenses – entertainment, clothing, personal items, gifts for friends, school supplies, dining out (unless with the family), etc. – just about everything. Yes, it is a big sum to give to a kid, perhaps, maybe even several hundred dollars or more. Sure, the kids can waste some money, esp at first, but they are also going to learn that if they do, then they aren’t able to do other things they want to do (better to dig a financial hole at that point then later when the hole is likely to be bigger and more difficult to get out of).

    Generally, people are more careful with their own money, and there is something empowering about having responsibility instead of a handout. Perhaps this idea is good for some parents, too, finally seeing what they REALLY spend on their kids instead leaking money dribbles and drabs, a $20 bill at a time more movies, gas, snacks, toys, etc.

    I plan to institute this plan with my son in a year and a half when he turns 12 (I’m estimating what we spend on him yearly now, and will adjust accordingly each year as his salary needs change with age). He already knows about this plan and we already have put some aspects of it into place (I don’t buy any toy dept items for him now if it isn’t his birthday or Christmas – he has to use his own money for any Star Wars legos kits, etc., nor do I buy souvenirs on trips and if he wants to buy gifts for friends, he buys them). His allowance is for the most part, his to spend as he wishes, after he puts money in the bank and saves some to donate.

    I’d love to know how other free-ranging families teach their kids about money.

  21. AmyAnne April 26, 2009 at 12:40 am #

    We won’t need to smother or buy into the smothering role when we, as parents, learn to trust the community around us.

    Trust that the driver in that car will see your kid, or the adult standing next to him will put their arm out to stop him. Trust that the traffic passing the bus stop will include strangers who take a quick inventory to note that everything looks alright. Trust that my child can ride her bike around the neighborhood and if she falls a neighbor will help her up, brush her off and send her on her way.

    Smothering is a direct result of not trusting the community around you. Not trusting your neighbors, other parents and not trusting that you have equipped your child to function autonomously in this world.

  22. A Sarah April 26, 2009 at 8:40 am #

    I think the problem is not so much with “smothering” parents (by which we almost always seem to mean ‘mothers’) but with the fact that our popular culture has declared open season on mothers, such that any passer-by is allowed to comment on any mother’s perceived flaws, at any time, based on almost no information.

    Which, yes, makes mothers feel hyper-vigilant, because they perceive (often correctly) that they’re being harshly judged any time they’re out in public. Will this free-range kids thing do anything to challenge this tendency? Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure. I think it could go either way — it could end up saying, “Hey, it’s okay to relax; stuff happens, you’re not 100 percent responsible for keeping your kids from harm, and kids are resilient.” Or it could be yet another variation on the, “OH LOOK AT THOSE INADEQUATE MOTHERS OVER THERE! Tee hee hee hee, how can they even LIVE with themselves for not doing things the way I personally prefer to do things in my family?!!!”

    Put differently, are you going to be about letting mothers off the hook a bit and toning down the rhetoric, or are you going to be about gleefully criticizing those who seem like smotherers? Sometimes it seems like the former, which is great. Sometimes, though, I catch a whiff of the latter.

    Look, my parents didn’t do the free-range thing so much. I mostly do (though not about everything; I’m fanatical about severe weather safety, for example). My way works for me, and yes, it accounts for my flaws and idiosyncrasies, because I am also a member of the family who is allowed to make mistakes and have things that I’m weird about. As are the other loving parents I know — including my own.

    And to all the folks with their cries of “I roamed in the woods and I turned out fine!” and “I walked to school alone and lived to tell the tale!” — well, great! You know, I was to some degree helicopter parented and I turned out fine too. I got my “I did it myself moments” — maybe not in the ways that would elicit everyone’s approval here, but I got them. And one of the most important things that “I did myself!” was to realize that I was never owed perfect parents. Just loving ones. Human beings who are allowed – as I am allowed now, as a parent – to screw up and annoy members of their families and Not Do It According To This Expert Book I Bought. Parents aren’t obligated, in every single interaction with children, to remember to act according to the precise dictates of the philosophy of the day.

    But if they feel like they ARE required to be perfect every last second? And if that makes some parents a little crazy and hypervigilant? Gosh, maybe it’s because they SOMEHOW perceive that there are strangers in rival parenting camps who might be watching them at any moment, looking for any tiny perceived mistake so as to scold them publicly on the internet.

  23. A Sarah April 26, 2009 at 8:54 am #

    I just want to say, too, that I actually really have gotten a lot out of perusing this blog. I’m cranky because I have a cold today, and because my kids have gotten on my nerves. But seriously, when someone sent me this link, I was all, “WOW THAT BLOG IS AWESOME THANKS!”

    I get my back up about any hint of the “Those ridiculous silly inadequate moms over there!” snark… because it is just SO pervasive, and it has turned so many great parenting tools into militant purist philosophies.

    And maybe I’m especially persnickety about that possibility here, because it seems like this philosophy COULD have such potential for toning down the rhetoric and calling out the mothers-have-to-be-perfect-or-we’ll-all-point-at-them-and-say-mean-things trope. But PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE say you’ll call out and deconstruct the cultural phenomenon of mother-blame. Ask, “Who puts these expectations on mothers? Why? What’s its history? Whose interests are served?” etc.

    Otherwise Free-Range Kids really, I think, risks devolving into a new version of the same old s#!t… yet more mother-blame, just a slightly different set of “defective” mothers who are named the culprit. Yet another way of creating more internecine warfare between rival parenting camps with their catchy names and team jerseys and gurus and orthodoxies.

  24. Lola April 27, 2009 at 3:45 am #

    Well, as much as I would like to really free-range, the truth is that my children are still too young (5, 4, almost 3 and just-made 1). Still, now is the time to prepare them for real life, so it´s equally challenging.
    For instance, usually it is the eldest who buys the loaf of bread (no Wonder bread here in Spain, we are all for the typical baguette). I just wait outside the bakers with the little ones. Today I was especially proud of her when she scolded an adult for “not waiting for his turn”. Ha! Now imagine someone trying to snatch my kid. No chance.

  25. BMS April 27, 2009 at 6:42 am #

    I agree that free ranging shouldn’t turn into another front in the Mommy Wars.

    The problem is that by a lot of current definitions, hyper vigilant parenting has become the ‘norm’ – any thing less rates a call to CPS. The question becomes one of how do we educate people to the point where they can distinguish free range parenting from child neglect? How can parents raise their children as they see fit without being hauled into court ?

  26. K Rispin April 27, 2009 at 6:49 am #

    Is it a bad thing that my 6 year old went tearing out of the house without so much as a goodbye and 10 minutes later and counting, I have yet to get up and see where she went?

    hmmmm I think I see a Madlyn Primoff story coming down the pike. I can see the headline now:

    “Bad Father doesn’t immediately get up and shadow child as she runs outside to play”

    Oh Whew! She just ran inside to pee, guess I am in the clear.

  27. SheWhoPicksUpToys April 28, 2009 at 2:16 am #

    I somewhat disagree. I don’t think every over-protected kid is going to grow up socially incompetent, living in the basement, with no prospects for a functional and successful adulthood. But, I DO think that over-protection really does stunt children from their potential. Every case, maybe even most cases, won’t be a disaster, but nearly all of them will probably result in the child being less confident than he might have been, and therefore possibly result in lasting negative effects.

  28. SheWhoPicksUpToys April 28, 2009 at 3:58 am #

    I agree with BMS. Also, I understand A Sarah’s concern about making this yet another way to blame one another (or ourselves) for our kids’ imperfections, but at some point, you have to set aside the fear of that happening lest it completely eliminate the ability to have a friendly discussion about what are better, and worse, ways to do this thing called parenting. If we refuse to talk about anything being better than anything else out of fear of it turning into a stick to beat one another with, we lose any benefit we could have from one another’s wisdom, experience, or even good humor. Somewhere you have to split the difference so that fear of imposing guilt on one another doesn’t prevent us from talking about stuff entirely.

  29. Roloc May 8, 2009 at 10:59 am #

    Each year in boulder a bunch of college kids strip naked put pumpkins on their head and run through the streets late at night.

    They arrested a bunch of them and tried to slap on the sex offender title. So yeah… not all are that bad.

  30. bombatu June 9, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    I love your point of view. I am a firm believer in keeping my child safe, but giving her the latitude to explore her own environment. I would never want to mollycoddle her. I hope by free-range parenting, I will raise an inquisitive, personable, compassionate child.

  31. missy April 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    i understand the point of view but really? i smother the crap out of my kids because im scared for them,its not control or abuse its protection. i remember being able to do whatever i wanted at age 5, i walked anywhere i wanted by myself,late at night, got lost, was scared alot- it made me grow up too fast. way tooo fast.

  32. Emily July 18, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    None of us would let our kids do whatever they want. My 6 year old can’t cross our (busy) street or walk to Subway by himself. It’s about setting up healthy boundaries and not limiting our children because of OUR fears.
    There’s plenty of room between what you experienced and smothering.