The pitfalls of 'overparenting'

Some parents are almost too good. They take their children to music lessons, softball games, and summer camp. They meet their children's teachers, monitor their homework, suggest what courses to take at school. On weekends they take day trips to museums or parks and talk about almost anything.

They're best friends. But sometimes their best intentions get carried away.

What happens, says Dr. Susan Wheelan, is that some parents become "overinvolved." In their zeal to be good parrents, they monopolize their children's time. Instead of providing guidance, they try to mold their children to meet their own personal needs.

"After a while it becomes unclear who's the parent and who's the child," says Dr. Wheeland a Temple University professor and co-author of the book, "How to Discipline Your Children Without Feeling Guilty."

"The trouble is, overinvolved parents thinkm they're terrific parents," she says. "They think that's what they're supposed to do. But what results is tremendous pressure on the child, because he has to live up to his parent's hopes and his own."

Overinvolved parents are very often in middle-class families, but they can be rich or poor, says Dr. Wheelan. Often they're single parents who overcompensate for the lack of a second parent or look to their children for companionship. They may be working parents who feel they don't get enough time with their children. More rarely, they are status-conscious adults who don't want their children to "embarrass" them.

"Being a parent is a balancing act," Dr. Wheelan admits. It means spending time with your children, but not too much time. It means guiding them, not leaning on them. It's being interested in what they're doing without being "obtrusive."

"Children surely benefit from the push adults provide to work hard and develop new skills, but the push of an overinvolved adult is often too forceful, " she says. As a result, some children feel they constantly have to please people and find it hard to make their own decisions.

While some parents are too pushy, Dr. Wheelan says others are overinvolved in a different way -- they're too chummy with their children. "It's hard to discipline someone you see as a peer," she explains.

Like a bad habit, overinvolvement can grow in subtle ways. So Dr. Wheelan has developed a list of questions parents can ask themselves.

* Do you talk about your child a lot? Do you find yourself saying, "My son is first violinist," or "I want her to be a . . ."?

* Are you embarrassed by your children? Are you concerned about what people will think of you as a parent?

* Do you say things such as, "He can't do it," "She's so senstive," or "He'll get hurt?"

* How do you react to your child's report card? Are you ecstatic with an A and enraged by an F?

* When someone asks your child a question -- such as "Do you plan to go to college?" -- do you answer for him?

* Do you, as a parent, have interests and friends your own age? Is there a youm anymore?

Dr. Wheelan says it's never too late to untangle an overinvolved relationship. To do it, adults should "move away from their children's world" and find fulfillment in their own activities.

Meanwhile, parents should consider their children's activitiy load. Some young people thrive on a lot of activities, while others feel burdened by the pressure to perform.

When disciplining children, Dr. Wheelan says, avoid coaxing and sermonizing. "Make a list of rules and standard punishments. Then stick to the rules -- like a parent, not a peer," she suggests.

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