A mother steps back from the pull of over-parenting

After two years of 'mommy and me' classes with a reluctant toddler, a mother abandons the over-scheduled approach.

Playground in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Like many Gen-Xers, I remember childhood as an uncomplicated time when the only thing you had to worry about was being home by dark. Somehow, that all changed when we took the reins of parenthood. Today we read about "overparenting" and wonder are we simply hands-on parents, or helicopters?

It's easy to get sucked into the obsessive-parent vortex, but in at least one area of my parenting life, I've loosened up by following my son's lead.

Three years old and often described as a "bundle of energy," Kian's never been one to be hemmed in. He's the kid you'll find skipping the snack break at a play date for a chance to tinker with the LEGOS, or the one who must be physically extricated from the parking lot, where he's been fixated on a squashed leaf resembling a rocket ship.

Like our Colonial forebears, my son lives the mantra "Don't tread on me," and that's what's convinced me to stop hovering and loosen the reins. How? By giving up Mommy and Me classes.

It's hardly as trivial as it may sound.

I couldn't wait to sign up for our first class, Baby Yoga, when Kian was 5 months old. But then we joined a tumbling class that was rather chaotic. It was followed by a music class that made him cry. Next, we tried a Spanish class, but keeping Kian tethered to my lap was torture. Then came an art class in which I chased my son around like a human zamboni under the instructor's glare. Finally, we tried Toddler Gymnastics. The coach expressed a zero tolerance policy for kids straying from the group, and I spent every class dragging Kian back to the circle. I was exhausted. We quit after Week 4, putting an end to two years of early childhood "enrichment" activities.

Cutting back was hard for me. I've always been a joiner. As a child, I participated in a large number of extracurricular activities, which resulted in my burning out from most of them. My mother had stressed that quitting was never an option, so I had trudged off to my Brownie meetings and dance lessons, telling myself I was a better person for it.

Looking back on the classes my son and I had shirked over the span of two years, my Type A personality trembled with despair over my failure to live up to my mother's standards, both in my lack of follow-through and in the money wasted in missed classes.

In the end, my husband was my validator. Feeling guilty, I told him how skipping out on so many activities intended for our son's benefit had gotten me thinking about other ways I'd screwed up. It was clear that going AWOL on the classes was the cherry on my sundae of parenting failures.

Joe gave me the swift kick in the pants I needed. "You're kidding, right?"

In the end, I decided it's OK to quit if you're doing it for the right reasons. For me, the reason was simple: Life is short, and childhood even shorter. Structure will elbow its way into my child's life soon enough. And, knowing his personality, I imagine he'll fight it every step of the way. Why introduce it any earlier than necessary?

Swearing off Mommy and Me classes has challenged me to become a more creative parent. Now the burden is on me to provide ample opportunities for Kian to venture and fail, learn and grow. As it turns out, it's not that difficult, and it's been much more fun. We'll practice math by counting the cars rushing past our house. We'll learn about movement by mimicking airplanes taking off in a grassy field. We'll make our own artistic masterpieces by scooping rainwater out of a gutter and splattering it, Jackson Pollock-style, across the sidewalk.

I'm convinced Kian gets more out of this one-on-one time than he would from any class. One evening, after a particularly beautiful afternoon we'd spent kicking around together at the local playground, he was quiet as he played in the bath. I asked him if anything was wrong. He said no, then measuredly declared, "Mommy, I like to think about going to the park today."

The biggest lesson I've learned through it all has been to let go of my own hang-ups, which is where helicopter parents often fall short. After agonizing over why my son wasn't behaving exactly like the other kids in these classes, it finally dawned on me: It just doesn't matter. Kian is who he is: rambunctious, inventive, brooding, and tender. I love it that he is all of these things, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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