Letters from Maine

The risks of intensive parenting


“Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.” It is hard to argue with this opening sentence in Clair Cain Miller’s op-ed piece titled “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” published in the Dec. 25, 2018, electronic edition of the New York Times. But just in case you don’t agree with her premise, she lays out her case with evidence that parents in this country are investing more time, attention, and money into raising their children than was the norm several decades ago. She goes on to describe how this “intensive parenting” is taking its toll on parents on both sides of our nation’s widening economic divide. I’m sure you have seen it in your office in the tired faces and stooped shoulders of your patients’ parents. You may even be struggling yourself to find the time and energy to be the parent you believe your children need and deserve.

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While there is debate on whether “parent” is inherently a verb or a noun (“Parent is a Noun, Not a Verb,” Cliff Price, the Australian Family Association; “Parent is a Verb – and we All do it,” Zaeli Kane, mother.ly), it is clear that “parenting” used as a verb has become one of the hot topics in pediatrics over the last quarter century and with it an epidemic of parental anxiety. What are the driving forces behind this shift in attitude? How has a relatively relaxed nature-will-take-its-course philosophy become an anxiety-provoking, stress-inducing phenomenon that will inevitably result in a disturbed and disappointed adult without a parent’s relentless attention to creating a nurturing and optimally stimulating environment?

Of course, parents have always worried about the health of their children and hope that they will be successful, regardless of how one defines success. But this natural parental concern seems to have gotten out of hand.

Is it because North Americans are having fewer children? Is it because in smaller families children become adults with little or no practical experience with hands-on child rearing? Are parents reacting to the predictions that the next generation may not be able to earn enough to match their parents’ lifestyle?

How much blame should fall on those of us who market ourselves as child health experts? Have we failed to put the research supporting the importance of early life experiences in the proper perspective? Are our recommendations creating unrealistic goals for parents? The American Academy of Pediatrics advice on breastfeeding duration and room sharing come to mind immediately. How realistic is it for parents to coview the majority of television shows their children are watching?

On one hand, we are beginning to realize that free play is important, but for years pediatricians have been one of the loudest voices supporting playground and toy safety. These two initiatives can certainly coexist, but I fear that at times we have begun to sound a bit like that annoying parent who is constantly warning his or her child, “Don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself?”

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Have we become the worry merchants? As a marketing strategy it seems to be working well. If we generate enough advice that supports an intensive parenting style, we can fill our waiting rooms with families struggling to meet the expectations we have been promoting.

A child can thrive without intensive parenting as long as he feels loved and he has been provided an environment with sensible limits to keep him safe. It is our job to help parents create that child-friendly discipline structure and then encourage them to step back.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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