Parenting Tips: Do We Overprotect Our Kids?

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a daycare question about my 7-year-old twins; they go there on school breaks. My question is whether we are overprotecting them. How do you balance between teaching kids to stand up for themselves -- and protecting them?

Their provider's eight-year-old son is very big and plays rough. Without tormenting or actually bullying them, he sometimes holds them longer than they would like, or accidentally hits them. They say it's not on purpose, and trust me, my son is a tattle-tale, so I'd know. They don't seem at all afraid of him, but they get angry (understandably). His mother's response is to spank the boy after the fact. I would rather have it prevented than punished. On the other hand, I want them to learn to say no if they don't want to play with him, or if he gets rough. We could take them out of this daycare, role- play standing up for themselves and talk with the provider, or leave things as they are if we are over reacting. Both my husband and I were teased and I was bullied as a child, so I can't tell if I'm over or under-reacting to this situation.

I also wonder about playing alone outside. They need to be able to play outside sometimes without close supervision at this age, I feel. Is this wrong, and I'm expecting too much for their maturity level? It seems like in the 70s I was riding my bike around the neighborhood and playing unsupervised at their age.

I would love your advice! Mary H, Grand Rapids MI

Hi Mary,

It's a very complex question you ask: How much do we push our children to stand up for themselves -- and when is the right moment to jump in and protect them?

And you're right -- it is a different time we're in now. Most of us (of a certain age...ahem) remember riding bikes until dark (without helmets, of course), exploring uncharted neighborhood territories with only our pals along with us, and riding without seat belts, in the front seat of the car (in my case, I remember riding in the front-seat FOOTWELL of our VW Bug!)

Our parents think we're nuts about all this safety stuff. We all somehow lived...isn't it good enough for OUR kids? And to a certain degree, they're right. Our society does place an inordinate amount of scrutiny on the moment-to-moment activities of our children. They're not able to run free and just PLAY, and have unstructured "down-time". Free play, just for the sake of PLAY, is really important to the development of children. We schedule them like mad, and then wonder why they have ever-increasing rates of emotional and academic problems. There's just too much pressure to perform, every minute of the day. So you're right to wonder about letting them tackle their own problems, and having some room to grow.

But it is a different time -- we're more sophisticated today about safety issues, and we also understand that bullying can be really damaging to kids. So there is more than a kernel of truth in the approach that says we'd better watch our kids carefully, and intervene when necessary.

So how do you strike that balance?

That depends on your unique kids. Each one will have different needs for supervision, at different ages. Some may need a lot of coaching for how to negotiate complex social situations, like the one you describe. Other kids will have more of a knack for handling themselves. Similarly, their need for constant supervision will vary from kid to kid.

So this means you need to KNOW YOUR KID. What are their strengths and weaknesses, in social situations? What is their judgment like? Are they likely to cave in to peer pressure, or can they hold their ground? Are they leaders, or followers? Impulsive, or analytic? Constantly evaluating your kids in this way will help you know what they CAN handle, and what they still need your help in tackling. And don't worry if they DO still need your oversight; social situations are one of the most complicated things our brains process, and they are mostly handled in the outer cortex of the brain; the last to develop in humans. In fact, it looks like these brain areas are still a work-in-progress until the early 20's. So don't hesitate to step in and help your kids think through these things.

The other issue for you, Mary, is that your kids are in a daycare. Your daycare provider is being paid to keep your kids safe -- and so she'd better be watching them closely. Just for the sake of liability, she must provide them with an inordinate amount of structured, safe care. So SHE may be overreacting to her son's acting out. But I certainly think it would be fine to approach her with your observations about your kids, and let her know that you're fine with letting the kids hammer it out themselves in most cases.

And your idea about role-playing with your kids is terrific. I think that's something every parent should do, starting at about the age of 4 or 5; play-act tricky social situations with your kids. Take examples from scenes you have witnessed with them. Wait until everyone is feeling good and you all have some time. Then talk to them about how they might handle a tricky situation. "Let's play pretend. I want us all to practice what happens when a friend wants to play tag, but you'd rather go on the swings. What can you say to them?" I find kids really get into it, and even start suggesting wrinkles in the scenario. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear them echo the lessons they've learned with you -- when they're out on the playground.

As for so many of the issues we struggle with here at BabyShrink, this is not a "One Size Fits All" solution. But by following your own knowledge about your own kids, you'll find that balance over time.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

PS If you're interested in learning more about the importance of PLAY in childhood development, read this great article in the New York Times.