Handle with Care

From helicopter moms to snowplow dads, we are more involved in our kids’ lives than ever before. Are we better parents than our parents were? Or have we gone too far?

Photo by Michael Ventura

Are we more enlightened than our parents were? Most of us believe so on the matter of gender roles and the equitable division of parenting duties. Since 1965, fathers nationwide have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend with their children, from an average of 2.5 hours per week to 7.3 hours per week, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

“I have a closer relationship with my two boys than my dad had with all of us,” says Donaldson Run resident Jim Hock, 43, a partner in a D.C.-based communications firm, who grew up one of seven kids.

“We’ve learned a lot more over time about the importance of a father in raising a daughter,” adds Jeff Joseph, 50, an association executive who spent his youth in McLean and now lives in Arlington’s Williamsburg neighborhood with his family. “As the father of two girls, I love the sense of empowerment and opportunity they have in ways that weren’t immediately available to my sister, growing up.”

Dads aren’t the only ones who have stepped up their game. According to the Pew study, present-day moms are also devoting more time to their kids than their mothers did (13.5 hours per week compared to 10 hours per week a generation ago), even as they take on more and more work outside of the home.

Kids these days are also getting more of their parents’ attention because they have fewer siblings competing for it. The average American family is now the smallest in U.S. history (averaging 1.9 children per household in 2010, compared with 2.3 kids per household in 1960). With shrinking broods, parents have more time and energy to focus on each child and his or her individual needs.

“The way we parent now is more conducive to communication. Maybe we know our kids better,” says Falls Church resident Linda Valentino, 49, a self-employed architect and mother of two teen boys.

But having parents’ undivided attention isn’t always a good thing. For adults who become too wrapped up in their children’s lives, it’s all too easy to cross a line into meddling territory. And some kids feel they do.

“I’ve seen this a lot in the travel sports world,” says Megan*, a junior at Yorktown High School. “When the parents are the ones talking to the coach and [they] are trying to schmooze their way to get their child onto a better team, or into the starting lineup, or playing the position they want.”

Technology has only added fuel to that fire, now that parents can stay plugged in to their kids at all times, via phone, text and social media. In the academic environment, tools such as Edline and Naviance give parents 24/7 access to their child’s homework assignments, grades and attendance records.

“My parents take advantage of it fully and check it constantly,” says Michael*, a junior at H-B Woodlawn.

Kids who are struggling academically may benefit from this safety net, Michael concedes, but he says the new reality of parental surveillance is also slowly changing the culture of his school, which has long been known as a very student-run place. (Ranked No. 62 in a recent Washington Post list of America’s most challenging high schools, H-B Woodlawn has won acclaim for its model, which emphasizes self-directed learning, student responsibility and collective decision making.)

“It definitely breaks the trust barrier,” he says. “If your parents are tracking your every move, I guess they don’t trust you.”

A few parents have even taken their policing to extremes, he says, noting one friend’s mother who “went out and bought a Breathalyzer” to test her son for alcohol use, even though he had never given her cause for concern.

“He’s a very straight kid, and he doesn’t do anything like that,” says Michael.

Still, some parents believe a hard line is what’s lacking in many of today’s parent-child relationships. Lyon Village resident Betsy Brown, 48, says she sees too many mothers and fathers invading their kids’ lives by trying to be “their buddy, their pal, their best friend” when what their kids really need is better guidance.

“To me, you have to be able to make them not like you a lot at times in order to be a good parent,” says Brown, a stay-at-home mom of two teen girls (she’s also the community co-chairperson for Arlington’s READY Coalition, which educates the public about the dangers of underage drinking and substance abuse). “You have to be secure enough in your role to be hated and to have doors slammed on you.”

Categories: Parents & Kids