Intensive parenting—the dominant model of modern American child rearing—is a bit like smoking: The evidence shows it’s unhealthy, but the addiction can be hard to kick. I would like to suggest strategies that can help society stop overparenting, and this requires the intervention of parents, policy makers and even the childless. But first we need to understand why intensive parenting—in which mothers and fathers overstretch their time and money to put their child’s life together in the hopes of maximizing the child’s future success—prevails.
Often used interchangeably with more derisive terms such as helicopter parenting, bulldozer parentingand snow plow parenting, intensive parenting has its appeals. Scholars suggest that it first arose among middle-class families in the mid to late 20th century, amid shrinking manufacturing jobs, globalization, growing wealth inequality, a sense that children were both “vulnerable and malleable,” and a general feeling that American triumphalism was perhaps not a guarantee. In response to this anxiety, parents began to push harder to ensure their children’s future stability. Throughout the 2010s, as uncertainty continued to mount, intensive parenting ideology stretched its tendrils across class lines.
Fluent research proves that intensive parenting mainly serves to burn out parents while harming children’s competence and mental health. But the facts are lost. In a 2018 survey, 75 percent of respondents rated various intensive parenting scenarios as “very good” or “excellent” and less than 40 percent said the same about scenarios showing a non-intensive approach. (An example respondents struggled with: When a child says they are bored, should a parent find an activity to sign them up for or suggest they go outside to play?)
So what parents need is not another bromide against micromanaging their children, but pragmatic steps to change course and still feel good about it. This is where the idea of ”good enough” parenting comes in. The phrase was coined in 1953 by the British pediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicott, and we can now update his work. Winnicott strongly pushed back against the idea that children demand perfection from their parents, or that children should be perfectable. “There is room for all kinds [parents] in the world,” wrote Winnicott. “And some will be good at one thing, and some good at another. Or shall I say, some will be bad at one thing and some bad at another.” He also added another idea: that there is no one-size-fits-all parenting model. “You are specialists in this particular matter of caring for your own children. I want to encourage you to retain and defend this specialist knowledge. It cannot be taught.”
“Good enough” does not mean mediocre or apathetic (the not-good-enough parent is real), but requires recognition of the point beyond which attempts at further optimization cause more harm than good. Given reasonable circumstances and lots of love, there are many ways children can have happy childhoods and emerge as healthy, conscientious, successful adults. Developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik likens this approach to gardening. Where intensive parents are carpenters, hammering children into a particular shape one at a time, gardening parents pour their labor into creating conditions of “love, safety, and stability” for their children to grow in potentially unpredictable ways.
So how do we move away from the cult of intensive parenting? Very careful and deliberate. We need to start thinking about parenting, not as a set of instructions, but as several dials. Research suggests that certain switches, such as “show affection,” “confirm feelings,” and “set aside regular quality time,” should absolutely be turned up to 10. Others, like “solve your child’s (non-serious) problem for them”. ,” should be quite low. And many, like “provide educational support” and “offer enrichment activities,” should be somewhere in the middle. Your exact link settings will of course depend on your values and your family situation. All 10s and all are almost always a bad idea.
However, we cannot correctly calibrate those pointers without debunking some societal myths that perpetuate intensive parenting. For example, many parents overestimate the extent to which their day-to-day parenting choices affect child development, fueling unnecessary pressure. Similarly, the perception that children face enormous physical dangers outside the home, which often do not reflect reality, affects many children’s autonomy. And perhaps no myth has done more damage than the idea that one must attend an elite college to ensure financial stability. Matt Feeney, the author of the book Small Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Agecalled the college admissions process “truly one of the most influential forces for governing human behavior and shaping human attitudes in the United States.”
The “wage premium” for those who graduate college versus those who do not is still very real (although it has diminished in recent years and access to elite colleges remains highly inequitable). But the differences under college finishers are much more modest, especially if the goal is middle-class security as opposed to extreme wealth. Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that people of any income group who attended Ivy League and other top schools earned, on average, more by age 33 than nearly 80 percent of their birth-year peers. Yet those who attended non-elite four-year colleges still earned more than nearly 70 percent of their similarly aged peers. In other words, parents need to be reassured—and reassure each other—that their child attending a mid-tier university instead of an Ivy, or even taking a path to a high-paying trade, is equal cause for celebration .
Moving away from intensive parenting will also require a culture in which parents’ needs outweigh child optimizations. We must normalize to no longer add extracurriculars (and all the associated time and money) to our schedule; not spending hours completing our children’s homework with (or for) them. To be sure, parental intervention is sometimes necessary—securing a tutor for a struggling reader, ensuring that college financial aid applications are completed—but those times are limited in scope and simply require attentive, rather than intensive, efforts. .
At the same time, we need to normalize saying yes to prioritizing mature friendships and an adequate amount of sleep. We must assure each other—explicitly, publicly—that we are a whole person is to be a good parent. In general, content parents are less likely to conflict and more likely to listen, and the opposite is true as well. Small, everyday parenting decisions may not have a massive impact on children, but the causal link between parental well-being and child well-being is quite strong. Anxiety-driven intensive parenting has even been implicated as one factor in the growing youth mental health crisis. Freedom from intensive methods offers both parents and their children the ability to create a healthier life.
This is neither a purely individual problem nor an endeavor for parents alone: American public policy encourages intensive parenting. The United States lacks affordable child care and paid family leave, tolerates massive income inequality, and enshrines few employee protections, such as fair work week laws. This setup generates tremendous stress and uncertainty, and many parents respond by tightening their grip on their children’s lives. The “free market family” system, as author Maxine Eichner designs it—in which families are largely on their own to meet child-rearing needs with limited public options—leaves parents competing against each other for resources that are kept artificially scarce. Those same competitive forces that isolate and exhaust parents are a barrier to them coming together and demanding that lawmakers adopt pro-family policies. A conscious effort will be required to see it, as Dana Suskind and Lydia Denworth have put it Parent Nation“the fate of each child, no matter how well nurtured, is ultimately intimately intertwined with the fate of all children.”
Changing the country’s dominant parenting model can feel daunting. But in the search for a substitute for intensive parenting, we must not look back to a mythical past: Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, writes that “there has never been a time when the overwhelming majority of American children were well cared for and their experiences idyllic.” Instead, we need a model that fits the current context while rejecting false premises. Intensive parenting has the momentum of a flowing river for now. By replacing mindsets and policies of scarcity with mindsets and policies of abundance, carpentry with gardening, competition with solidarity, we can build a dam. And a new, healthier way forward can emerge: no more, not perfect, but good enough.