Why Intensive Parenting Is So Problematic

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 

Just for the hell of it, I went to Amazon and searched for “parenting books.” I was given over 50,000 results. I wasn’t looking for advice, just confirmation that there are literally thousands of ways to raise our kids. Expert advice, our own experiences, and parents who have been through this before us influence the expectations we place on ourselves, our kids, the interactions we have with them, and the opportunities we want to give them. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we should do, that we don’t see the impact of what we are actually doing.

And it seems that what a growing number of parents, mothers specifically, are doing is exhausting themselves and their budgets with what is called “intensive parenting.”

Intensive parenting is really just a shinier version of helicopter parenting; it is the constant push to be involved in our kids’ activities and enroll them into all the sports, all the lessons, and all the opportunities money can buy at the earliest age possible. The idea is that with early advantages our children will achieve success later in life, but success is being defined by economic status. As parents, we want our kids to have the same or better lifestyles than the one we are providing, but studies have shown that only about half our kids today will earn more than their parents.

Okay. Then why are we trying so hard?

In her book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, author Sharon Hays described intensive parenting this way: “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive.”

Parents across different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds are feeling the pressure to achieve this parenting status.

The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting, an article in The New York Times describes the pressure this way: “It starts in utero, when mothers are told to avoid cold cuts and coffee, lest they harm the baby. Then: video baby monitors. Homemade baby food. Sugar-free birthday cake. Toddler music classes. Breast-feeding exclusively. Spraying children’s hands with sanitizer and covering them in ‘natural’ sunscreen. Throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Eating lunch in their children’s school cafeterias. Calling employers after their adult children interview for jobs.”

Many white, upper-middle class families are taking the bait when it comes to intensive parenting, though. The middle-class parents can barely keep up and poor parents definitely can’t. The NYT article told the story of Stacey Jones, a middle-class black mother who chose a black neighborhood to raise her sons to avert racism at an early age. This meant being far from extracurricular events and the ability to gather information from other parents at these opportunities.

I will admit that I get caught up in wanting to give my kids as many experiences as possible. They come home with pamphlets every few months with details on the afternoon enrichment programs offered through our parks and recreation department. I love that these programs exist. But I hate the pull to feel like I have to sign my kids up for them. I recognize I put the guilt and pressure on myself when it comes to parenting. Instead of letting my kids (a 7-year-old and 5-year-old twins) figure shit out on their own or say no, I usually grumble my way through a project they want me to do with them instead of completing a task I was in the middle of doing. And I find myself flipping through the extracurricular activities, wondering if I can find it in the budget to sign all three of my kids up for art classes.

I want to raise free(ish)-range kids with grit and emotional intelligence. I want them to gain independence and self-driven creativity. I want them to experience disappointment and learn lessons from failing. But I also know I get in the way of this at times with my desire to see them happy. I know I sometimes try to prevent their physical and emotional pain. And I am often tempted to spend $250 dollars for 3 kids to take Zumba classes for six weeks because fun, health, and what if one of them has a talent for dance or aerobic instruction and none of us will ever know this without an enrichment program?

But our budget doesn’t allow for these kinds of extras for my kids. They participate in rec sports and community swim lessons, so they have their share of opportunities, but my partner and I do not over-extend ourselves in the name of future success for our children. We can’t. We don’t even have college saving accounts set up for them.

Intensive parenting seems to be privilege at its finest, while putting pressure on all of us to try to keep up.

Through 50,000 parenting books, podcasts, and social media channels, we are getting daily external messages and pressure to give our kids the very best. Over time, it starts to feel like I am just trying to keep up with what everyone else seems to be doing, and not doing what’s best for my kids. I ignore my internal voice that tells me to let them be bored, frustrated, and covered in bruises—three of the places from where my best and most creative memories have emerged.

I also have a different outlook on things based on my own childhood experiences. I grew up in poverty and abuse. Not that I want my children to experience either, but I often see how good they have it. To me, they are already entitled. They don’t want for anything and have more than they need. I will not overextend my time or financial resources to help them become more entitled. They need to earn (some of) their advantages, not have everything handed to them.

My children may make more money than I do someday, but it won’t be because I was an ‘intense parent’ who invested our entire savings into their activities. To me, their success will not be measured in dollars. It will be in happiness and the ability to solve problems and make healthy and lasting relationships.

I don’t want my kids to be good at the extracurricular activities in life; I want them to be good at life.

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