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On the link between Covid, overparenting, social pressure, and the baby bust
A mom of five offers this take - which particularly resonates with me.
One of the great social science paradoxes of the last decade is that young adults are objectively doing better than they ever have - but subjectively are less happy.
What I mean is this: Teenagers are less likely to get pregnant later than they were a generation ago. They drink less. They smoke less. Until about 2020, they were using far fewer drugs and committing less crime, and while drug use and crime has risen since then, it remains well below the previous peaks. The overdose crisis is awful, but it is driven mainly by fentanyl’s dangers, not a huge increase in opioid use overall.
Yet teenagers report being far more depressed than they previously were. And girls - who objectively are doing better than boys - report feeling even worse.
(No clever line, just me hoping you’ll subscribe. 20 cents a day.)
Researchers have offered lots of explanations for what’s happening - the rise of social media and online bullying, endless gloom about climate change, competitive pressure to get into a relative handful of top colleges.
But one theory gaining traction is that overparenting is a huge part of the problem. Many middle- and upper-class parents are no longer merely “helicopter” parents, hovering constantly. They’re “snowplow” parents, clearing obstacles before their kids even have to face them.
But kid who are never challenged become more unsure they can handle themselves, more fearful in the world - and more dependent on their parents. In turn, parenting becomes more anxiety-producing and less fun.
Yet moms and dads who dare to give their kids more freedom - particularly in public, and ironically and particularly in safe settings like parks in upper-middle-class suburbs - face social censure, if not worse.
Being a parent is difficult enough without other parents making it even harder.
And of course the early returns suggest that as overparented kids reach adulthood they have a terrible time thriving on their own - and having their own kids. If the pendulum toward overparenting (and under-adulting) doesn’t swing soon, the coming baby bust may be even worse than the current trends suggest.
Anyway, a mother of five got me thinking about these linked and depressing trends again this morning, with a great email - edited only for length (the writer asked for anonymity).
I hope you find it as interesting as I do:
I wanted to share another thought on why less people want to be parents these days, especially because it became evident to me during COVID that this is a thread that runs through a lot of aspects of society: the obsession with "safety" means that we're willing to inflict an unlimited amount of misery on everyone in order to "save just one life".
There are tons of articles on how parenting has changed because of our obsession with safety, but most of them focus on the impact to our children. However, it has an effect on parenthood too.
We've decided that it's unsafe for kids to play outside in the backyard unsupervised, let alone roam the neighborhood with friends or go to the playground down the street by themselves. The result is that parents feel almost obliged to have their kids in the house with them ALL DAY; a task which very few people genuinely enjoy. Having lived in California, I watched someone call the cops at a playground because he was concerned there wasn't an adult hovering directly over a couple kids (probably 7 and 5). The very confused Dad who was playing catch with his son in the field across from the playground wandered over to see why the Police had arrived.
Society basically requires that you be a helicopter parent, or face the looming threat of having the authorities called at any time. All kids will be less independent, and all parents will be chained down, to prevent the risk of one kidnapping or accidental death.
Look at any article where either something bad has happened to a child, or a child is allowed to do something difficult or challenging. The comments are always parent-shaming. As we saw during COVID, not many people are willing to do anything that might expose them to public shame.
And let's talk about car trips: everyone in the generation before us has fond memories of long road trips where they slept and played in the back of the vehicle. Taking young kids on a road trip these days is like pulling teeth, with everyone in a booster seat until the age of 7. Don't get me wrong; I understand the point of car seats and keep my kids in them. But man, safety-ism makes running errands MISERABLE.
I have five kids under the age of seven, and buckling everyone in and out of the car takes an extra ten minutes at each stop. If I have to hit four stores, that's an extra 40 minutes out of my day. And that's not even talking in winter, when you can't leave their big jackets on in the car seat, but you don't dare run them into the store without jackets on! But heaven forbid you leave the kids in the car, even on a perfect 70 degree day, even to run to a store where the car will be in view the whole time.
Plus, I saw a survey at one point where a large number of parents said they forgo a third child because they can't fit three carseats in the back of their current vehicle, and can't afford a new vehicle. At that point, shouldn't we accept slightly smaller car seats and a slightly elevated risk in a car accident (which may or may not ever happen) for the certainty of new life? But no, we'd rather reduce a tiny risk of one person dying than allow people to make common sense decisions that are best for their individual circumstances.
The safety-ism even starts as early as childbirth. You aren't allowed to eat in the hospital because, if you need a C-Section, you might aspirate the food. No one seems to have evaluated the trade-off in misery from being mal-nourished during labor, and how many extra emergency C-sections might happen because Mom is completely out of energy when it comes time to push. (Here it's worth point out that safety-ism is probably also tied up with the litigious nature of our society.)
I've been thinking about this even more recently as I managed to escape California and move to a rural location. My enjoyment of being a parent has increased a lot now that I can kick the kids out of the house to play in a large yard! It seriously makes me a better parent when I can get things done without interruption for short periods of time, because then I can truly focus on my kids when it's time to do so (we homeschool). I spend much less time feeling impatient and overwhelmed.
I could go on with this subject for several more paragraphs (let's talk food safety and raw milk...), but this has already been too long. Anyway, I hope you can see the parallel and why we need to get our culture more comfortable with accepting risk- or at least accepting that others are allowed to make their own risk decisions!