Give a boy a watch and send him out the door: After her 10-year-old leaves the house, Katherine Ozment may not see her son again until he reads his wrist and knows it’s dinnertime. Today, she’s fine with that.
But one year ago, Ms. Ozment was just coming to terms with her parental hovering habits. Going out to play meant dressing everyone for the weather, packing snacks and water, mom loading the baby into the stroller – a real group activity. Her intense monitoring of her three kids’ every mood and management of their days was, as she wrote, “changing the very nature of their childhood.” So she decided to become a different kind of parent.
Last December, Ozment wrote a story for Boston Magazine about how we overprotect our children, naming herself a top offender. “Welcome to the Age of Overparenting” was “one of our most well-read online last year,” says the magazine’s digital editor, Kaitlin Johnson, garnering “attention on social networks and parenting blogs all around the country and the world.” For the article, Ozment interviewed social scientists, cited books and studies on child development, and examined friends’ practices as well as her own. Coupling research with her true-life examples and an admission of guilt – if being loving and attentive are crimes – the article takes a personal and comprehensive approach, and makes a convincing argument for why some of us should still loosen the reins.
Helicoptering, hovering, overparenting – these are not new concepts. Ozment herself had thought the story was late in coming. But it also may be the most widely read piece she has ever written. From the 24-hour news media cycle that captures every Amber alert, to cell phones that enable the tethering of parent-to-child, we live in times when the impulse to protect is ever-present. Self-awareness of our parenting imperfections may be propelling some of us away from micromanagement of our kids’ lives. But clearly we’re still seeking the ideal balance, judging from the way we consume books and magazine articles about what we haven’t quite got right yet.
So, for someone who spent most of a decade resolving to improve upon her own boomer-parents’ hands-off model – how has Ozment the Parent spent the past year?
“I don’t live that life anymore,” Ozment says, referring to the not-so-distant time when she couldn’t make it through the day without intoning “good job” to someone in her household. Her family is happier, and she has more energy to enjoy watching her children grow up. But denying your own principles on how best to do this most common of difficult jobs – it’s a transformation that I wanted her to explain.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” says Ozment. “A year ago, I was scared to let my kids outside. I took a close look at my own behavior. That, combined with my son finding a group of friends in the neighborhood – has changed everything.”
Ozment’s family lives in Cambridge, and, as in Boston, kids living near each other don’t necessarily attend the same school, which so often serves as a socializing nexus. But for Ozment’s son, one of his friends had an older brother they could hang out with – a connection that jumpstarted his independence.
Then, Ozment and her husband also consciously sought out neighborhood-based activities for the children’s organized time, instead of far-flung classes. “Find out where the community meeting place is,” Ozment offers. A recent encounter with a Roslindale mother taught her that even a farmer’s market can serve that function.
Still, her eldest is a boy. I wondered if she thinks her six-year-old daughter will follow her brother’s lead in a few years.
“I’ll say this about girls … it is harder to find parents who’ll let their girls be free,” says Ozment. She sees a little-girl princess culture and seeks a little more tomboy atmosphere. And she’s not sure her daughter will be able to find that circle of neighborhood buddies which has enabled Ozment’s son.
“I think we all fear that girls are more vulnerable,” says Ozment. But she points out that having trust in her children allows them to have more confidence in themselves, as they learn to negotiate the world on their own. “I feel that kids have a guide everywhere they go – there’s always some grownup butting into their business. How frustrating is that?” When she sends her daughter to the neighbors’ trampoline to jump, even as it grows dark outside, what some might think neglectful serves a purpose. “In 25 years, that trampoline is going to be the workplace,” noting that these steps toward a sense of responsibility will serve a child later in life
While this middle-child daughter has pushed back a little against the changes – telling Ozment she’s different from the other moms, and not meaning it in a good way – the result is, after all, what Ozment has been striving for. “If I do that with you, you won’t do it yourself,” becomes the explanation. Ozment’s son, however, still catches Mom in her less-relaxed moments, and reminds her: “you’re doing too much for me.”
Even for her toddler, Ozment is trying to practice a more laid-back approach. Baby sister is experiencing her mother’s takeaway from last winter’s bestseller about French parenting, in which author Pamela Druckerman explains “the pause” – waiting for a baby to self-soothe before the parent intervenes. Instead of the pause, “it used to be the sprint,” Ozment says. “I still have to fight the urge.” Yet the joy of discovery, without mom or dad in the background, is “some of what I loved about growing up. If they need more of me, they of course get it.”
To me, the biggest challenge Ozment’s family has met is that they are making this new dynamic work in the middle of the city. I thought she was being a little tough on herself, when she worried about worrying, when they live on a major thoroughfare and don’t own a large space for the kids to play in. The calculations are familiar for any urban parent feeling the pull of suburban ease: Give up the easy commute and walk-to-it conveniences, gain the quieter street and grassy yard.
“Geography is destiny,” Ozment says, when thinking about her son and how lucky they are that he’s found his friends. “He’s now having the childhood I wanted for him…. Also, I think we’re just city people when it comes right down to it. You make the best of wherever you are.”