Overprotective Parents, Underdeveloped Children: Part 1

This series is going to touch on one area of parenting that is very prevalent in our culture but most parents don't understand the repercussions of it until it's too late. Overprotective parenting has run rampant in Christian circles during the past few decade and every time I bring up this topic, I get slews of emails from parents who don't quite understand the context but nonetheless disagree with me. A heightened level of parental involvement in the lives of kids obviously stems from love but recent studies are concluding that the long-term affects are not positive.


One thing I've learned in the past 10 years of writing and teaching parenting is that everyone has an opinion on parenting. I understand these parents truly believe they are doing what is best, but in the long run, research from Barna, Lifeway and the Fuller Youth Institute indicate they are hurting their children's walk with Christ and possibly even causing increases in behavioral issues such as anxiety, depression.  Most importantly, this style of parenting is not even Biblical but more of a reaction by the Christian community from our own insecurities and lack of trust and faith in God.

What does your life look like as a parent?  ("What life?" is a common response.) Are you worried?  Stressed? Empty? Do we post pictures on social media to portray our "happy life and home" but parenting feels more and more like a competition?  If you were to stop and examine your current situation, are you living the "good life"?

If you're currently spending a majority of your time monitoring kids' academic tasks and progress, scheduling and supervising all their activities, shuttling them everywhere, and working to obtain advantages for your children- keep reading.

If your kids' accomplishments have become the measure of your own success and worth; that Honor Student (and eventually) college bumper sticker on the rear of your car means as much about our own sense of accomplishment as your kids'- keep reading.

Overprotective Parents have many names: Helicopter Parents, Cocoon Parents, and Over Parenting - ladies please do not take this the wrong way or construe this as gender bias, but this type of parenting predominately comes from mothers who have overprotective maternal instincts or lack of leadership by a husband in the household.  I often also observe this from strong women who are educated, leaders and leave their careers to raise children but decide their new "career" is micromanaging the lives and details of their children.

So why talk about this on Legacy Dad?

We (men) should be the leaders in our family (This is Biblical) and if this type of parenting permeates our household, we need to recognize it and talk with our wives about other Biblical options.

Some characteristics of overprotective parenting include:

  • Picking the clothes, activities and in general, making decisions for children who are of an age to do this on their own.
  • Placing education, sports or anything else above developing faith and Godly character.
  • Only associating with Christian friends and children.
  • Retreating from or speaking badly of the "world" Christ has commanded us to engage through the Great Commission.
  • Solving children's problems for them or intervening on our children's behalf.
  • Constantly talking (arguing) with teachers, coaches and other youth leaders to try an obtain some sort of advantage for their child.
  • Lashing out at those who rightfully criticize or correct our children.
  • Focusing on rules or creating structured environments for compliance rather than teaching obedience or self discipline in any setting.
  • Ultimately, it's parents usurping children's natural consequences or life lessons from making mistakes

The above characteristics are only detrimental when taken to the extreme. Obviously some form of parental oversight is needed in all areas but many times overprotective parents go too far or utilize these characteristics for too long in a childs development cycle.  The graph below shows the ages and stages we need to start "loosening the reigns" in order to prepare our children for self-discipline and to teach them to engage the lost world rather than fearing or hiding from it.


With all the evil in our world, why would overprotecting our children be bad?  Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what is our goal as parents? When I often ask parents what their goal is, they tell me "To raise good kids"  However, I assert that our goal is not to raise good kids but to raise kids who grow up to be great adults.  The reports that 50-70% of Evangelical Youth are leaving the church after high school should send some red flags that our safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, parenting philosophies are currently not working.

Quite often, we are focusing on the wrong fundamental areas or using incorrect methodology in order to raise children who grow up to follow Christ and reach the lost.  What we should be asking ourselves about the above statistic is what are the other 30% are doing differently than you and I?

Julie Lythcott-Haims served as Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising for over a decade at Stanford University and is now doing research and writing on parenting, she writes "Parents protect, direct, and handle so much for children today that we prevent them from the very growth that is essential to their development into adult human beings." 

Overparenting has also given rise to increased social and behavioral issues in today's youth.  Record numbers of kids these days are having to take prescription medication to cope with anxiety/stress and many teenagers lack basic living and coping skills that should be common knowledge at their age.

Lythcott-Haims observed of incoming college Freshman that students who have had their parents overprotecting them were unable to advocate for themselves or cope with setbacks, are more prone to depression, anxiety and drug use (especially "study drugs" like adderall), lack simple life skills such as juggling academics and outside activities or managing money, and — more important — have a fear of failure that requires the dangerous strategy of always playing it safe.

Child Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Shaw (who passed away in 2009) has observed similar outcomes from overprotective parenting in his research and counseling.  Shaw observed that we have "created a nation of children who are depressed, alienated, often amoral, and all too often violent." Shaw witnessed first hand how our privileged, pampered children have high IQ's and academic scores but weak character, morals and resiliency.  Shaw believed there is a direct correlation in the rise in school shootings and how we are raising our children today.  He counseled many kids who had the appearance of worldly success and often fooled their parents into thinking they were great kids but internally, these kids were angry, resentful, depressed and lacked empathy for others.  They were raised by their parents to believe the world revolved around their needs and emotions and when they finally enter the world - they self destruct.

HelicoptermomAs Christian parents, this truly gets to the heart of the question:  Are we raising kids according to God’s standards or the Worlds?

This is the core teaching of our Parenting Conferences and often the most eye opening and difficult pill for most parents to swallow. God has called us to "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it."  This means focusing more on developing strong faith, strong morals, and character in our children and teachings them to be leaders and risk takers who are not afraid to live in the world and engage the lost.

By the time our children our teenagers, they should not only be able to survive in the fallen world but thrive in it and lead others to Christ by their example. 

Many popular parenting books and philosophies focus heavily on reforming behavior, controlling our children's environment, or even manipulating our children to comply or obey.  While this seems popular with many struggling parents, I want to raise children who make the right decision out of obedience and love for God, no matter what environment they find themselves in.  I don't want to raise children who are merely obedient to my rules and boundaries - but children who learn and grow to have a change of heart, a heart for Christ and who bear Fruit of the Spirit. This is mature, spiritual discipleship and we don't have to wait until our kids are going to college to instill it in them.

This process is a culmination of key steps and development that starts years earlier when they are toddlers (See The Legacy Dad Road Map) but it does not happen if we are sheltering our children from the world and not teaching them to be missionary and outward focused.  If God has told us to "Fear Not" over and over again in the Bible, why do we have so much fear as parents?  Why do we not trust God more?  Why do we not allow the Holy Spirit to work in our children's lives according to God's plan and timeline? Why do we rush our children's Salvation?

Maybe it's because of our own spiritual issues? Sanctification is the process of becoming more Christ-like, bearing Fruit of the Spirit and becoming a mature disciple of Christ. It begins at salvation and continues until the day we go home to be with our Lord.  As parents, the best example we can set for our children is to not to fall victim to our own fears or the the worlds definitions of success. As Christians, we should be the light in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches and our communities.  If we show our children that sin and struggle is real and the world is full of people who are hurting and need a savior, we are teaching our children to be more Christ like.  We are teaching our children that being a Christian is not just about Biblical head knowledge and going to church or youth group but about living lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (Galatians 5:22).  Being a Christian is not about building "safe-havens" to hide or separate ourselves from the world but developing strong faith to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, because I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19) and if God is for us, why should we worry who can be against us? (Romans 8).     

We need to raise our children the same way God raises us, with Truth and Grace.

My friend Peter explained it best in this analogy:

Here in Arizona, you will see that the environment in Arizona is extremely harsh.  120 degrees in summer, long days, not a lot of shade – it takes a lot for plants to survive.  Then in winter, when the temperature drops below freezing, the damage is instantaneous and severe.  And the soil is clay, rocky, and like a dry sponge so that when the monsoon rains come in July and August, the ground floods with rapid moving water.  If a young plant begins its life in a greenhouse, with the perfect climate, the perfect amount of water, the best soil, one may naturally think that plant has a head start on native born plants.  Yet move that plant into the real world’s environment, it will whither and die in the sun, the foliage will freeze and kill the plant in the winter, the monsoon will rip out the roots in the rain.

Interesting, though, when we plant a new plant in our yard, we will use a green sun clothe on the hottest days and throw a blanket on it on the coldest days.  The young plant grows strong roots that penetrate deep into the ground finding the scarce water supply.  As the foliage grows, it becomes accustom to the relentless sun.  The young plant, through a supervised encounter with the real environment will have no problems surviving when it reaches maturity.

Mammals have endoskeletons, shellfish have exoskeletons.  If I cracked a lobster’s shell, foreign bodies would invade the lobster’s internal organs and the lobster would die.  If I broke your arm, we would reset the bone (I say “we”, but if “I” broke it, you may not let “me” help you reset it), immobilize it for a few months, and you’d be good as new soon (I’ve also heard that the mended bone grows back stronger).  Building character over molding behavior – we can force our kids to comply while they live under our roof.  And we can keep everything that we deem evil from their lives by not allowing them to see TV, not allowing them to surf the net, not allowing them to see movies.  People say they are building character through good behavior and by not allowing their kids to watch Aladdin even though they will explain to their kids why the Disney movie is bad – by teaching their kids how to act because the action models the character they want their kids to own.  But these kids are going to leave the home and will absolutely have to deal with the very things their parents never allowed them to interact with in the early years – except this time their kids are not under the roof of a loving home, the consequences can be severe.

Many parenting experts offer you the advice akin to the council Job received.  Grace Based Parenting offers a comprehensive parenting philosophy: Create an atmosphere of grace, focus on meeting the three driving inner needs in your children, do not react to their behavior but instead build six character traits into their lives, and aim them at true greatness rather than the world’s shallow lure of success.  Is it that simply?  No.  It takes a lot to learn how to do that.

These concepts are supported through scripture.  The atmosphere of grace is not what your do, it's how you do what you do (that’s a mouthful and I may have missed a comma in there).  It’s not how God raised his kids, it’s how he treats his children (us).  If you were driving 60 in a 35, you may suddenly see a fast approaching police car treating you to a neat light show, so you pull over.  Instead of stopping behind you, the police officer decides to give your car a little bump, after which he come tearing out of the car and starts screaming at you, rips your drivers license from your hand, stomps back to his cruiser only to return (still screaming) with a ticket that he throws at you.

That’s not how God disciplines his children (and fortunately for the folks in Arizona, we have photo radar, so it’s unlikely that you will ever get pulled over for speeding, but if it did happen, the police don’t act like that either).  The three driving inner needs are exactly what the serpent distorted to deceive Eve and are what Satan used to tempt Jesus.  The six character traits will produce behavior, but will not guarantee it.  Our kids will make the mistakes, but please, let’s let them make them when the stakes aren’t as high (while they still live under our protection).  And true greatness answers the questions, what do you want for your kids?  Most people say, I want them to be successful, a good job, find a good looking mate, have a life of self-determination, and make a name for themselves (wealth, beauty, power, and fame).  True greatness is a different target – it points kids toward humility, generosity, gratefulness, and a servant spirit. 

See Overprotective Parents, Underdeveloped Children: Part 2

(What I've learned a few years after this post and while working with OP parents)