Cut the strings
The rise of pushy helicopter parents is holding children back, says Carl Honoré
Recently, at a top British university, a student went to see his tutor about switching courses. When the pair reached a stalemate, the 19-year-old whipped out his phone, hit Speed Dial and handed it over with the words: "Why don't you sort this out with my mum?"
This is not a freak incident. In 2008, for the first time, students were allowed to appoint a parent to negotiate their admission into British universities. It's just the latest example of how we are over-managing our children.
These days, the umbilical cord remains intact even after university. To recruit graduates, international companies such as Merrill Lynch now send out "parent packs" or hold open-house days when Mum and Dad can vet their offices. Parents are even turning up at job interviews to help negotiate salary and vacation packages.
Of course, parents have always sought to manage their children. And some, like Leopold Mozart, have done so obsessively. But what has changed over the last generation is that more parents than ever before now have the wherewithal - and the yen - to try to turn their bundle of joy into a wunderkind.
Parenting has come to resemble a cross between a competitive sport and product development, with TV shows such as Make Your Child Brilliant reinforcing the message that raising an Alpha child is not only a birthright but a duty. So we push, polish and protect our children with superhuman zeal. Think Baby Einstein DVDs and Mandarin-speaking nannies; GPS tracking devices in the school satchel; schedules jammed with ballet, football, pottery, yoga, tennis, rugby, piano, judo. Some call this hyper-parenting. Others joke about "helicopter parents" who always hover overhead. Scandinavians talk of "curling parenting", because Mum and Dad frantically sweep the ice in front of their child.
Of course, not all childhoods are created equal. You don't find much hyper-parenting in the housing estates of Peckham or Dewsbury Moor. Like Shannon Matthews, many children, especially in poorer families, suffer from parental neglect. Yet everyone is affected by the rise of the helicopter-parent because the more obsessed the middle classes become with their own children, the less time they have to worry about the welfare of those further down the social scale
Nor is the micromanaging confined to affluent parents. Collectively we have become obsessed with organising, supervising and measuring everything children do, with eliminating risk, pain and failure from their lives. Officials have banned tag, conkers and snowball fights for being too dangerous; test scores are inflated to make everyone feel better about themselves; playing freely outside has been replaced by indoor Play Centres watched over by trained staff and closed-circuit cameras. We are even prepared to fiddle with children's brain chemistry to make them sit still and concentrate: the number of Ritalin prescriptions filled for kids in England has risen from 3,500 in 1993 to around half a million today.
The tragedy is that all this adult intervention, however well-intentioned, is backfiring. Every generation laments the sorry state of its youth, but today there is real cause for concern. Child obesity is rocketing in every social class, as are sports injuries among the young. Child depression and anxiety - and the substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide that go with it - are now most common in middle-class homes where parents are treating their children like projects.
And do micromanaged children ever really grow up? When your whole childhood is scheduled, structured and monitored by adults, when you are placed on a pedestal and told constantly how "special" you are, when entertainment is supplied on tap, you never learn to stand on your own two feet. No wonder employers complain that new recruits bore easily; cannot handle setbacks and criticism; and expect the world on a plate.
How do we get out of this mess? The first step is to back off and give children the time, space and freedom to explore the world on their own terms, to take risks, to feel bad and get bored sometimes, to make mistakes - to work out who they are rather than what we want them to be.
You only have one life to live - and who wants to spend it speed-dialling Mum every time the going gets tough?