When a beautiful child is brought into the world, helpless and searching his mother’s eyes for comfort and guidance, the bonding process begins.
An incredible desire to protect this new infant is natural. However, as Baby begins to grow, parents often begin to obsess about the sometimes cruel and unfair world we live in.
They want to shield their child not only from getting physically hurt, but from disappointment, other parents, failure at school, problems with peers and a litany of other potential problems and conflicts. The overprotective parent “coddles” the child, believing that completely shielding the child from problems and disappointments is a necessary part of parenting. Subsequently, the coddled child will learn to depend on others to rescue him from life’s calamities, instead of having the will and know-how to rescue himself.
Coddling is not only about being overprotective, however. It is also about over indulgence and spoiling. This leads to a child expecting that the world is a place where his needs are always met.
Nurture Versus Coddle
All parents want to protect their children and to be able to give them the things that will make them happy. What is imperative, however, is to understand the difference between “coddling” and “nurturing.” Parents need to strive to nurture (not coddle) their child, in order to bring up an emotionally healthy and independent human being who learns to solve problems and conflicts on his own.
A child needs to learn that one does not always get what one wants, and that life is sometimes unfair. Those who learn to cope and to make the best of life’s disappointments are those who will ultimately be happy and content.
Coddlers step in to negotiate for their child instead of letting the child work it out for himself. They intervene, regardless of the severity of the problem (whether it is an issue with a teacher, peer or another adult). Parents who coddle their child also provide instant gratification for those things that the child wants (spoiling) as opposed to what he needs.
Psychologist Erik Fisher, Ph.D., author of The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict (Praeger; $39.95) says, “Parents who coddle their child don’t allow the child to develop a sense of self. Coddling is when parents predict the failure of a child. It is a protective act.â€
Instead, the ultimate goal is to “nurture” – to guide your child and to help him grow into an independent and resourceful person. Lauren Solotar, Ph.D., compares the two styles of parenting. “Nurturing raises a child’s self-esteem. It is healthy and positive. Coddling has a more negative connotation.
This is synonymous with overprotective parenting.” Solotar explains, “Parents must find a balance between providing the right amount of supervision and letting their child have enough esteem to make his own decisions.” The nurturer educates and trains the child to deal with problems on his own. This parent tells the child he is loved and that his feelings are understood, and that he will be there for him when things go wrong.
When Is Coddling OK?
Research supports the adage, “You can’t spoil an infant.” Most experts agree that it is good practice for parents to immediately tend to their infant’s physical and emotional needs. At this stage in a child’s development, parents are teaching their infant to trust his caregivers and to learn that home is a safe haven. Solotar concurs. She says, “Infants are totally different. They are 100 percent dependent on their caretaker physically, cognitively and emotionally.” Where coddling becomes a problem is with the older child.
Why Do Parents Coddle Their Children?
Many parents have fewer hours in the day to spend with their children. Today’s families have to cope with a more hectic and fast-paced lifestyle as compared to what families dealt with decades ago. For many, two incomes have become a necessity. Parents often have less time to spend with their children, and there is sometimes guilt associated with not having enough hours in the day to tend to their children’s needs. This sometimes leads to coddling because parents are trying to make up for lost time. Parents might also be overly anxious to prove to their children that they are there for them.
Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., a pediatrician and creator of “Simply Parenting” (a program designed to end parents’ anxieties and bring parenting back to basics), says, “Thirty years ago it was a different world. Parents did not coddle their children too much. I have seen an increased anxiety with parents starting during pregnancy.” She also says that parents used to have more help. “Parents no longer have extended family around and they feel more isolated. People call the practice all the time because we’ve replaced the extended family.â€
Solotar talks about the relationship between fear and coddling as well. She offers the following example: “Parents are less likely to allow their children to walk from place to place because of fear of abduction.” She advises, “Parents must find a balance between providing the right amount of supervision and letting their child have enough esteem to make decisions on his own.” This is a difficult balance to obtain.
Parents must look at each situation individually. They must evaluate their child’s maturity level and what is natural for him to be doing based on his age. For instance, a 6-year-old does not have the cognitive ability to assess all possible dangers while crossing a busy street.
What happens to children who have been coddled throughout their growing up years? Fisher reports, “Children who are coddled have a harder time with separation anxiety.” He also explains that a child will feel invaded by a parent who coddles. Solotar says that a child who is coddled will not become a successful adult. “Parents should provide guidance, but to constantly intervene prevents a child from learning. You put your child at risk when he doesn’t learn to communicate and interact with people.â€
Some Guidelines to Follow
Solotar offers advice for parents. “It’s a constant process of figuring out what is best for the children. Parents should make their decisions depending on the child’s situation and where the child is going to be. It is a matter of figuring out what works for your family.” She explains that some of the difficulty stems from children growing up faster and doing things earlier.
She cautions, “If a parent is going to overreact, then the child will overreact.” She finds that if parents continually reassess their child’s friends and behaviors in order to draw the boundaries, they will make the right choices and be successful.
As most parents will agree, finding the balance between providing a safe environment and being overprotective is not an easy task. Parents need to use common sense and caution when deciding it’s time for all of those “firsts” – first time down the street to a friend’s house, to the prom with the family car or simply toddling forward down a full flight of stairs.
Sometimes it might even feel like you’re jumping blindfolded into an abyss. But you take that leap, hold your breath and hope for the best, because you trust that you’ve taught your child the skills he needs to navigate the world solo.
Myrna Beth Haskell is a mother and writer.