Max’s mom had a difficult upbringing that included physical and emotional abuse. She vowed that when she became a mother she would not perpetuate the same mistakes—she wanted her son to experience none of the pain she’d endured. Unfortunately, she failed to see the difference between debilitating suffering and the kind of day-to-day distress that gradually teaches children how to thrive in the real rough-and-tumble world.
They lived in relative ease and privilege, but Max’s mom lived as though every object and idea in existence could (and would) harm him. Her campaign to scrub his world of discomfort began when he was a newborn. She would search the inside of his sleepers for an imperfect seam. Anything with the hint of a rough spot was rejected and thrown away.
She verbally horsewhipped neighborhood kids if they hurt his feelings. She soon became known as the “crazy lady” up the street. If he had a complaint about a class, she was there in a moment, telling the teacher how bad she was at her job. She was the kind of mom educators love to see leave their school, the kind that makes good teachers leave the profession.
She had in her mind an immature mantra: Protect my son at all costs. And sadly, at least for a while, she succeeded—she smothered him. Her overprotective approach toward motherhood is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s epigraph in his last, unfinished work: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
Her protection further isolated Max from the world of boys and men, who found him odd and his company distasteful. He didn’t act like a man in the making. Nor did he show much interest. He hung out on the sidelines of life, rarely saying or doing anything of substance. He dropped out of high school and sold drugs.
Max doesn’t remember being disciplined, and so he never acquired self-discipline. He also didn’t receive any parental consequences for his increasing criminal behavior. Neighbors complained, “Has anyone ever told him the word no?” Max was a product of his age, of good-intentioned parenting that followed this contemporary belief: Good self-esteem comes from always feeling good about yourself, from never feeling pain or discomfort, from having every potential risk screened and eliminated before it reaches you.
Obsessive hyper-management was like a moniker on a sweater: Good Mother. You could see it in her eyes and in her stride when she swooped into action on behalf of her son, the project into which she funneled her fears. She believed that the wake forming behind her—roiling with belligerence and insults upon those misfortunate enough to receive her abuse—was clearing the way to a brighter future for her only child.
Hers weren’t just everyday run-of-the-mill battles, the kind that make up the usual grind of life. From the tone in her voice, the resolve in her eyes, and purposeful heaviness in her stride, she seemed to see herself as a present-day Joan of Arc. Hers was a crusade: Good Versus Evil. How could anyone reproach such earnestness, such fervor, such seeming nobility?
But there was another reason she behaved this way. She needed her boy to fill a void in her. She was lonely. Because she ate through the goodwill of others, she burned through friends; however, Max wasn’t a flight risk. His dependency upon her made him a willing captive, a slave to her unmet desires, a needed companion to stave off the hell of isolation through the sin of emotional incest.
The current result of her hovering and bullying parental philosophy? Max is addicted to heroin, is in and out of prison, and sleeps in his car. He, like her, is fragile, broken, and depleted. He was overprotected, and now he is undernourished and underdeveloped. His scars, as with all emotional and spiritual scars, still contain wisdom and hard-to-decipher signposts pointing the way back to wholeness. Yet he doesn’t have the skills, perseverance, or courage to unearth them, study them, learn from them, and repent—he has no idea how to proactively turn away from lies and toward truth. He needs a soul transplant.
Many men, like me, struggle with parenting that smothers, though women are front-lining the charge in this obsession with riding roughshod over children. Some mothers have unfulfilled and frustrated romantic yearnings, energy from which is often channeled into hyper-parental vigilance, leading to highly enmeshed mother/son relationships that emasculate young men. Specifically, maternal overprotection leads to victimization: It is one of the most powerful predictors that the son will be picked on in school and that he will not offer resistance. When a boy’s mother drastically eliminates his exploration of the world and vicariously fights his battles, he will be perceived as a victim—in particular, a passive victim.
~Interrupt their children often
~Tell their child what to think and feel, even telling them that
what they are currently thinking or feeling is wrong. (In Christian circles, they might be told, for example, that feeling anger is sinful.)
~Override their child’s initiative.
~Abruptly change topics of conversation.
~Tell their child to change his/her facial expression.
~Are only willing to discuss certain issues.
Today’s prevailing Christian worldview largely demands that a mother overprotect her sons, and she’s often regarded as negligent if she doesn’t. For a woman to raise a courageous child who has Christlike characteristics in his life, she must swim against the predominant subcultural mainstream and allow him to take meaningful risks through which to grow and mature.
As we saw with Max’s mom, loneliness is another common source for overprotection that carries with it the potential for overarching fear and degrees of paranoia. What’s so slippery about such behavior? It appears so sacrificial. It’s selfishness disguised as thoughtfulness.
Furthermore, a good desire to nurture, taken too far, can be far too much of a good thing. Here’s Dr. James Dobson’s gentle explanation:
From about three years of age, your little pride and joy
begins making his way into the world of other people…This
initial “turning loose” period is often extremely threatening
to the compulsive [often an overprotective] mother. Her
natural reaction is to hold her baby close to her breast,
smothering him in “protection.” By watching, guarding,
defending, and shielding night and day, perhaps she can
spare her child some of the pain she herself experienced
growing up. However, her intense desire to help may actually
interfere with growth and development. Certain risks must be
tolerated if a child is to learn and progress.
Contrary to our assumptions, kids who receive constant parental protection don’t do better in life. When they’re too often harbored from inevitable hardships and challenges, they do not develop a keen understanding of their own abilities and weaknesses. Sometimes they become overconfident, possessing a distorted sense of themselves; most of the time they lack confidence, some to the brink of social anxiety and clinical depression, prime targets for childhood bullying that can persist into adulthood.
These latter kids, over months and years of not being able to grow, have a vital life power gradually drained from them, making them unable to donate power to others and to live intentionally, redemptively. Some never fully recover. Others spend part or most of their adulthood “getting their life back,” or rather, becoming themselves for the first time; many of these do so only after devastating blows like divorce, career chaos, or bankruptcy.
Whether overprotected children become arrogant (over-confident) or self-diminishing (under-confident), they share the same malady: they focus too much on themselves, and not enough on others. This is a basic component of narcissism; narcissists of all kinds are socially inept, repeatedly displaying behavior that breaks relational ties with others, pushing them further into the pit of isolation.
The consequences of wrongly raising our kids can be deadly. It’s not so much that we need to do more. It’s that what we’re doing needs to be different. We need to change course.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.
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