The House Dad Chronicles: Do Mollycoddling Parents Do Their Children Harm?

14/08/2014 16:49 | Updated 22 May 2015

The House Dad Chronicles: Do mollycoddling parents do their children harm?

As my eight-year-old son handed me the latest missive sent home from school, my smile dissolved into a grimace.

"Your child has been chosen to participate in the Cross Country event. Please remind your child that the race is long and they should pace themselves and not 'sprint off' at the very beginning."

I looked at my boy, who was doe-eyed awaiting my reaction.

"What does 'chosen' mean?" I asked him. "How have you been 'chosen'?"

Now this is not to do the lad down. He's a sprightly fellow. Long and lean, as boney as Bambi and just as wobbly. But 'sporty' is not a word I would use to describe him.

One time, we were walking through the park when we saw a load of boys of his age playing rugby.

"Do you fancy having a go at that?" I asked.

"What, have a load of big boys hit me in the stomach with their heads? No thanks," he replied.

Which I thought was very sensible. So the idea of him being singled out and specially chosen for a sports event was a little beyond my comprehension. Then he revealed the reality.

"I put my hand up when the teacher asked who would like to run," he said.

"But...but..are you sure? The last time you took part in a race you came last and burst into tears."

OK, he was only six at the time, but my fear was that it could happen again, that he would come last and that this time his tears would be mocked, and that the humiliation would scar him for life.

"I'll be fine, Dad," he said.

But I wasn't convinced. So last weekend, he and I went over to the 1000m course where the race would be staged and I suggested he did a practice run to see how he got on.

After about 300m, he gave up, turned round, and started to trudge back to me, his face as dark and wet as a British spring day.

"You're right, Dad. I can't do it. I'm just stupid. I shouldn't have entered. I'm not going to do it. I can't do it," he said.

I felt like I'd just been hit by a lorry carrying a thousand tons of guilt.

"No, no, son. You'll be fine," I protested.

But he was having none of it. In my obsessive desire to protect my son, I'd actually caused more damage. I'd made him feel like a failure before he'd even begun.

When I explained this to his mother later, she said: "Why can't you let him make his own mistakes? You can't protect him forever. If he loses, or doesn't finish the race, he'll learn from it."

And, of course, she's right.

Research this week revealed that children who are mollycoddled are at increased risk of being picked on by their peers, possibly because it makes them less independent and assertive, making them easy targets.

Professor Dieter Wolke, of the University of Warwick, studied 70 previous studies totalling more than 200,000 youngsters, and concluded: "Although parental involvement, support and high supervision decrease the chances of children being involved in bullying, for victims over protection increased this risk.

"Children need support but some parents try to buffer their children from all negative experiences. In the process, they prevent their children from learning ways of dealing with bullies and make them more vulnerable.

"It could be children with over protective parents may not develop qualities such as autonomy and assertion and therefore may be easy targets for bullies. But it could also be parents of victims become over protective of their children.

"In either case, parents cannot sit on the school bench with their children.

"Parenting that includes clear rules about behaviour while being supportive and emotionally warm is most likely to prevent victimisation.

"These parents allow children to have some conflicts with peers to learn how to solve them rather than intervene at the smallest argument."

Prof Wolke said some of the studies found over protection made children 25 per cent more likely to be bullied, and 30 per cent more likely to be a bully-victim, although most suggested the increased risk was 10 to 20 per cent.

He said: "Most people would expect abusive parenting to be linked with bullying, but it will surprise many that over protection can be almost as significant because this is generally seen as a good thing to do.

"But it is the same idea as a vaccine. A little dose of something that is bad can be good for you. If little Johnnie has a problem in the playground, it is best he sorts it out himself, because it teaches him about conflict."

In our case, 'little Johnnie' is my son. And on Friday, his 'problem' was not so much the cross country race, but Mollycoddling Me.

Prof. Wolke's words were echoed by my wife.

"If he fails, so what? He'll learn from it," she said. Again.

So instead of withdrawing him for the race, I didn't mention it again.

Fast forward to yesterday morning.

"Are you going to watch me race, Dad?" he said.

"Yes, son. I'll be there. But don't worry if you come last. It's only a race. Just you and your classmates."

Except it wasn't just him and his classmates. It was him, his classmates – and 2,000 other kids from the local borough's schools. OK, only 200 of them were boys in my son's Year 3 group, but still...I was absolutely gobsmacked by the size of the event.

Every mollycoddling instinct in my body was to pull him out of the race to save him being humiliated in front of 2,000 baying schoolkids.

When the time came for his year to go to the starting line, my stomach was fluttering so much I thought I'd swallowed Butterfly World.

But my lad didn't show a flicker of emotion. Just focus.

And then they were off. I watched him set off at a steady pace, in the middle of the throng, not near the front, not near the back, and then I lost him as they powered up a steep hill.

"Only 800 metres to go," I said to myself.

And then waited. And waited. Until the first boys emerged on the other side of the hill. My son wasn't in first place. Nor second. Nor third.

"Where is he?" I thought to myself.

And then he appeared, like a gazelle of Red Bull, striding forth, his hair wet with sweat, a look of determined steel on his face.

"GO ON SON," I yelled. 'GO, GO, GO."

And as if I'd just lit a rocket under his backside, he speeded up, past one one, past two, three, four....TEN!

OK, he didn't finish first, or even in the top 10. But he made the top 20 – coming in nineteenth.

But the biggest winner was me. Because whatever my son is made of, he clearly doesn't need me to mollycoddle him through the challenges of life that lie ahead.

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