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'I'm part of the epidemic of "toxic" parents who do too much for their kids. But how do I detox?'

My daughter just stands in the shower, and stares at the taps.

“How do I turn this on?” she asks me.

We’re travelling. In a strange bathroom. The shower isn’t the same as at home. She’s stumped.

“Just twiddle some stuff, babe!” I shout from the other room, where I’m picking up the pyjamas she left on the floor five minutes ago, and finding her some clean pants at the bottom of the suitcase, and laying out a clean T-shirt for her. “Figure it out!”

“But… I don’t know how to do it!” My daughter’s voice is rising. Impatience, frustration. Pause. “It won’t…. work!”

My daughter is nine. She is fit and strong, smart and funny and empathetic.

I do too much for you, I think, as I sigh and move towards the bathroom.

I think it again at breakfast when I butter and slice her toast for her. I think it as I dig out her hat and her sunscreen and her notebook and her favourite pens and I make sure it’s all in her bag.

I do too much for you. 

John Marsden would almost certainly agree. This week everyone is talking about the manifesto that the teacher, principal and creator of the Tomorrow… series of YA novels has published about modern parenting. It’s called The Art Of Growing Up  and the topline is that in his wide experience, there is an entire generation of children that has been cosseted and protected and love-love-loved so damn much that they are incapable of facing the real world and its challenges.

He says that lots of modern parents have made the mistake of not just loving their children, but being in love with them.

Another of the examples that Marsden cites about the way “toxic” parents are screwing things up is that they are peeling their four-year-olds’ mandarins.

Turning showers on for my nine-year-old would almost certainly fall in the same bucket.

Marsden, of course, is not the only one. This sputtering frustration with softie parents who can be generally described as Helicopter (always hovering), Snowplough (clearing all obstacles out of their children’s way) or Paralysed (so afraid of screwing things up they’re barely acting) is echoed in recent tomes by plenty of experts, including Michael Carr-Gregg.

“Never do anything for your child that they can do themselves,” he told me in an interview for the family podcast This Glorious Mess last year. Clearly, I blanked that out.

Listen to Mamamia’s parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess. On the latest episode, The Modern Mumma, Mel Watts wants you to make friends with Mum guilt. Post continues below. 

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The thing is, as the experts exalt us to let go and let our children figure the world out for themselves, so much else urges us to hold on ever tighter. Because it’s scary out there.

Anxiety. Depression. Self-harm. Eating disorders. Suicide.

Screen time. Online bullying. Game-addiction. Isolation.

This is what parents talk about, and this is what is yelling at us from every news site and parenting group chat.

A group of middle-class mothers talking honestly in hushed tones will quickly reveal that almost all of our children have seen a mental-health professional at some point. That some see them regularly. Many of us are dealing with with diagnoses we struggle to understand, whose possible consequences we aren’t prepared to entertain.

We are all afraid. Afraid for our children, yes. But also afraid of getting it wrong. We are hyper-aware of the shame that will rain down upon us if we don’t.

We want to fix things, to keep our babies safe from the monsters we have no context for.

And we’re afraid that we can’t fix any of those things. Because we can’t.

But I can fix the shower taps. And the toast.

I know instinctively and from experience that independence and resilience are the two traits that will stand my small people in the best stead for their futures. Add an optimistic nature, a generous view of other people and a strong stripe of kindness. And, crucially, a passion that drives them.

But trying to unscramble the egg of how to breed independence while still remaining the level of vigilance required for modern-day parenting is one that my generation is struggling with, daily.

“I feel so angry,” says Amy*, a mum of two teenage boys who are rarely seen outside of their rooms and certainly never without a device in their hands. “That my generation is the guinea pig for this.” Amy almost laughs. She says when she was a teen, her parents worried about her going out and getting drunk. “I would love it if my son had friends to go out with, to mess around with. All he seems to have is Fortnite and his phone. I worry that he’s getting really isolated. He insists he’s fine and this is what he’s into, his choice.”

toxic parenting
"I would love it if my son had friends to go out with, to mess around with. All he seems to have is Fortnite and his phone." Image: Getty.
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"My daughter shows me what she posts on Instagram," says Rina*, whose daughter is 12. "But my friends say the girls have secret accounts where they're posting pictures we wouldn't approve of and rude things about each other. My daughter swears she isn't, so do I call her a liar and take her phone, or do I let her learn the hard way about social media mean girls? I know adult women who can't handle that stuff." Indeed.

I'm brushing my daughter's hair before bed, because I know if I don't the morning will be a drama of tangles and tears. I just helped her get into the washed pyjamas I found for her.

The irony of worrying that I'm doing too much for my kids is that it goes hand in hand with worrying I'm not around enough for them.

"Sorry I was late tonight," I say, since I walked in the door 20 minutes ago and it's bedtime.

"That's okay, Mum. Will you read to me?"

And my girl curls up next to me and her little brother (just minutes before, I squeezed the toothpaste onto his toothbrush for him). Her clean-smelling hair is tucked under my nose. My boy's arms are around my waist, his small head on my other shoulder.

I start reading.

Both my children can read for themselves.

There are some things I am very happy to do for them. For as long as they'll have me do it.

Do you do too much for your children? Let us know in the comments section below.

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