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TMI Parenting Anxiety- When less information online is more

When my daughter was 6 weeks old, she wasn’t smiling. All the information I read in books and on websites said that she should be smiling. As a new mom, I was very worried. I posted on discussion boards and received a host of suggestions ranging from failure to thrive and autism. I Googled, “autism in infants,” “autism at six weeks,” “my child is not smiling” and “my baby doesn’t like me.”

The doctor told me my baby was fine. My husband told me she was fine. My family told me she was fine, but with the overwhelming information superhighway contradicting their reasoned counsel, I couldn’t help but worry, fret and Google. Until one day, without warning, my daughter just smiled and she hasn’t stopped smiling since.

But it’s not just the Internet introducing anxiety. A new slate of technology allows parents to spy on their children in ways never before imagined. The AngelCare baby monitor detects signs of breathing and sounds an alarm if your baby stops moving. Some friends of mine watch their children on their phones through a live-video feed available via Skype. “Why not just stick computer chips in them?” I joked. “We’d consider it,” the father seriously retorted.

New parents worry. It’s a given that all new moms will anxiously check their snoozing infant for signs of breathing. We buckle. Innoculate. Sanitize. But does this wealth of information feed into our deepest fears and actually make us worse parents? Or when it comes to your children can you never have enough knowledge?

Dr. John Duffy, author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens, argues that the glut of product and Internet-induced knowledge is not just hurting parents, it’s hurting kids. “In my opinion, we definitely have far too much information these days, and it can be crippling for parents. From focusing on the baby monitors with our infants, to GPS on cell phones for our teenagers, I think parents inundate themselves with more information than they can manage, and more than they need to. We need enough data to keep our kids as reasonably safe as possible. But beyond that, we just create reasons for fear. And we know that we rarely make our best parenting decisions from a point of fear. We become controlling and, effectively, unavailable to our kids. This benefits no-one.”

And he’s not the only one. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, Family Physician and a Clinical Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, believes that this wealth of information is creating a generation of defensive parenting. She argues, “Too much news exposure can lead us down the path of anxiety and can create a whole family dynamic based on the expectation of bad things happening. Living life defensively, trying to protect our children from every possible bad outcome, increases stress and physical illness in parents, and can increase anxiety in kids. It does not, past a certain common sense level, decrease the number of tough experiences that our children encounter. Also, there is a lot of good to come out of difficult experiences, including raising kids who are practical, self-reliant and resilient.”

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Fran Young, a mother and teacher, thinks all this anxiety and parental hovering is inhibiting our children’s ability to mature into confident and independent adults. “No longer can a child learn independence by walking alone to school or the nearby store to get some groceries. No more will children light up and smile when a stranger says ‘hello’ – even if mom is right there pushing the cart at the store. Gone are the days when a retired neighbor (missing her grandchildren, perhaps) can show a child how to fix her bicycle or make a birdhouse or learn to speak French or twirl a baton or bake a cake. Parents have become fearful and have become so protective of their children that learning independence as a child has become impossible.”

But not everyone agrees that too much information is, well, too much. Candi Wingate, President of Nannies4Hire, a nannying and babysitting service, argues that what we call “over-protective parents” are just parents sensitive to the dangers and needs of their children. She notes that swimming in pools without lifeguards and not wearing a seatbelt were all common activities for kids 40 years ago. Today, however, parents would be considered negligent for not enforcing those activities. “What seems reasonable to parents today would have seemed over-protective to the parents of 40 years ago.”

“I think that too much information doesn’t make people bad parents,” argues Tina Feigal, a teacher, mom and the owner of a parent coaching business, “but it certainly makes them a lot more anxious than they need to be to do their jobs as parents. That can result in overreaction to every little thing, which drives the children crazy. Parents think they are just doing their jobs, but all this information keeps them trapped in feeling they are always doing it wrong. Guilt rules the show.”

The Internet and technology, have given parents a glut of knowledge and with it the sense of more control. But that control is just an illusion. And, while watching our infant on a video monitor or frantically Googling symptoms may seem to ease our worried minds, in the end, we can’t control whether our baby has a common cold or pneumonia.

After a month of waking up to every snore, wheeze and grunt broadcast via the baby monitor, I finally listened to my father and turned the “damn thing” off. Despite my sleep-training efforts, I couldn’t control whether my daughter slept or not, but I could try and get a good night’s sleep for myself. And I’ve been a better, well-rested parent because of it.

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