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Professor Gaia Bernstein of Seton Hall Law Issues Paper on Over-Parenting & the Law

Paper Warns Against the Use of the Law To Enforce ‘Intensive Parenting’

Seton Hall Law Professor Gaia Bernstein and co-author Zvi Triger of The College of Management School of Law have released their newest paper, “Over-Parenting,” scheduled to be published in the upcoming year in the U.C. Davis Law Review.

The authors describe a significant change in parenting norms that has occurred over the last two decades. Today’s parents engage in “Intensive Parenting”they are more involved in their children’s life than ever before and use an array of technological devices to better cultivate and monitor their children. The authors show that the law is already turning the social and technological trend of Intensive Parenting into mandatory legal standards and warn against further legal enforcement of Intensive parenting, pointing to its harmful consequences for both children and families.

The authors describe Intensive Parenting as a constant quest to obtain updated knowledge of best child-rearing practices and use this information to actively cultivate children and monitor all aspects of their lives. Intensive Parenting begins at pregnancy when the pregnant mother accesses an ever increasing amount of information instructing her on how to achieve an optimal pregnancy and does not end when the child enters college.  Colleges have recently adjusted to accommodate a new generation of parents who insist on being in direct contact with administrators and professors in order to continue to monitor their children’s lives.

Professor Bernstein remarked, “But, Intensive Parenting is not just about social norms. Parents use many technologies, including the Internet, cellular phones, nanny-cams and GPS child tracking systems  to make sure they are adequately informed and successfully monitoring their children. The cellular phone was suitably described as the “world’s longest umbilical cord”–parents use it to stay in constant touch with their children even as they leave home. “

The authors further note that the process of incorporating Intensive Parenting as a legal standard is already underway and can be readily found in such areas as divorce and child custody. The parent who was most involved in the child’s life pre-divorce has an advantage in the custody dispute and the period between separation and the grant of the final divorce decree becomes a race for involvement between parents. “Unfortunately,” Professor Bernstein explains, “parents eager to gain custody and operating in a world governed by Intensive Parenting norms become overly dominating in their interaction with children, for example, by sending dozens of text messages a day or completely taking over Little League practices.”

The authors caution that the law repeatedly incorporates child-rearing practices into mandatory legal standards and that we should expect to see pressure on legislatures and courts to turn sophisticated child rearing practices used by Intensive Parenting adherents into legal standards. “Some child rearing practices are desirable social norms but not desirable legal standards,” Professor Bernstein explained. “For example, some states now place women who consume alcohol during pregnancy under civil confinement.  Would we want to see pregnant women who do not to take folic acid vitamins—which reduce the probability of birth defects— similarly placed under civil confinement?”

The authors warn against use of the law to enforce Intensive Parenting. Although research has shown that Intensive Parenting has important advantages, a rising body of research has shown that Intensive Parenting can seriously undermine one of the most important roles of parents, namely, nurturing a sense of independence and separation from the parent.  Disconcertingly, this research also shows that deficiencies correlated with Intensive Parenting place this generation at a higher risk for anxiety disorders and making poor choices regarding alcohol and drug abuse and sexual relationships.

But the authors note that the problem goes beyond the psychological health of the children. They explain that Intensive Parenting is largely a socio-economic construct. It is class, race, ethnicity and culturally dependent and tends to place its weight squarely upon the shoulders of women—who are still overwhelmingly responsible for the raising of children. “A hasty and uncritical incorporation of such standards in a multicultural society would increase existing biases and force Intensive Parenting on those who may be financially unable or ideologically unwilling to adopt it,” Professor Bernstein said.