If you watch for new parenting books, you’ve probably come across the name Julie Lythcott-Haims. Her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, is currently on the New York Times best seller list, and she has appeared on programs like CBS This Morning and Good Morning America.
When my daughter’s high school invited this former Stanford University dean to speak in the fall, I warily scanned the announcement in the PTA newsletter. The ‘helicopter parent’ club has many members, the author states. Helicopter parenting describes a style of hovering that runs counter to a parent’s responsibility to raise a child to become independent. Baby boomers were the first to earn the label, and their kids are today’s Millennials. Would I find my parenting style meeting the criteria for club membership? I dutifully typed the event into my phone.
Anxious Parents, Hobbled Kids
During her presentation at Houston High School, Lythcott-Haims got right to the point: Cultural trends are making parents anxious for their childrens’ safety and academic success. This leads them to be hyper-attentive supervisors who direct everything from toddler play dates to college graduate job searches. Early on, parents vow to ensure that their kids will succeed in a competitive world, but by overprotecting and over-directing, they cheat their children of opportunities to stumble and learn from their own mistakes, thus developing resilience and gaining independence. The net result of such excessive hand-holding? Kids who are poorly equipped for adulthood.
Now I was taking notes in my parenting journal. What’s the harm in establishing “bumpers and guardrails between our kids and the world”? After all, it’s love and concern that leads us to stay so involved, right? Lythcott-Haims, the mother of two teens, urges us to consider that our goal is to raise con dent, competent young adults. A former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims worked with thousands of students and their overly involved parents. Despite having strong academic accomplishments, she saw many college students flounder when it came to handling everyday challenges of campus life. They frequently texted mom or dad for advice, and parents routinely met with professors to complain about their students’ grades.
By over-parenting, Lythcott-Haims says we affect more than our child’s ability to handle a meeting with a professor. A 2011 study at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga looked at more than 300 students and found that students whose parents were overly involved were more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.
Parents need to reclaim their own lives and not be so kid-centric. Then, children can get a life, too.
Let Kids Think For Themselves
After the event, I picked up her book, finding bits of myself as well as fellow parents, reflected in its pages. In compelling style, Lythcott-Haims blends research and conversations with parents, teens, educators, counselors, and employers, as well as stories from the dean’s office. From adolescent mental health to the college admissions “arms race,” she covers much ground and offers practical suggestions for changing our course. “It’ll involve letting go of an illusory sense that we can control or manufacture everything in our children’s lives, and letting them go about the important work of figuring things out for themselves.”
As little ones begin preschool, many parents are already calculating strategies aimed at gaining acceptance to an elite college. Children are steered through the “check-listed childhood,” experiences aimed at boosting their chance of success. We have become ‘concierge parents,’ writes Lythcott-Haims, serving as our kids’ eyes, ears, and brains. We frantically track homework, encourage kids to specialize in one sport, even write students’ college application essays, all to gain admission to one of the U.S. News and World Report’s 25 “best” colleges. Perhaps our egos are tied to their accomplishments, she suggests.
The importance of doing chores and mastering basic life skills resonates with me. I regularly clean my daughters’ rooms, convinced their time is best reserved for homework. Between ages 14 and 18, Lythcott-Haims says teens should learn how to inflate a tire, cook a meal, and interview for a job. My family still has some work ahead.
I also appreciate her focus on the stress this adds to our lives as parents. While we may believe it’s critical to show up and cheer for our child at every game, it’s okay instead to go for a jog or pursue a hobby of our own. Parents need to reclaim their own lives and not be so kid-centric. Then, children can get a life, too.
“They need to pass this book out when you register your children for school,” advises former preschool teacher Angela Arnoult, who also attended the event. “Mapping out our kids’ lives is an epidemic.” In contrast, Arnoult was a latchkey kid who made her own lunches, caught the bus to school, and did laundry. Upon reflection, she says, “All that responsibility gave me confidence.”
Now a stay-at-home parent, she has the time to make her teenaged sons’ beds and tidy their bathroom, but she leaves those chores to them instead. “I tend to my children and love them. But if they can do something for themselves and I’m doing it for them, I’m enabling them.”
When her boys counter by telling her some of their friends don’t have chores, she shoots back, “I hope you don’t marry one of those people.” Sometimes Arnoult feels out-of-step with parents who believe hovering is a way to show they care about their kids. But she is convinced giving her boys space to make decisions and take responsibility pays off. “Kids need to build up thick skin and think for themselves.”
This evening, I am one of many parents who wait to meet Lythcott-Haims. She’s a woman on a mission — one I expect will prove worthwhile — if we can stop doing long enough to listen.