How To Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Successby Julie Lythcott-Haims
Lythcott-Haims was Stanford University's Freshman Dean for a decade. She draws on direct experience and extensive research to highlight ways that overparenting harms children. Then she provides alternative strategies for more effective parenting. Beware: these strategies take bravery and a willingness to parent differently than many in the crowd. The REWARD: independent, responsible young adults who are ready to take risks, make decisions and forge their own pathway to success (which means they may also define success in their own ways).
Also be aware that she admits that, as a graduate of Harvard and Stanford, her experience can be helpful and a hindrance in her analysis.
Much of the information below is either a direct or indirect quote. Sheila's comments are pretty obvious.
Reading this book was like reading my own thoughts. I cannot recommend it more highly, for Lythcott-Haims is direct, often scarily and often funnily so. She refers to several other authors whose books are recommended on my website, so I hope that you will read those recommendations as well.
This book is about parents who are over involved in the lives of their kids, and the love and fear that fuels this overinvolvement. She refers to the work of Denise Pope when discussing the increased competition on an international level that underlies some fears that your children may not meet with success, and the work of Amanda Ripley's research on how smart kids get that way (both are in my recommendation section).
Once parents started scheduling play, involving themselves in play, organizing all after school activities, speaking to teachers, tutors and coaches on behalf of or instead of their children, doing all the problem solving and decision making for their children, everything shifted. Becoming your child's best friend, trying to control every situation and outcome, and facilitating only success actually work against the best interests of children. Getting in the way of child development results in a generation of tall children, instead of young adults with the skill set and experience to launch into their futures successfully. Students who consistently rely on their parents to solve their problems have their opportunity to develop self-efficacy eclipsed and are robbed of the chance to develop into healthy adults.
WHAT ARE WE DOING NOW?
Providing a buffer zone for all experiences and assuming we can keep our children safe from all danger is unrealistic and does not allow them to have experiences which build resilience and coping skills. Moving to their college town with students has become a bigger issue than you can imagine. Deans are setting up programs and rules to prevent parents from coming or remaining on campus when it is time for students to begin navigating their own lives.
The cell phone is termed by researchers, "the world's longest umbilical cord." Just because we can be in constant contact with our kids doesn't mean we should. Constant parental contact makes parents a passenger in every ride a child takes, thereby inhibiting growing independence.
The fear of stranger abduction has caused millions of parents to hover over their kids, watching their every move. The odds of being killed in an equestrian accident or as a result of youth football are five and 12 times greater than those of stranger abduction. The barrage of news and alerts keep parents hyper vigilant to events that are a statistical rarity. The actual of fear increases anxiety and stress, and those two things cause a great deal of harm to families.
Amanda Ripley has disdain for the American trophy-for-everyone movement, and sees the focus on "self-esteem" without self-efficacy or responsibility as a inhibitor of academic progress and a contributor to America's poor ranking on international tests.
Play has been confiscated by parents in America (SEE ARTICLE ON PLAYGROUNDS - Hanna Rosin's 2014 Atlantic article "The Overprotected Kid" and Mike Lanza's Playborhood about a Palo Alto dad who is building play: NYT). In France, autonomous and independent play is highly valued (remember that from your own childhood?). In the US, the constant stimulation of our narration and praise can be exhausting for both parents and kids, and make play less fun.
Applying for pre-school two days after bringing baby home from the hospital is a norm in many areas of the US. Risking post-op stitches to get on a specific waiting list may not actually be a necessity for student success. Arranging a succession of enriching experiences so your child can compete in middle and high school, arranging tutoring, a sport schedule, summer camps and public service opportunities has now become what some parents DO. Their vigilance about the best team, coach, camp, etc. often results in student resentment and just plain exhaustion.
In the wake of rising injuries, The American Academy of Pediatrics issues a policy statement in 2000 discouraging the practice of kids specializing in a single sport prior to adolescence.
Parents being visible and vocal at all sporting events, trying to exert control over the outcome of every play, has led to a lack of respect for school administrators and coaches, and a great deal of frustration for students who are often interested in "playing" a sport and becoming "proficient" versus being the one and only superstar in the arena.
In terms of college selection, Counselors are performing a delicate balancing act between advising and supporting students and responding to parental opinions. The application process is a growth experience, where it is important to preserve students ability to research and make choices based on their abilities and desires. It is important to ask students: What matters to you? What are you curious about? What makes you tick? This is hard when adults use money, influence and power to achieve outcomes related to their own desires for their child. Parents and schools often create parameters, conditions and limits within which our kids are permitted to dream - with a check listed childhood as the path to achievement.
BEING THERE FOR THEM
We bring a "no mistakes" mentality to our kids' childhoods, controlling as many outcomes as we can, and fearing they simply won't be as successful without our involvement. We've created a role as personal assistant, high-end publicist, observer, handler and go-between. The trust in systems, authorities and our kids ability to work out their own problems has all but disappeared.
Parents are not the ones applying to college. They are not the ones renting an apartment or applying for a job after college. However, many parents simply will not let go and allow their 18-26 year old "children" to venture out and make these decisions on their own.
Examples of overparenting in college (or high school):
- calling to wake your child up for class
- texting throughout the day to make sure your child attends class
- reading and revising your daughters college work
- editing your sons word docs before class
- calling West Point to find out why y our child did not the roommate he wanted
- parents calling college admissions pretending to be their child
The person who needs to manage these things is the STUDENT. The person who needs to understand the rules/decisions/grading policies in college is the STUDENT. The person who needs to rent an apartment, go on a job interview, decide on which country to live in when joining the Peace Corps is the STUDENT.
Defining yourself as a person by who your child is may give your life meaning but it is developmentally unhealthy for kids. It sends the message that you don't trust them and that they are not ready for independence.
Watching your child begin adult life, while you begin the painful process of letting go is not easy. Your child has a wonderful future ahead of her, in which your part naturally shifts and diminishes. Make sure to take care of yourself and develop your own interests so that you are not bereft when she begins her adult adventure, but optimistic and supportive.
Kids learn and grow by trying new things, being allowed to fail, picking themselves up, and trying again. Stumbles and falls are what make the brilliant among us fallible and the fallible among us brilliant. If your child needs an assistant to manage all of her travel, academics, athletics and community involvement, maybe her schedule needs to be reconsidered.
Homework loads and rationale for hours of homework is given some time here, with guidance on a reasonable amount for each grade level (similar in theme to guidelines outlined by Challenge Success in Denise Pope's book and Jessica Lahey in the The Gift of Failure).
Eschool (student information software) is discussed briefly with, again, advice against parents checking it frequently. The suggestion (again, same as Lahey's) is for parents to communicate with students, students to communicate directly with teachers, and if there is something amiss, parents to communicate with teachers (all of this meaning vocally - not just via portals or e-mail). Teachers are advised to communicate when and how often they will update portals so that the main focus of their time can be direct instruction to students versus indirect communication via hundreds of emails.
Good questions to consider:
- Why is childhood itself not enough of a preparation for adulthood?
- Why do our kids need special handlers (SAT tutors, college essay specialists)
- What would happen if this kid was left to his own devices?
- If some other kid gets a spot in 'X' college, is there going to be any room for my kid?
- If my kid does not get into the Ivy League, does she have a limited future?
Try to be helpful to your child, but DON'T DO IT FOR THEM. Kids who are accustomed to parental involvement on all fronts won't have the wherewithal to handle things on their own.
TO WHAT END?
"As I remember it, those warm summer nights of not being focused on we're liberating. In the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves." Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives
Remember when American childhood was filled with a wonderful set of freedoms. School wasn't the only thing. Kids were free to roam their world and explore what interested them. Sport was for sport. Play was play. Life was less like a treadmill and more like a free run, less like a distinction and more like a journey.
"There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings," said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
We want everything to be good and comfortable for our children. But that isn't the world we are preparing them for. Hell-bent on removing all risks of life and catapulting them into the college with the right brand name, we've robbed our kids of the chance to construct and know their own selves. We've mortgaged their childhood in exchange for the future we imagine for them.
WHY WE MUST STOP OVERPARENTING
Our task is to raise ADULTS. This is defined in one part of the book as completing high school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children. In 1960, 65% of men had achieved all five milestone by age thirty, whereas in 2000 only 33% of men had done so.
In 2007, researchers asked 18-25 year olds which criteria were indicative of adulthood. Their criteria, in order of importance:
- accepting responsibility for actions
- establishing a relationship with parents as an equal adult
- being financially independent from parents
- decision on beliefs/values independently of parents
Only 16% of those in the survey said they had achieved these goals.
Childhood is a training ground. Beth Gagnon, psychotherapist, shares that "kids are supposed to acquire and complete certain developmental tasks at certain ages." Getting to school on their own, asking a stranger to hold a door or help with something heavy, and cutting their own meat should all be achieved by age 12.
Students heading off to college or the world of work need to be able to pull themselves together and conduct themselves responsibly, confidently and respectfully in the world. No one can give another person life skills. Each of us has to acquire them by doing the work of life. On our own.
CHECKLIST OF THINGS EVERY 18 YEAR OLD SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO
1. Talk to Strangers
2. Find his way around a campus, town, or city where studying
3. Manage her assignments, workload and deadlines
4. Contribute to the running of a household
5. Handle interpersonal problems
6. Cope with the ups and downs of courses, workloads, competition, tough teachers
7. Earn and manage money
8. Take risks
If they are calling to ask you how, they do NOT have the life skill.
English Professor Terry Castle argues for the orphan as a role model for youth suffering from overparenting (you have to read this section to completely understand her viewpoint).
The cultivation of a willingness to defy, debunk, or just plain old disappoint one's parents, that is the absolute precondition, now more than ever, for intellectual and emotional freedom. Students today are turning to parent constantly, almost as a reflex. Today's childhood feels dystopian, like some futuristic story where parents' overprotection, over direction, and hand-holding have been taken to their illogical conclusion. Are we raising Stepford Children?
THEY'VE BEEN PSYCHOLOGICALLY HARMED
Would you rather your child be depressed at Yale of happy at University of Arizona?
We don't want our kids to have hurt feelings, but were willing to take real chances with their mental health?
2013 - Survey of College Counseling Center Directors - the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern, increasing in the past year, with 24.5% of their student clients taking psychotropic drugs.
2013 - American College Health Association surveyed close to 100,000 college students from 153 campuses
- 84.3% felt overwhelmed by all they had to do
- 79.1% felt exhausted (not from physical activity)
- 60.5% felt very sad
- 57% felt very lonely
- 51.3% felt overwhelming anxiety
- 38.3% felt overwhelming anger
Professionals at colleges around the country consistently estimate the prevalence of helicopter parents on their campus at between 40-60%. Students its helicopter parents were les open to new ideas and action as and more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious and more likely to be medicated for anxiety.
A researcher at Beit T'Shuvah treatment and recovery center for addicts in LA conducted a recent study that found that the rates of depression and anxiety among affluent teens and young adults correspond to the rates of depression and anxiety suffered by incarcerated juveniles.
Students need to be given the independent opportunity to handle disagreement, uncertainty, hurt feelings and decision making. Learning to cope with discomfort, think about options, talk through problems and make decisions are imperative for adult success. Texting parents the moment a problem arises instead of turning within can lead to increased anxiety and depression. Figuring out for themselves is a critical element to a person's mental health.
There's a popular myth that says adults took a straight line from the right high school to the right college to their chosen profession. The much more common route is CIRCUITOUS. Share your trajectory with your child. We all struggled and failed a few times. Let them know we did that and how we worked our way out of it.
Then there is a discussion about the work of Madeline Levine (which is already synopsized in my book recommendations for her work, so I will leave it out here).
Academic Study Drugs are discussed and you should read those five pages, since this is becoming VERY PREVALENT.
WE'RE HURTING THEIR JOB PROSPECTS
Millennialist in the workplace have been called "orchids" due to their fragility. Lots of very interesting stories direct from the workplace about why overprotected kids will not be getting jobs and moving up the ladder without some skills of their own and with far less parental intervention. Our doing "undoes" them in the workplace.
OVERPARENTING STRESSES US OUT TOO
Here's a great chapter on how parents are becoming depressed from the busyness of managing their children's lives and how to step back a bit, gain perspective, and reclaim your own adult relationships and interests. VERY IMPORTANT for your physical health and sanity, especially given the fact that your child is leaving home soon.
Great examples of people who have gone way overboard and measured their own worth by their children's accomplishments. Good ideas on how to refocus on self and marriage, friendships, etc.
THE COLLEGE ADMISSION PROCESS IS BROKEN
Indeed! There are 2800 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the country. Find on that has great faculty - in the classroom, in research, in mentoring - and go there. Toss out the US News and World Report. Stop talking about the Ivy League as if it is the end all, be all.
"If there's a 5-10 percent chance of rain, do you wear a raincoat? No! But if people hear there's a 5-10 percent chance of admission, they don't assume they'll be part of the 90-95 percent." Think about it.
Lots of input from William Deresiewicz (Excellent Sheep) and Frank Bruni (Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be) - both of these books are synopsized in my recommendation list, so I will not repeat myself here.
Talk about the unrelenting pressure to be perfect at everything and how dysfunctional that is for children (just think if you had to be perfect at ten things at once - exhausting and impossible).
Info on how the SAT measure just one thing - wealth. You can get a wealth of information on this by combing through the NYT as well. The statistics are pretty clear.
PART 3: ANOTHER WAY
Ah, now we get to some advice on how to breathe, relax, enjoy our children while they are still children, and slowly but surely parent them into their budding adventure with adulthood.
Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job (until the grandkids arrive:)). We should try to launch a kid who still loves us and wants to see us, but does not take up residency in our home after college.
Ways to parent are outlined and discussed in more detail with Authoritative being the ideal: set high standards, expectations and limits with consequences attached. Be emotionally warm and responsible to emotional needs. Give your child freedoms to explore, to fail, and to make their own choices.
Let go of the illusion that we can control or manufacture everything in our children's lives. Make them do for themselves, so they develop competencies and confidence. Set and enforce standards and expectations.
GIVE THEM UNSTRUCTURED TIME
Yes, a whole chapter on getting out of their way and letting them do the developmental work that can only be accomplished through play. Give them some dream time.
Value free play
Create agreements with other parents regarding spontaneous play opportunities
Offer materials and equipment for imaginative play
Let your kid decide how and what to play
Work on creating space between you and your kid
Develop a capacity to wince but not pounce
Create a culture of free outdoor play
Get Inspired (read The Overprotected Kid, The Land, Mike Lanza's Playborhood)
Encourage change in your community
Model play - Yes, you adults - have a joyful and relaxing life with friends, practice guitar, knit, do a jigsaw puzzle
TEACH LIFE SKILLS
Stop absolving them of life skills and teach them how to, then hold them responsible and don't save them when they fail.
- Get to school on time, and work, and internship, and athletics
- Organize their backpack
- Pack their lunch
- Cook a meal (or fourteen different meals)
Sample sets of life skills for all age levels are reviewed in detail in this chapter.
LET GO OF PERFECT.
TEACH THEM HOW TO THINK
Stop overprotecting, over directing and hand-holding. Get out of their head and let them use it instead.
Tips for teaching kids of all ages to think are outlined in this chapter.
Let them speak for themselves - with teachers, coaches, Counselors, in meetings, at practice, at their internship, at their job. Sure, they'll botch a few of these conversations, complain to you about it (and you'll want to jump right in there to save the day), ask you to solve it. DON'T DO THAT. Ask them some Socratic questions instead. How do you think you could have handled that differently? What ideas do you have for the next time a similar situation happens? What advice would you give me if I were in your shoes. Your kids are full of answers to these questions, but will almost always defer to you. DON'T LET THEM. Have them come up with some solutions and try them out. If they falter, keep encouraging them.
Had to Stop and post this, as time is running out on the school year. The last six chapters are awesome and you will have to read them. Well worth the time. Enjoy these:Prepare Them for Hard WorkLet Them Chart Their Own PathNormalize StruggleHave a Wider Mind-Set About CollegesReclaim YourselfBe The Parent You Want to BePosted by Sheila Souder on 5/18/2016.