Around the country, students are moving into college dorms for the first time. As former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims observed parents becoming increasingly involved in their children’s lives. Consequently, their kids arrived at college without some basic living skills. In response, Lythcott-Haims published the 2015 book, “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”
Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti’s revisits a conversation from August 2015 with Lythcott-Haims (@DeanJulie) about the book.
By Julie Lythcott-Haims
Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.
(Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.)1
—Antonio Machado (1875–1939)
This is a book about parents who are overinvolved in the lives of their kids. It looks at the love and fear behind our overinvolvement. It looks at the harm we cause when we do too much. And it looks at how we might achieve better long-term ends—and help our kids achieve even greater success—by parenting differently.
I love my kids as fiercely as any parent does, and I know that love is the foundation for all we do as parents. But in my years researching this book I’ve learned that many of our behaviors also stem from fears; perhaps chief among them is the fear that our kids won’t be successful out in the world. Of course it’s natural for parents to want their kids to succeed, but based on research, interviews with more than a hundred people, and my own personal experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that we define success too narrowly. And what’s worse, this narrow, misguided definition of success has led us to harm a generation of young adults—our children.
I came to know, care, and worry about young adults over the course of my ten years as freshman dean at Stanford University. I loved that work and found it a sheer privilege to be alongside other people’s eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old sons and daughters as they began to unfold into the adults they would become. My students made me laugh and they made me cry, and I rooted for them no matter what. This book is not an indictment of them or of their generation, people born after 1980—known as Millennials. Their parents, though—we parents, I’ll say, for I, too, am one of them—are another story.
I want to put all of my cards on the table. I’m not just a former dean at Stanford, I’m a graduate from Stanford and Harvard Law School as well. I’m writing this book not because of those opportunities, or despite them, but informed by it all, keeping in mind at every turn that my privilege and experience can be both a help and a hindrance in this analysis. And as I’ve said, I’m also a parent. My husband and I have two teenagers—a son and a daughter who are two years apart—and we are raising our kids in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, as energetic a hive of overparenting as you are likely to find on the planet. Whereas once upon a time I was a dean at a highly selective university tut-tutting the behaviors of overinvolved parents, in the years I’ve spent thinking about this topic I’ve slowly come to appreciate that I’m not much different from the parents I once rather breezily chastised. In many ways, I am the problem parent I’m writing about.
Father (and Mother) Knows Best
In the earliest moments our love is our umbilicus, our heartbeat, our body, and then our arms, our kiss, our breast. We bring them home to a sheltering roof and we delight weeks later when they make their first intentional eye contact with us. We nurture early babbles into first words and applaud as they gain strength to roll over, to sit up, to crawl. We scan the horizon of the twenty-first century and see an increasingly interconnected and competitive world that at times seems familiar and at times utterly not. We gaze down at our precious little ones with a promise to do all we can to help them make their way into the long life that lies ahead. There is no amount of direction on our part that will teach them to stand or walk before they are ready. But we are eager for their progress.
We see almost instantly that they are their own person, but we also want them to start where we left off, to stand on our shoulders, to benefit from all we know and can provide. We expose them to experiences, ideas, people, and places that will help them learn and grow. We want them to reach and be stretched by the kind of rigor and opportunity that will maximize their potential and their chances. We know what it takes to succeed in today’s world and we’re quite eager to protect and direct them, and be there for them at every turn, whatever it takes.
Many of us remember a time when, in comparison, parents were rather uninvolved in childhood. When a parent (usually a mom) would throw the door open on weekday afternoons and tell us, “Go out and play and be home for dinner.” Our parents had no idea where we were or exactly what we were doing. There were no cell phones for keeping in touch or GPS devices for tracking. Off we went into the wilderness of our block, our neighborhood, our town, our vacant lots, our parks, our woods, our malls. Or sometimes, we just snuck a book and sat on the back steps. Childhood doesn’t look that way today and many young parents don’t relate to childhood ever having been that way.
Father and Mother Have Changed
When, why, and how did parenting and childhood change? Even a cursory hunt yields a bounty of shifts. A number of important ones take place in the mid-1980s.
In 1983, one shift arose from the increased awareness of child abductions. The tragic 1981 abduction and murder of a young child named Adam Walsh became the made-for-television movie Adam, which was seen by a near record-setting 38 million people.2 The faces of missing children began staring out at us over breakfast from the back of milk cartons soon after.3 Walsh’s father, John Walsh, went on to lobby Congress to create the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984, and to found the television show America’s Most Wanted, which aired on Fox beginning in 1988. Our incessant fear of strangers was born.
Another shift—the idea that our children aren’t doing enough schoolwork—arrived with the publication of A Nation at Risk4 in 1983, which argued that American kids weren’t competing well against their peers globally. Since then, federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have fomented an achievement culture that emphasizes rote memorization and teaching to the test against the backdrop of increased competition from students in Singapore, China, and South Korea, where such teaching practices are the norm. American kids and parents soon began struggling under the weight of more homework and began doing whatever it takes to survive school, as was illuminated in the 2003 book “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students written by Stanford School of Education lecturer Dr. Denise Pope,5 and the 2010 film Race to Nowhere.6
A third shift came with the onset of the self-esteem movement—a philosophy that gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s that said we could help kids succeed in life if we valued their personhood rather than their outcomes.7 In her 2013 best-selling book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley cites the self-esteem movement as a uniquely American phenomenon.8
And a fourth shift was the creation of the playdate, circa 1984.9 The play-date emerged as a practical scheduling tool at a time when mothers were entering the workforce in record numbers. The combination of more parents working and the increased reliance on day care meant fewer kids were going home after school, and it was harder to find either a location or a time for play. Once parents started scheduling play, they then began observing play, which led to involving themselves in play. Once a critical mass of parents began being involved in kids’ play, leaving kids home alone became taboo, as did allowing kids to play unsupervised. Day care for younger kids turned into organized after-school activities for older kids. Meanwhile, concerns at the turn of that decade over injury and lawsuits prompted a complete overhaul of public playgrounds nationwide.10 The very nature of play—which is a foundational element in the life of a developing child—began to change.
Observing such shifts among other things, in 1990, child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term “helicopter parent” to refer to a parent who hovers over a child in a way that runs counter to the parent’s responsibility to raise a child to independence.11 Focused on giving advice to parents of young children, Cline and Fay had their finger on the pulse of important changes that took place in American parenting in the prior decade, and which are commonplace today, twenty-five years later. That means the oldest members of the helicoptered generation turned thirty circa 2010. They are also those known as “Generation Y” or “Millennials.”
In the late 1990s, the first of the Millennial generation began going off to college, and my colleagues and I at Stanford began to notice a new phenomenon—parents on the college campus, virtually and literally. Each subsequent year would bring an increase in the number of parents who did things like seek opportunities, make decisions, and problem solve for their sons and daughters—things that college-aged students used to be able to do for themselves. This was not only happening at Stanford, mind you; it was happening at four-year colleges and universities all over the country, as conversations with colleagues nationwide confirmed. Meanwhile my husband and I were raising our two little kids, and without fully realizing it we were doing a good deal of helicoptering in our own home.
The Big Boom
Members of the baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, were the first to earn the label “helicopter parent.” Their children are the older wave of the “Millennial” generation I’m concerned about. Baby boomers’ grandparents believed “children are to be seen but not heard,” and their parents’ standard retort was “because I said so.” In contrast and perhaps in response, as teenagers and young adults the baby boomers championed free thinking and the rights of the individual, questioned authority, and reshaped or outright overturned many fundamental paradigms and mores of American society.
Of course, boomers weren’t the first parents in history to hover over their kids like helicopters—in 1899 General Douglas MacArthur’s mother apparently moved to West Point with him and lived in a suite at Craney’s Hotel overlooking the Academy, where she could watch him by telescope to see if he was studying.12 But when the baby boom generation—at 76 million members the largest generation in American history until their own children were born—starts a trend, whether in fashion, technology, or parenting, it quickly reaches a tipping point. So perhaps it should then be no surprise that when Boomers became parents they managed to change the very nature of parenting in the United States.
Based on their own values and experiences, and in the context of those various societal factors taking place in the 1980s discussed above, Boomers took a more involved role in the lives of their children. Whereas Boomers’ parents had been emotionally distant, Boomers were emotionally present in their kids’ lives, often becoming one of their kids’ closest friends. Whereas Boomers’ parents were hands-off, Boomers tried to control and ensure outcomes for their own kids and became their strongest advocates. Whereas Boomers’ parents adhered to hierarchy, structure, and authority, Boomers questioned these things with a vengeance and ushered in massive societal changes such as the sexual revolution, two income–earning households, a steep rise in divorce rates, and the perhaps not unrelated mind-set of spending “quality time, not quantity time,” with kids (that is, it’s not how much time we spend that matters, it’s how we spend the time).13 As parents, Boomers, ever accustomed to expressing their opinions, being heard, and getting their way, wanted to “be there” for their kids, whatever it took, still challenging the system, but now on behalf of their kids, often supplanting themselves as a buffer between their kids and the system and its authority figures. Even when their child is grown.
Looking at only the short-term results, a very involved style of parenting offers short-term gains in the forms of safety, opportunities attained, and outcomes secured. As with General MacArthur—who graduated first in his class at West Point—a very involved parenting approach seems, in some significant ways, to “work.” Seeing evidence that this was so, by the 2000s this very-involved style of parenting became less like the exception and more like the rule. My generation, Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), followed the Boomers’ suit when we became parents, as did the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000) as they became parents. The baby boomers are now grandparents, but, as with much they’ve contributed to American society, for good or for ill, their influence on parenting could be with us long after they are gone.
To What End?
A heightened level of parental involvement in the lives of kids obviously stems from love—unquestionably a good thing. But by the time I stepped down as dean at Stanford in 2012 I had interacted not only with a tremendous number of parents but with students who seemed increasingly reliant upon their parents in ways that felt, simply, off. I began to worry that college “kids” (as college students had become known) were somehow not quite formed fully as humans. They seemed to be scanning the sidelines for Mom or Dad. Under-constructed. Existentially impotent.
Tremendous good can be said about the baby boomers—they were drafted into and questioned the Vietnam War, lay their bodies on the line in the monumental civil rights and civil liberties struggles of their day, and fueled the greatest economic growth our nation has ever seen. But did Boomers’ egos become interlaced with the accomplishments of their children to such an extent that they felt their own success was compromised if their children fell short of expectations?14 And did some of these parents go so far in the direction of their own wants and needs that they eclipsed their own kids’ chances to develop a critical psychological trait called “self-efficacy”—that is, what eminent psychologist Albert Bandura identifies as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations”?15 There’s a deeply embedded irony here: Maybe those champions of self-actualization, the Boomers, did so much for their kids that their kids have been robbed of a chance to develop a belief in their own selves.
Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, checklisted childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults? What will become of young adults who look accomplished on paper but seem to have a hard time making their way in the world without the constant involvement of their parents? How will the real world feel to a young person who has grown used to problems being solved for them and accustomed to praise at every turn? Is it too late for them to develop a hunger to be in charge of their own lives? Will they at some point stop referring to themselves as kids and dare to claim the “adult” label for themselves? If not, then what will become of a society populated by such “adults”? These were the questions that began to gnaw at me and that prompted me to write this book.
These questions were on my mind not just at work but as I made my way in my community of Palo Alto, where the evidence of overparenting was all around me—even in my own home. Too many of us do some combination of overdirecting, overprotecting, or over-involving ourselves in our kids’ lives. We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them. But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own? And why do these problems I’m writing about seem rooted in the middle and upper middle classes? After all, parents care deeply about doing a good job and if we’re fortunate enough to be middle- or upper-middle-class, we have the means—the time and disposable income—on our side to help us parent well. So, have we lost our sense of what parenting well actually entails?
And what of our own lives as parents? (“What life?” is a reasonable response.) We’re frazzled. Worried. Empty. Our neighborhoods are photo-worthy, our food and wine are carefully paired, but with childhood feeling more and more like an achievement arms race, can we call what we and our children are living a “good life”? I think not. Our job is to monitor our kids’ academic tasks and progress, schedule and supervise their activities, shuttle them everywhere, and offer an outpouring of praise along the way. Our kids’ accomplishments are the measure of our own success and worth; that college bumper sticker on the rear of our car can be as much about our own sense of accomplishment as our kids’.
In the spring of 2013 I attended a board meeting for an organization that provides financial support to Palo Alto’s public schools. In casual conversation afterward as the parents were taking one last piece of coffee cake and heading out into their day, a woman who knows of my work pulled me aside. “When did childhood get so stressful?” she pleaded with a faraway look. I put my hand on her shoulder as tears slowly filled her eyes. Another mother overheard and came toward us, nodding her head. Then she leaned in, asking me, “Do you know how many moms in our community are medicated for anxiety?” I didn’t know the answer to either question. But a growing number of conversations like this with moms like these became another reason to write this book.
The dean in me may have been concerned about the development and prospects of young adults who had been overparented—and I think I’ve made better choices as a parent thanks to spending so much time with other people’s young adults. But the parent in me has struggled with the same fears and pressures every other parent faces, and, again, I understand that the systemic problem of overparenting is rooted in our worries about the world and about how our children will be successful in it without us. Still, we’re doing harm. For our kids’ sakes, and also for our own, we need to stop parenting from fear and bring a more healthy—a more wisely loving—approach back into our communities, schools, and homes. Through research woven together with real-life observations and commonsense advice, this book will show us how to raise our kids to become adults—and how to gather the courage to do so.
Excerpted from the book HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Copyright © 2015 by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Reprinted with permission of Henry Holt and Co.
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