Helping families escape the trap of 'over-parenting'
Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of the book 'How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Over-Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.'
By John Chambless
Julie Lythcott-Haims had a message for
all the super-involved parents in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School
District on Feb. 23: Step back. Take a deep breath. Let your kids do
it themselves. And when the urge strikes to do your child's for them,
Lythcott-Haims is the author of the book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Over-Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” which was promoted as a community-wide reading project before she appeared at the Unionville High School auditorium to discuss her work.
“When I heard you guys had done this, I was thrilled to come and be part of the conversation,” she said in her opening remarks. “Did any of you get a text from your kid, suggesting you come here tonight? So the task for you is to go back home and say, 'All right I listened to that lady. Why did you want me to?' If your kid texted you, asking you to come, they are trying to open a conversation with you about something. Button your lip, and sit on your hands, and listen as your kid starts to explain. That's one of the very best things we, as parents, can do -- listen to our kids.
“I didn't set out to be a parenting expert,” Lythcott-Haims said. “I have a son, Sawyer, who's a senior in high school. I should be home with him, over-parenting him in this final semester,” she added as the audience laughed. “I also have a daughter, Avery, who's a sophomore in high school. Now, think back to yourself, unfolding into yourselves, at 18, 20, 22. It's a process that can be ugly before it's beautiful, right? But we all must go through it.”
The book emerged from a decade as Stanford University's Dean of Freshmen, when “I began to see this phenomenon we called helicopter parenting, or over-parenting. I began to see the encroachment of parents into the life of the university,” Lythcott-Haims said. “This has led to things like GPS tracking of your children, like they're endangered rhinos. Then there is the excessive hand-holding. This is the parent who treats parenting as if they are the concierge: 'What can I do to make your childhood more pleasant, honey?'
“Or the parents would call and say, 'We are displeased with the grade that the organic chemistry teacher gave our daughter, and we would like to talk with him about it.' They're confident that if they can just get in there and have a conversation with the professor, they can achieve the higher grades they achieved in grades K through 12. If you have a senior now, and you're waking them up every morning, you are functioning as their alarm clock. How do you expect them to wake themselves up in college? When we do it all for them, it's very lovingly intended, but they emerge without skills.
“Why are we doing this?” Lythcott-Haims said. “We have a lot of fear about the world out there, and we try to control outcomes on their behalf to be sure they make it to the destination we have in mind.
We achieve short-term goals when we over-parent, but it comes at this long-term cost to our children's sense of self. Although we are motivated by this fierce love, we end up depriving our kids of the chance to develop self-efficacy. That's not self-esteem. It's a core psychological concept that is basically, 'I do, therefore I am.'”
Lythcott-Haims shared her own life experience of trying to get her infant son into the right nursery school five days after he was born, and extending to the idea that, “When our kids have been told 'Don't talk to strangers,' they can't talk to store clerks. They can't talk to people on the sidewalk. They can't talk to the faculty at college, because we're all strangers, and they're bewildered and frightened.”
Close to tears, Lythcott-Haims recalled meeting with a young woman at Stanford who was being pushed into becoming a doctor, getting a 4.0 and miserable because she was overbooked and not pursuing the path she wanted. “Love the kid you've got, not the kids you have in some fantasy world,” Lythcott-Haims said. “Not the kid you think will live out your expectation of what you think you should have become.”
The experience started Lythcott-Haims on her path to her book. “I began to unpack this phenomenon we have going on in our country, which I call the check-listed childhood,” she said. “We want to make sure our kids attend the right schools – like this one,” she said, looking around the large auditorium. “We want to be sure they're in the right lane at the right school. And we want to be sure they're getting the best possible grades in all of those classes. That means tutoring, experts, specialists. We are sitting with them, night after night, saying, 'When are we going to do your homework?'
“Then there's all the standardized testing and all the effort that goes into perfecting their scores. And all the sports we want them to do. And the activities they've got to pursue, and the accolades and awards we hope they'll achieve. 'Don't just join a club at Unionville, why don't you start a club, because colleges want to see that?' And the community service. Check the box to show you care about others.
“We hold our kids to a level of perfection that none of us would have been able to achieve as a child,” Lythcott-Haims said to warm applause from the audience.
“Because of that, our kids never learn how to struggle, how to cope with struggle, how to rebound, because we're always there to make it better,” she said. “We end up treating our children as if they are little bonsai trees. We end up with something that is a lovely replica of a child we have created, and we say to our friends, 'Look at my child. Look what I've done. Look at my little masterpiece.'”
Lythcott-Haims pointed out that online grade-tracking programs, such as Power School, “are like a stock ticker – are they up? Are they down? I think things like Power School are ruining our children in terms of school and their relationship with their parents today. Imagine when you got home from work, and the people you love the most look at you and say, 'How was that meeting today? Did it go better than than meeting yesterday? Are you going to do better tomorrow?' That's how our kids feel. It's taking a toll.”
Citing 2013 survey results from 100,000 college students on 153 campuses, Lythcott-Haims said, “84.3 percent reported being overwhelmed. Sixty-five percent reported being sad. Fifty-one percent felt overwhelming anxiety. Forty-six percent felt that things were hopeless.”
Overly involved parenting “isn't about lifting our child to the summit, planting a flag in their hand and calling it an accomplishment. They must make the journey, largely by themselves. Just because you want your kid to be something that you weren't, that's not good. That's what therapy is for.”
Offering a path forward, Lythcott-Haims said, “If you think you might want to change things up in your house, here are three things you can stop doing:
“You can stop saying we when you mean your son or daughter. 'We're on the travel soccer team.' No you're not. Two, stop arguing with the authority figures in your kid's life – teachers, coaches, referees. Not every point must be argued. I'm saying to teach your kids to advocate for themselves. And third, stop doing their homework.
“Try a one-week experiment. Say, 'I know I'm usually obsessed with your homework, but I want to back off for a week.' Parents tell me there's more laughter in their homes when they do this. You can talk to your kids about something other than grades and homework and scores. You get to take an interest in them as human beings.
“This isn't neglectful parenting,” she said. “It's giving them a longer and longer leash every year, so that when they're 18 or 20, you can let go and have confidence. And, more importantly, they can have confidence.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.