Contributor: Jacob Adler
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life Stew spoke with Julie Lythcott-Haims who served as Stanford University’s Dean of Freshmen for a decade, where she received the Dinkelspiel Award for her contributions to the undergraduate experience. She’s a mother of two teenagers and has spoken and written widely on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting. They spoke about her book, How To Raise An Adult and about how parents can manage the start of the school year with hectic schedules filled with new activities while helping to teach children about, instill in children, a sense of valuing what’s truly important to them and their families
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stewart Friedman: As a former dean of freshmen at Stanford and as a parent of teens yourself, you’ve been sitting in the catbird seat watching helicopter parents and overwhelmed young adults. Parents and students are now starting the new school year, which is always filled with a flurry of all new activities, meetings, carpooling, after-school commitments, and more, what should parents do, or avoid doing, to start the year to really pursue the ideal of raising strong, resilient individuals and competent young adults?
Julie Lythcott Haims: I’ve got a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old here in Palo Alto, California, which is a high-pressure, high-stakes environment. My kids are in high school, a freshman and a junior, so I’m right there in the thick of it with any parent listening. My son is the elder, he is 16, and my daughter is 14. I moved from being a college dean who was worried about the encroachment of parents into the life of college students, which is happening on my campus at Stanford, and happening nationwide as well. Tier-one, -two, and -three, four-year institutions have been noticing that more and more parents are feeling the need to be very involved in the lives of their college-aged sons and daughters. Over the years I began to appreciate the link between what those parents were doing and what they were fearing and why they were so involved. I began to see the link between that and childhood itself. I realized I was on track to becoming one of those parents who couldn’t let go. I was doing so much for my kids when they were quite young.
SF: What did you discover about what motivates these parents to be over-involved?
JLH: We’re motivated by fierce love for our kids and we want the very best for them. If we are affluent, if we are middle-class or beyond, we have a tremendous sense of our own ability to control outcomes. We think the world is scary and unsafe and we believe that we can be our children’s bumpers and guardrails; that we can protect and prevent every bad thing from happening. We’ve lost sight of the fact that usually our job is to prepare our kids for that unfortunate but inevitable day when we’re gone. Yes, it might help them achieve a short-term win if we are always smoothing the path or arguing with a teacher or a coach or doing their homework for them – all the things that over-helping parents do these days. But long-term, children end up feeling incapable of making their way without a parent’s help, and that messes them up psychologically. It means they’re ill-equipped for a workplace that wants them to know how to make a plan, how to take the initiative, how to think two and three steps ahead, and how to lead. I saw, that with the best of intentions, with a lot of love but also a lot of fear, fear of things like strangers, and fear of things like elite college admissions, we’ve become over-helpers. When I first wrote about this issue 10 years ago in an op-ed for Chicago Tribune all I had were my good hunches as a freshman dean that this looks problematic. I’m working with young adults, they look very impressive in a GPA, transcript and resume sense, but they don’t seem to have a sense of self. They’re constantly checking in with mom or dad for guidance on what to do, how to do it, how to resolve a situation, and I thought what’s to become of them and more importantly, what’s to become of us at a societal level, if this generation of adults can’t take the mantle of leadership, what will become of all of us? If they have not got the ability to think and do and speak for themselves, if they can’t recover from failure? One of the very important critiques that’s come since my book was published almost three months ago is that this is only pertaining to the affluent. As I said at the top of the show, this happens in affluent communities where parents have the disposable time and income to spend on cultivating their kids’ every moment, and hovering on the sidelines of their every activity. But I wouldn’t dismiss it as a non-problem. Kids who are raised this way end up with higher rates of anxiety and depression, because they haven’t had the chance to form a healthy psychological self if mom or dad has been doing the hard work of life for them.
SF: Which is much less likely in lower-income parts of our society where people have to become more self-sufficient because of their economic circumstances, right?
JLH: That’s the beautiful irony. As dean, I could tell that my students who were from poor and working-class backgrounds had a greater sense of self, a greater sense of ‘I can apply my effort to achieving these outcomes,’ I can figure this out. They had made it to college. Those kids, as many educators are prone to saying these days, might actually leave their more affluent counterparts in the dust. If a poor or working-class kid gets a decent education and a good mentor, their life experience has given them important grit, resilience, perseverance, all of that stuff they’re going to need to succeed. Whereas their more affluent counterparts who have been hand-held and maybe coddled too much are what one Massachusetts superintendent called ‘veal.’
SF: Could you give us an example of a difference between helping, supporting, and giving other opportunities for growth, and helping too much? Where is that line?
JLH: The line is present in almost every moment. Philosophically, what we really need to get into our heads is that our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job and raise our offspring to independent adulthood. We’ve succeed if they are capable. We pretend our kids are only going to ever live within a one-mile radius of us and that we will always be there to solve their problems. It’s loving and it’s helpful in the short-term, but it really cripples them long-term.
SF: How does this play out in everyday life?
JLH: Childhood will prepare a kid for independent adulthood if we’ll let it. Here’s an example: There are communities which are particularly focused on a kid’s performance in school and their activities. We tend to absolve kids of chores. All a kid has to do is say, ‘I’m busy, I have a test tomorrow, I have a lot of homework,’ and we let them off the hook for dishes and garbage.
SF: The resume is more important than the reality of contribution to everyday family life.
JLH: We think that but we’re wrong. One of the things lacking in young adults that harms them in the workplace is they don’t have life skills. They don’t know how to wake themselves up, they don’t know how to keep track of deadlines, they don’t know how to make meals, they don’t know how to help clean the house, so they’re not learning to take care of themselves and pitch in for the good of the whole, which are the traits they will be valued for in the workplace. We need to give our kids responsibilities around the house, we can’t treat them as little academic machines who only need to produce A’s on tests and quizzes and homework. They also need to be helping us clean up, helping us maintain the house, helping us make meals, and helping us clean clothing. In my book there is a whole chapter on teaching kids life skills. Many parents, including me, are shocked when reading a list of what two- and three-year-olds are capable of, and four- and five-year-olds are capable of, and so on. There are many, many cultures in the world where, in the absence of affluence where so much in the work of life is taken care of by someone you hire or a machine, kids actually develop hard skills that teach them to be capable human beings.
SF: In the moment when I’m deciding ‘am I going to let her off the hook and she doesn’t have to do the dishes so she can be ready for that exam so she can get a higher grade thereby increasing her chances of getting into a good school’, how do I resolve that? How do I even know as a parent that I’m wrestling with that dilemma? How do I become conscious enough to be able to make an intelligent choice about raising an independent, resilient child?
JLH: I think if you are frequently letting them off the hook, frequently saying, ‘you’ve got so much homework, therefore you don’t have to do the dishes or you don’t have to go to bed,’ these are indicators that our priorities are out of whack. We’ve let school become this tyrannical force that gets to dictate how much homework our kids will do in order for our hoped-for outcome, which is that they get the right grades. Kids in communities like mine aren’t getting enough sleep, and pediatricians are screaming at us to pay attention to that because it’s a really strong indicator of mental health problems and worse.
SF: Not to mention attention and their capacity to actually withstand a whole day of school.
JLH: Again, the philosophy is that our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job by raising a kid to independent adulthood. Here’s what we can stop doing if we’re over-parenting. Number one: stop saying ‘we’ when you really mean your son or your daughter. We are really prone to saying, ‘we’re on the travel soccer team, we’re doing this science project, we’re applying to college this fall,’ and we’re not. In some ways it’s revealing just how intertwined we are with our kids’ lives. This linguistic change might help us to become more mindful of the fact we are too intertwined. These are our sons’ and daughters’ efforts, accomplishments, and achievements. Say ‘my daughter’, not ‘we’. Number two: stop arguing with every adult in their path. We’ve decided we can and should control and perfect every outcome, so we are much more likely as parents these days to be all up in a teacher’s face, a principal’s face, or with a coach or a referee. These folks are under siege from well-meaning but over-involved parents who don’t trust that their kid can possibly have that conversation on their own behalf. So we teach them that authority is always to be argued with, and of course we’re a free-thinking democracy, we don’t want to just follow some arbitrary rules, even if they come from a teacher or a coach. We have the right to question, but we mustn’t always question. We have to teach kids that adults are to be respected for the most part, but when something does need to be raised, for example, ‘I’d like more playing time, I didn’t understand this concept, I think you graded this essay unfairly,’ we’ve got to teach our kids to advocate for themselves or else we’ll be those parents who are calling up the professor.
SF: How do we do that?
JLH: You sit down with them and say, ‘okay honey, I know you worked on this essay, how are you feeling about it?’ ‘I’m not feeling very good, I didn’t get a very good grade.’ ‘What do you want to do about that?’ ‘Well mom, what do you think I should do?’ You as the mom or dad can say, ‘Go and talk to your teacher and say I got the essay back, I’d like to go over it with you. I’d like to understand what it is that you’re concerned about, how I might have made a better effort.’ We want to teach our kids, through trial-and-error, that they can continually improve. We can coach them about how to have a conversation, rather than do it for them, because if we do it, they will never have the skill. And I’ve seen that in 18-22 year-olds and it looks really unfortunate.
SF: What do you mean?
JLH: They’re chronologically adult but they’re still reliant on mom or dad to have that conversation on their behalf. The term I’ve coined is ‘existential impotence.’ You don’t want that for your kid. When they’re 20, I don’t care how beautiful their GPA is or how impressive their SAT score is. If they don’t have what it takes to make a plan on their own behalf, make a choice between competing opportunities, go and seek help when they’re struggling, contend with disappointment, sit with their own unhappiness and mull it over and come up with a solution and a way forward, what hope do they have? Stop doing their homework. It sounds obvious, but parents are over-helping. Parents are correcting the math problems so the kid gets a better grade, but the kid never learns. All the kid learns is that my mom or dad always needs to correct my homework, I’m not actually capable. It damages them. We might get the higher grade for them, but, number one, it’s unethical and number two, the teacher doesn’t know what the kids in the class are actually understanding. Number three, the kid thinks, ‘I can’t do it without my mom or dad. ’
SF: Let me offer an observation. We did a study a couple years ago comparing the Class of 1992 to the Class of 2012. We surveyed the students when they were graduating seniors here in 1992, and we did the same thing for the Class of 2012, so we have a 20-year longitudinal study. One of the startling things we found was that young people today, men and women, are much less likely to plan to have or adopt kids. It was 79% that said yes to that question in 1992 yet only 42% said yes just a couple years ago. It’s a complex story and I’m not going to get into the details of it here, but one of things that I’ve heard while going around speaking about this to college students and others is that, and this really took me aback, is that one of the reasons that young people today fear having children is that they feel pressure to produce a high-achieving child. They don’t want to be in a position of having failed to have produced a child who gets into Harvard. That pressure is being felt by young adults today and it’s turning them off from the whole concept of even becoming a parent. So what do we do about that problem?
JLH: We have to make adulthood look a lot more attractive than we’re making it look. This gets to your earlier point about if we can back off our kids and not hover so much, we free ourselves up to live a rich, vibrant adult life, which by the way, shows kids that adults do live rich, vibrant lives and that adult lives are not simply spent shuttling children around and standing on the sidelines. For their sake and for ours, we need to get our own lives back and stop being so obsessed with cultivating our kids every moment. I’m guessing that not only is there the pressure of cultivating a perfect child, we’ve just made adulthood seem terribly unattractive.
They’re refusing to claim the adult label for themselves. We started calling college students ‘kids’ in the prior decade. When you and I were in college, we didn’t refer to ourselves as kids, we didn’t call a 25-year-old a kid either. You were a man; I was a woman. If we’re going to let 18- to 25-year-olds of affluent families off the hook and call them emerging adults, or not really adults, or adults who still need a whole lot of hand-holding from mom or dad, we have to completely rethink the way we run the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. We’re happy to say to a kid for whom those are the best choices out of high school, ‘go fight and die for your country, you have what it takes.’ We’re happy to call them adults, but somehow we’re letting college kids off the hook when it comes to responsibility and accountability.
SF: What do you want to leave our listeners with as your best advice?
JLH: I’m in this with you, I’ve had these tendencies myself. We’ve been duped into believing that there are a small number of colleges that are the only ones we can be proud to send our kids to, and that’s what motivates a lot of our crazy behavior. US News and World Report college ranking is wrong. There are probably 140 fantastic schools in this country, most of which don’t have cutthroat admissions rates. Be willing to look into those, be willing to embrace those and you’ll discover your kid’s high school experience is far happier and less stressful, and your life will be less stressful as well.
To learn more about Julie Lythcott-Haims visit www.HowToRaiseAnAdult.com and follow her on Twitter @DeanJulie
About the Author
Jacob Adler, W’18, is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, and Fake Teams.