The Kids Are Definitely Not Alright

Read below for my Q&A with former Stanford Dean of Freshmen, Julie Lythcott-Haims on the perils of overly-involved parenting and her aptly named book How to Raise an Adult.

Katie Couric: Do you think in some ways that the college bribery scandal is just a more extreme example of a larger pattern in which parents are doing whatever it takes to make sure their grown children succeed?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Definitely. Look, we all want our kids to succeed – there’s nothing wrong with that. But when we lie, cheat, and steal for our kids we’re being terrible role models, and we’re compromising their mental health because in essence we’re telling them, “You won’t be successful unless I rig the system for you.” (A kid who wakes up to that truth is going to be messed up for a long, long time.) And of course because you’re doing for your kid what they need to learn to do for themselves you’re basically creating a permanent role for yourself as your child’s “fixer.” And what happens when you’re dead and gone? The super-rich can buy lifetime servants for their grown children; the rest of us have to raise kids who will be able to fend for themselves! 

Katie: You’re the former dean of freshmen at Stanford. What sort of behavior did you notice from both students and their parents that troubled you?
Julie: We were seeing what every campus was seeing: a steady increase in the number of parents who wanted to be involved in the routine tasks of college life, and students who expected or at least didn’t mind all of that help. Parents were expressing concerns over grades to professors, got involved in roommate disputes, tracked deadlines, chose courses, registered them for class. In the early years we thought “Hmm? Why don’t they trust their student to do these things for themselves?” Then we came to appreciate that when a parent has always handled stuff for their kids in childhood, well maybe the student actually can’t do it on their own because they’ve never had the chance to practice. (And in college, it’s more complicated than in grade school, and the stakes are higher.) I think the thing that troubled me most was that the students didn’t shake their parents off and demand to handle things themselves. Instead they were grateful. I wondered to myself When will they hunger to #adult and what’s to become of them and all of us if they don’t?

Katie: What’s the line between supporting your kids and stifling their growth? What are the long-term effects of this kind of parenting?
Julie: It’s not a line. It’s a continuum. We’ve succeeded as parents when our offspring can fend without us. That’s our biological imperative, period. So, from the moment they learn to walk they’re learning to walk away from us. Now, we’re not supposed to let them walk into traffic or walk off of a cliff, but we are supposed to delight in seeing them grow more skills, strength, resilience, and confidence, and those things are built when the child does stuff for themselves. Every day more growth is possible. Trouble these days is we see everything they might do as a potential cliff. When we over-parent, either by over-protecting, fiercely directing what they do, or acting as their concierge, they don’t have basic life skills in the end. Their mental health suffers too. Overparenting is correlated with higher rates of anxiety and depression.

Katie: We’ve heard of helicopter parenting, but what exactly is snowplow parenting?
Julie: It’s just the latest term to describe parents who do too much for their kids. Visualize a snowplow – it shoves snow out of the way so the car coming behind gets where it needs to go. Trouble is, the stuff snowplow parents are shoving out of the way includes rules, ethics, even other human beings. It’s a “we’re coming through at all costs” approach. It has an insistence to it. A sense of entitlement. A velocity. It’s offensive.

Katie: If you could give parents one piece of advice to help them raise more self-sufficient, autonomous kids, what would it be?
Julie: Get your ego out of parenting. What I mean is, your kid is not you. They are not your project or your pet. Their achievements (and failures) are not yours. Shorthand for this is: Get a life and then maybe your kid can have one too! I offer parents this “One Week Cleanse” to help get things headed in the right direction.

Tell your kid:

  1. “Hey kid, I know I’m always on you about what happened on your tests, how your homework or applications are going, your other deadlines…”
  2. “And that can make you feel like I don’t think you care about this stuff.”
  3. “But I know you DO care.”
  4. “So, for one week I’m not going to ask about these things – AT ALL.”

Parents tell me there’s more laughter in their homes when they do this and a better overall relationship with their kid because they have stopped obsessing about the transactional things in kids’ lives and instead are just talking with kids about … life. And guess what? With more autonomy and space to breathe the kid usually feels like “OK, I’m going to do my own work. It’s on me now. Thank you.”

Katie: Two Stanford students have filed a class action lawsuit against eight universities charging that they weren’t given an equal admission opportunity and that their degrees are less valuable. What’s your take?
Julie: I understand these students’ frustrations; it’s embarrassing to see anyone affiliated with your school behave so unethically. But I don’t think these lawsuits are going to go anywhere. I don’t see how you have much of a case on the “equal admission opportunity” claim when you actually were admitted (someone who wasn’t admitted would have a stronger case). As for making the degree less valuable, there’s no evidence of that… yet.