In the decade that Julie Lythcott-Haims served as dean of freshmen at Stanford University, she had a front row seat to watch 18- and 19-year-olds set sail away from their parents and enter the unchartered waters of adulthood. A shocking number of parents, however, hopped into the boat with their kids – and tried to steer the ship.
Witnessing the control parents had over their college students and realizing that she was overparenting her own two children led Lythcott-Haims to research the impact that today’s approach to childrearing is having on our kids. She details her research and personal experience in her book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”
When parents step in to help their children, even if they do so with the best of intentions, they are fostering dependence in their children, not independence. “Even though intentions are good, there is harm in the outcome,” says Lythcott-Haims, noting that a parent’s involvement means that children are not developing the life skills they will need as adults. She hopes that her book and message can help parents refocus.
“We have forgotten our purpose and lost our ways as parents,” she says. “We’re at a real tipping point where we see our young people are suffering. Childhood has become a protected cell that is safe but full of high expectations, and it harms our kids. The soaring rates of mental health difficulties [are] alarming.”
She says parenting is not about whether you should be “free-range” or “helicopter,” and instead should be more about having a high level of thought around the values and purpose you have as a parent. She says that purpose should be raising kids to become adults, which seems clear. What is less obvious, however, is how to do that. What parents have long thought were the keys to raising successful kids is instead resulting in a “failure to launch” for many young adults.
“Having a high GPA is not sufficient,” Lythcott-Haims explains. “Kids also need to feel competent in the world. They need to feel they can turn within to their own mind and heart to manage opportunities, challenges and conflict.”
She says that for many parents, it’s a challenge to let go. “Many of us have money and time at our disposal, and we think that we can manage every moment and engineer every outcome. There’s a lot of hubris in that,” she says. “We can’t control every outcome. Moreover, it’s the failings and mess ups of life that actually strengthen us.”
Preparing kids for life means not making every situation perfect, but rather ensuring that they can handle the inevitable mistakes they will make and the curveballs that will come their way.
“How to Raise an Adult” explores the things parents do that result in overparenting, the reasons overparenting needs to stop, the case for parenting another way and a challenge to parents to dare to parent differently.
“Our egos are intertwined with our kids’ accomplishments in an unhealthy way,” Lythcott-Haims says.
She encourages parents to step back from trying to be “super moms” or “super dads” who are devoted solely to their children. Parents should reclaim themselves. Be the kind of human and parent you really want to be – one with an identity and self-worth not wrapped up around your offspring, advises Lythcott-Haims. In doing so, not only is it likely that parents will feel less stressed, but they will set a great example, showing their children that you don’t have to do it all to be happy.
Want to learn more about “How to Raise an Adult”?
Lythcott-Haims will be appearing at events around Chicago Oct. 8-14, including at a Family Action Network event at Glenbrook North High School on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m.
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