As the Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims never dreamt she would eventually be known as a parenting expert. After all, working at such a prestigious university with some of the highest achieving post-secondary students from America and beyond, one would expect that regular interactions with parents would have been the furthest from her daily routine. In fact, that’s pretty much how it was for Lythcott-Haims until the late 1990s.
That’s when she noticed an increasingly worrisome trend of parents showing up on her campus, taking a far more active role in their “children’s” education and university existence. Fast forward to present day, and she would argue that never before have university students gone to tertiary education with such over-involved parents. In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims says we can trace the genesis of over-parenting to four distinct moments in the 1980s:
- fear of “stranger danger” due to a few instances of child abduction and death that were on every news headline;
- the proliferation of the adult-mediated playdate, where parents began taking on a greater-than-ever role in organizing, structuring, and intervening on children’s play;
- the publication of A Nation at Risk, a seminal text which warned Americans that their children were falling behind their global counterparts in achievement; and
- the “self-esteem movement”.
This created, in her opinion, three distinct, yet often overlapping, types of over-involved parenting behaviours:
It may be unsurprising, then, that the percentages of students feeling lost and anxious at university are staggering:
- 84% say they are overwhelmed;
- 60% identify as sad;
- 57% claim to be lonely; and
- 50% admit to feeling anxious.
In Lythcott-Haims’ view, we are currently experiencing the consequences of all this interference on childhood. Our grown adult children just can’t seem to function without us because we’ve never taught them how. They are experiencing, as she calls it, “existential impotence.” The solution, she adds, is pretty simple. Instead of parenting with fear of danger lurking around every corner, we should allow our kids the opportunity to encounter and learn how to manage difficult situations. Rather than acting as their personal manager or agent for life decisions, we must proverbially show them where to look, but not tell them what they see. Finally, we should remember that we are not our childrens’ personal, live-in staff; we are the caring, yet authoritative leaders of our families.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book whose ideas follow me around throughout the entire day to such an extent. I see Lythcott-Haims’ admonishments and advice in my vista from the moment I pack the kids’ lunches in the morning to the time when I kiss them goodnight in bed. “Put independence in your kid’s way”, she states in the book, and it’s become a mental mantra for me. I’ve realized, however, that there’s an irony in consciously trying hard to not be over-involved. Moreover, I keep wondering how we got to this place culturally as parents, and to what extent it’s possible to break free.
It always seems more expeditious to stop your child from taking a certain risk, tell them what they should do when in doubt, and/or tie those darn laces because… she’s going to take forever and probably won’t do a good job which will mean they’ll come undone then I’ll just have to tie them anyway or worse yet she’ll trip and fall and then I’ll have to deal with a scraped knee and damn we’re out of the My Little Pony bandaids…
But then I ask myself, “If you were looking for guidance, leadership, or support from someone, would you seek it from someone who would base their decisions primarily on their anxieties and desire to come upon the most expeditious, temporary solution?” I wouldn’t either. Which is why there are a couple of little things I’m making the effort (and not always succeeding) to do/not do for my children:
- play with them whenever they’re “bored”;
- help them with homework just because it’s challenging;
- interfere in all sibling squabbles;
- getting overly excited about “accomplishments” that actually aren’t accomplishments;
- getting overly sad about their sad moments;
- expecting perfect rule-following (except my own – haha).
So, instead of getting in my kids’ way, I’m going to try and get in my own. I’ll let you know how it goes.