As the former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and a mother raising two kids in the surrounding upscale Palo Alto, Calif., community, Julie Lythcott-Haims has seen the Olympics of overparenting: jockeying for spots at preschools, private coaching to snare a place on the middle-school soccer team, and professional counseling to hone college applications.
She details the dangers of such uber parenting in her new book, “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” Lythcott-Haims joins a growing field of experts warning the intense focus of middle-class and affluent parents on their children’s success is fostering a generation of anxious, over-scheduled and overshadowed kids.
Fearful of letting their children stumble in a world that seems intolerant of missteps, today’s helicopter parents raise their kids by checklists designed to create childhoods that are safe and structured and culminate in good colleges and careers. In the narrow script for success, children have to attend the right schools, play sports and join clubs. The problem now, said Lythcott-Haims, is many educated parents consult the same checklist, so kids have to do more to stand out. Kids can no longer just join clubs; they have to start them.
Treating childhood as a résumé builder and packaging kids like products can produce results, said Lythcott-Haims, “if college admissions is all you are about. But when you package your kids, they know it. What you are effectively telling them is, ‘You are incapable of being successful without me.’”
In one example of extreme parent hovering in the book, a woman whose son landed a job at a prestigious New York bank called his boss to complain about the long hours. When her son arrived at work the next day, security met him at the elevator and handed over his belongings in a box with the note, “Ask your mother.”
Citing research that kids suffer burnout and diminished self-worth when their parents commandeer their choices and their lives, Lythcott-Haims said, “We have to have the guts to ask the bigger-picture question: To what end are we doing all this? We have to take the longer view. Our kids may not get into a certain set of 20 top colleges. That’s OK. There are 2,800 accredited colleges in the United States. There’s a great education to be had at many schools. If they arrive at college or the workplace breathless and brittle, they will not have what it takes in terms of mental health and stamina.”
Lythcott-Haims — who will speak at a public event at Lambert High School in Suwanee on Aug. 25 — doesn’t deny the complicity of elite colleges like Stanford in the narrative of the wunderkind teenager who crowdfunds an orphanage in India, earns perfect SAT and ACT scores and, in her spare time, performs with a Balkan women’s choir.
“I don’t think elite schools are making parents do their kids’ homework,” she said in a telephone interview earlier today. However, she said college admissions offices have raised the stakes by celebrating the rising accomplishments of their applicants each year.
And there is a payoff to colleges in emphasizing higher achieving applicant pools — higher rankings on lists such as the widely revered U.S. News & World Report annual best colleges.
Her advice to students: Figure out what you are good at, what you love and what you value. Plan your life accordingly.
Her advice to parents: Let your kids fail. “When we clap and chirp, ‘Great job, buddy’ at every turn, we aren’t helping our children. We undercut their ability to understand what does it actually take to achieve when the judges and people on the sidelines are not your parents.”