How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, Henry Holt and Company, 2015

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March 9, 2016

In the introduction to this book, the author remembers that “by the time I stepped down as dean at Stanford in 2012 I had interacted not only with a tremendous number of parents but with students who seemed increasingly reliant upon their parents in ways that felt, simply, off.” “Helicopter parenting” , “invasive parenting”, and the “cult of intensive mothering” refer to protecting and shielding children with good purposes with the unintended consequence of crippling a child’s mental health and self-reliance. Parenting practices that we consider normal in this day and age, rather than protecting a teenager’s resilience, can contribute to stunted development and an overdependence on the parents themselves. Her book makes a powerful argument by exposing the current state of childhood, the very cogent reasons to stop overparenting, and a better way to parent, which is not based on fear.

Why is there the cultural phenomenon of overparenting? The parents of today’s children are themselves either Baby Boomers or members of Generation X, both who had either distant relationships with their own parents or were parented with benign neglect, being the first generation of widespread divorce in the U.S. Many current parents struggled with infertility, going through great lengths to have children, so the raising of those children becomes the focal point of their lives. There is a pervasive fear of stranger abduction, with much publicized horrid cases such as Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugan, and Adam Walsh, whose father, John Walsh, became an advocate for victim’s rights and the host of America’s Most Wanted television show. As a result, it is highly unusual to see children walking by themselves under the age of 13, playing unsupervised in neighborhoods or traveling on public transporation unaccompanied. The actual statistics on stranger abduction show that 0.01% of abductions are by strangers and the 99.99% are by family members, have run away, or families do not want them to return. Another powerful force on shaping childhood is the “College Admissions Arms Race”. The author refers to the “checklisted childhood” where in addition to academic classes starting in kindergarten, children are shuttled from activities ranging from foreign language, to art, sports, dance which fill their day, allowing for no free time, which parents arrange to strategize their offspring into elite colleges. Even into adulthood, parents want “to be there” for their child, so parents are now seen hovering on the sidelines at rites of passage such as the West Point end of basic training twelve-mile march back to campus. Colonel Gus Stafford, Chief of Staff at West Point, tells the author, “But unwittingly (the parents) diminish the experience and the accomplishment of the individual who might have done it all on their own.”

The author offers many excellent suggestions on how to reclaim childhood for this generation while teaching self sufficiency and resilience. One of the first is for parents to have a wider mind-set about colleges and remove the pressure that only a certain type of college, namely those with an admission rate of less than 10%, is the only type of college that is acceptable for guaranteeing a bright future. Don’t allow a child to become involved in extra curricular activities or community service solely to get into college. Do allow children to own their own work (do not use your own glue gun on the child’s diorama) and allow them to fail. When children fail, they can respond and pick themselves up, and keep going. Instead of protecting them from every possible problem, parents can teach them how to navigate the difficulties and have life skills. Children should do chores and learn how to cook, clean and do laundry, so that they can take care of themselves by the time they do go to college.

Her message to parents is instead of “concerted cultivation” of your child’s life, get a life of your own full of the interests that you have. Do not spend your whole life driving children around and do not live your unrealized dreams through your children. As parents we must find our own passions, keep healthy and make time for our important relationships besides our children. Often a parent will say, “I just want my child to be happy.” In fact, that innocuous sounding statement places grew pressures on a child. “They feel if they’re not happy, they’re failing. Periods of unhappiness are okay and our kids need to know that; it’s the struggle that makes you who you are.” (284) 

A clear message to today’s parents supported by studies and feedback from children themselves can be summarized by a quote from the conclusion of this book: “As parents our dream was to have a child, but we can’t forget that our children have the right to dream for themselves…We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm. It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”