Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade asÂ a dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished andÂ virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of taking care of themselves.
At the same time, parents were becoming more and more involved in their childrenâ€™s lives. They talked to their children multiple times a dayÂ and swooped in to personally interveneÂ anytime something difficult happened.
From her position at one of the worldâ€™s most prestigious schools, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have beenÂ hobbling their children byÂ trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment and failure and hardship.
Such â€œoverhelpingâ€ might assist children in developing impressive resumes for college admission. But it also robs them of the chance to learn who they are, what they love and how toÂ navigate the world, Lythcott-Haims argues inÂ her book â€œHow to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.â€
â€œWe 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,â€ she writes. â€œIt can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.â€
Lythcott-HaimsÂ is one of a growing number of writers â€” includingÂ Jessica Lahey (â€œThe Gift of Failureâ€) and Jennifer Senior (â€œAll Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthoodâ€) â€” who areÂ urgingÂ stressed-out helicopter parents to breathe and loosen their grip on their children.
â€œDonâ€™t call me a parenting expert,â€Â she said in an interview.Â â€œIâ€™m interested in humans thriving, and it turns out that overparenting is getting in the way of that.â€
She cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nationâ€™s young people. She has seen the effects up close: Lythcott-HaimsÂ lives in Palo Alto, Calif., a community that,Â following a string of suicides in the past year, has undertakenÂ a period ofÂ soul-searching aboutÂ whatÂ parents can do to stem the pressure thatÂ young peopleÂ face.
Her book tour isÂ taking her to more school auditoriums and parent groups than bookstores. She tells stories about over-involvedÂ mothers and fathers, and shares statistics about rising depression and other mental health problems in young people, thatÂ she hopes willÂ spark changeÂ in communities around the country where helicopter parents are making themselves, and their kids, miserable.
â€œOur job as a parent is to put ourselves out of a job,â€ sheÂ said. â€œWe need to know that our children have the wherewithal to get up in the morning and take care of themselves.â€
So are you a helicopter parent? Here are some of Lythcott-Haimsâ€™s simple tests:
- Check your language. â€œIf you say â€˜weâ€™ when you mean your son or your daughter â€” as in, â€˜Weâ€™re on the travel soccer teamâ€™ â€” itâ€™s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy,â€ Lythcott-Haims said.
- Examine your interactions with adults in your childâ€™s life. â€œIf youâ€™re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, itâ€™s a sign youâ€™re a little too invested,â€ she said. â€œWhen weâ€™re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.â€
- Stop doing their homework. Enough said.
And how can parents help their childrenÂ become self-sufficient? Teach them the skills theyâ€™ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own, Lythcott-Haims said. And have them do chores. â€œChores build a sense of accountability. They build life skills and a work ethic.â€
Lythcott-Haims said many parents ask how they can unilaterally deescalate in what feels like a college-admissions arms race. How can they relax about getting their child into Harvard if every other parent is going full speed ahead?
She said colleges could help tamp down on the admissions craze by going test-optional, leaving it up to students whether to submit SAT or ACT scores. And perhaps top-tier schools couldÂ agreeÂ to limit the number of such schools that each student may apply to, she said.
She urges families to think more broadly about what makes for a â€œgoodâ€ college. There are excellent educational experiences to be had at schools that arenâ€™t among U.S. News and World Reportâ€™s top 20, she says, and there are schools that will accept students who donâ€™t have a perfect resume.
Parents need to see that even children who succeed in doing the impossible â€” getting intoÂ Stanford, or Harvard, or other elite schoolsÂ â€” bear the scars of the admissions arms race.
â€œTheyâ€™re breathless,â€ Lythcott-Haims said. â€œTheyâ€™re brittle, theyâ€™re old before their time.â€