A funny story popped into my head as I was writing this blog post. About 10 years ago I was working as an HR Manager at a large multinational corporation. The company regularly recruited graduates from top graduate business programs for full-time positions after graduation. It was my job to get these students hired, onboarded and trained. One day, I got a call from the mom of a recent new hire. She was completing her son’s new-hire paperwork and wondered if I could help with some questions she had about the healthcare plan. Wait. What???!!!
This man was at least 25-years-old. He was a graduate of one of the best MBA programs in the entire world. And his mommy was calling me with questions? I was only 26 or 27 myself, but even then, I knew there was something dysfunctional about a parent being that involved in a grown child’s life.
This is the precise brand of over-parenting that Julie Lythcott-Haim’s book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, warns against. Lythcott-Haims served as dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and is a mother to two teenagers. In her book, she outlines the pitfalls of helicopter parenting, drawing from her experiences with her students at Stanford and parenting her own children. She candidly shares her own moments of over-enthusiastic parenting, like the time she hand-delivered her son’s preschool application two days after his birth – c-section recovery be damned. The book includes plenty of current, cited research to support her advice.
How to Raise an Adult is truly a must-read for every parent and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve pulled some of my favorite learnings below, but I highly recommend you give this one a read yourself.
Over-Parenting Comes in Different Forms
On page 94, Dr. Madeline Levine, psychologist and author, explains “the three ways in which parents might be over-parenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:
- When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
- When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
- When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own ego.”
- Solving kid’s problems for them. Whether settling a toy dispute between toddlers or calling another parent when their child doesn’t get invited to a birthday party, some parents want to smooth over any conflict in their child’s life.
- The concierge parent. This parent assists their child with everything, reminding him of deadlines, speaking on his behalf, or editing his term paper.
- The enforcer parent. This parent will engage authorities (teachers, school administrators, employers) to advocate for the best interest of their child. Lythcott-Haim’s gives an examples like a West-Point student whose parents called to argue the school’s roommate policy, or the parent of a former Peace Corps member who called the director after their child was terminated from the program.
- Intertwining our identity with our child’s. The act of parenting can give our lives purpose and fulfillment. That’s great. But when we become so involved with our child’s life that their life becomes ours, it problematic. Your child’s success or failure and choices don’t define you.
Why is Over-Parenting Problematic?
When I think about an overly-coddled child, my mind immediately flashes forward to a grown man-child living in his parent’s basement while he plays video games and “finds himself”. But there are other troubling outcomes of over-parenting according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, including a deficit of life skills, mental health problems including depression and anxiety, and an inability to cope with failure or disappointments.
How Can We Avoid Over-Parenting?
The brilliance of this book is the simple and practical approaches that Lythcott-Haim’s outlines. Her advice is broadly applicable and none of the recommendations cost anything to implement. I was hard-pressed to come up with my favorites, but here are a few:
1. Don’t do for your children what they can (or should be able to) do for themselves.
For example, it’s reasonable to expect your preschooler to carry her own backpack or your middle-schooler to email his teacher about a homework assignment. If it’s safe for your child to take the bus or walk to school himself, let him. Don’t go on every field trip or volunteer at every class party, even if you have the time. Purposely look for opportunities to let your child experience things herself.
2. Adopt an authoritative style of parenting.
There are four broad approaches to parenting: permissive/indulgent, neglectful, authoritarian, and authoritative, based on how demanding and responsive a parent is to his/her child. See pg. 146 for a full description of these styles and characteristics.
Authoritative parents are demanding (they set high standards, expectations and limits and enforce them with consequences). Yet they are responsive (emotionally warm, available, reason with children and give them the freedom to make choices and mistakes). This style of parenting is most effective, garnering “higher academic achievement, fewer symptoms of depression, and fewer problems with aggression, disobedience, and other antisocial behavior”.
3. Expect your child to speak up and communicate with adults.
Don’t speak on behalf of your child. For a younger child, this might mean ordering for himself in a restaurant or for a teenager, explaining her symptoms to the doctor or scheduling her own dentist appointment. My husband fondly tells the story of his dad always making him request a table at a restaurant or pay the bill at the end of the meal, even before he could see over the counter.
4. Let the playground be for kids only.
This is one I’m totally guilty of myself. When my kids are at the park, I regularly climb to the top of the slide with my toddler to make sure he gets there safely. To be fair, we know of one little boy who had a bad fall at a local park so since then I’ve become extra-vigilant. Still, I know I can be better about giving our younger son more freedom to explore his limits outdoors.
5. Let teachers and coaches do their jobs.
When we interfere with or second-guess how a coach, teacher or other authority figure teaches or disciplines our child, we undermine that person’s position. Unless the person is causing real harm to your child, take a step back. It might prove to be a great learning opportunity for you and your child.
6. Teach kids basic life skills.
Everyone knows that one kid that arrived at college not knowing how to do laundry. Don’t let your kid be that kid! Pages 166-170 have a sample set of life-skills for every age range. The basic idea is that over the years, we should be doing less for our children so that that by the time they’re adults, they’ll be able to function independently.
7. Give kids plenty of unstructured time.
The importance of free time, creative and messy play and lots of time spent outdoors is getting more attention in parenting and education circles, which is great. The same with not over-scheduling kids with too many classes and lessons. Pages 152-155 containt additional ideas on giving children more open time to play and explore.
8. Prepare them for hard work.
We’ve all heard the stereotype of the lazy, entitled millennial, right? So how do we prevent our kids from living up to it? We should certainly assign chores and responsibilities. But we also teach the value of hard work by creating opportunities for them to pitch in and expecting that they do it. Finally, following through with consequences when they don’t, and providing appropriate thanks and feedback when they do. Pages 201-206 might be my favorites in the entire book because they have truly actionable steps for every age from toddler to teen.
If you enjoyed this post or the book, check out this post on how to help children establish daily routines.
How are you preparing your kids for adulthood? Inquiring minds want to know so we can be inspired by what you’re doing.