August 2015

Julie Lythcott-Haims

A guide, not a friend
Interview by
Former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims warns about the pitfalls of overparenting in How to Raise an Adult.
Share this Article:

As the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims saw it all: parents who hovered over, interfered with, fretted about and took charge of their children's lives. In her new book, How to Raise an Adult, she warns about the pitfalls of overparenting and recommends approaches for raising more independent kids.

How hard was it to find parents willing to talk about the competitive parenting culture?
Parents were simultaneously both eager and reluctant to talk. They’d want to tell me their experience and then they’d literally look over their shoulder to see if anyone was listening to our conversation. After observing this time and time again, I sensed that the overparenting herd is like a bully. It gave me tremendous compassion for my fellow parents and made me feel it was crucial to write this book.

How would you describe your own parenting style?
I aim for authoritative (highly responsive with high demands) and increasingly I get it right, but my tendency is to veer toward the permissive/indulgent type (highly responsive with low demands). When I catch myself heading in that direction, if, for example, I feel bad for asking them to help with something around the house—which happens particularly when I see how busy they are with school and/or activities—I remind myself that they must learn not only to help out but to take the initiative to help out, and that I’m actually building skills they’ll need in the workplace, in relationships and in life.

You write that "many of us derive real pleasure from feeling like our kid's best friend." Why do you think that is?
Hey, it feels good to be needed and wanted and liked and depended upon. So many of us were raised in the “benign neglect” era of the ’70s and ’80s by parents who took a laissez-faire approach to raising us and weren’t attendant to our every experience. Maybe our inner child is responding to that by loving being the adult who demonstrably cares so much and is so present all the time. The thing is, yes our kid needs a best friend, but it shouldn’t be us. When we act like their best friend we’re giving in too much to our need both for that closeness and to our need to be seen as demonstrating that closeness, and we’re not remembering that parents have to teach and guide, which includes having high expectations and doling out consequences and which is not commensurate with being someone’s best friend.

You have a chapter on teaching life skills. What are the top three most important life skills to instill in a child?
Well, keep in mind that the life skills chapter focuses on the extremely practical nitty gritty things, like waking oneself up, feeding oneself, cleaning up after oneself, being responsible for one’s own things, mending and fixing things, and so on, and I can’t narrow it to three—we mustn’t pick and choose; kids need all of them! In other chapters I talk about things beyond basic life skills, such as developing a work ethic, learning to think for themselves, coping when things don’t go as hoped.

So of all the skills we want our adult offspring to have, I’d say the top three are:
1) be able to take care of their basic health and survival needs;
2) be able to earn a living;
3) be able to interact with other humans.

Look, I know it sounds absurdly basic, but in a society rampant with overparenting we’re stepping in and doing all of these things for our kids far longer than we ought to, and they end up as bewildered, helpless humans who may be adult chronologically but don’t know how to fend for themselves. We need to know that when that inevitable moment comes—when our son or daughter fledges the nest—that they’ll have what it takes to make their way. The point is they don’t magically learn this stuff at the stroke of midnight on their 18th birthday.

You echo Richard Louv's (Last Child in the Woods) worry that overstructured childhoods are "killing dreamtime." How do we preserve children's dreamtime?
Two things: First, we have to stop dreaming for them. Yes, we like to picture what our sons and daughters will be and do in the world, but we mustn’t do the dreaming for them (and then the scheming required to make those dreams come true).

Second, to Louv’s point, we need to protect time in our child’s life so they can be alone with their thoughts, with their own selves and with their own dreams. This means not overscheduling them—or, to put it differently, it means scheduling time to do nothing so they can explore the wilderness of their inner thoughts, and yes, form their own dreams.

How do your own teenaged children feel about your writing this book?
I sense that they’re very supportive. First, I think they know I believe in this work from the inside out, and since in our house we preach “do what you love” I think they realize they are seeing this mantra in action. Also as they’ve gotten older they’ve begun to see real life examples of what I write and talk about—such as a friend whose parents are always worried about their whereabouts and keep them on a short leash, a friend whose parents make all the arrangements/plans or fill out forms for them, a friend who is under tremendous pressure from parents over grades, or a friend pursing an activity just because “colleges want to see it.” They come home and they talk about what they’re seeing and how it impacts their friend. And believe me, when I veer toward the helicopter-y in my interactions with them, they don’t hesitate to call me on it.

You served as dean of freshmen at Stanford for many years, and write passionately in your book about what you call a broken college admissions system. What needs to be done to fix it?
Take a school like Stanford or Harvard. Thirty years ago, when I was applying, you needed high grades and scores, well-roundedness, and some great recommendations. A teenager today needs grades and scores that hover around perfect, plus leadership (shown via activities), plus service, plus the all important yet frustratingly elusive singular notable achievement—their fruits of their so-called “passion”—in order to get in. But a week still contains only 168 hours, and an adolescent is still an adolescent. Effectively we’re asking teenagers to claw over each other and treat each other as fierce competitors for an opportunity that required far less of teenagers a generation ago. No wonder the rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm behaviors are on the rise in their population. (I used to say that if the Admissions folks on each campus talked more frequently with their colleagues in Counseling and Psychological Services maybe then we’d make some changes. In the meantime a kid can get community service credit designed to impress a college admission dean for attending a workshop on ameliorating their own stress and burnout. The irony!) Of course nobody intended this, but this is where we now find ourselves.

What to do? In my view only the colleges and universities with the biggest brand names can really shift our national thinking and behaviors. At least that’s what parents regularly tell me. These schools could state that yes, they want high achievers but that they value health and wellness, too, and they don’t expect a kid to mortgage their childhood in order to get into college. They could then put their money where their mouth is by limiting the number of AP scores they’ll look at. Another idea floating out there is that schools would use GPA and SAT/ACT as a cutoff to determine who has the academic/intellectual chops to succeed on their campus, and then take the grades and scores off the table so they’re not staring admission officers in the face as they decide whom to admit from among the thousands who made the cutoff. (What I mean is, a kid with a 4.259 isn’t inherently more capable than a kid with a 3.963, yet those numbers staring you in the face make you think so.) Of course, both a school’s bond rating and its US News ranking goes up as those median scores in the admitted class go up, so it takes a school strong enough to stand up to those pressures to be able to make this change.

And finally, we parents shouldn’t wait for those changes to be made. There are 2,800 accredited four-year colleges and universities in our nation and I’d wager that as with anything he top 5 percent are truly marvelous. That’s 140 schools. We need to widen our blinders and encourage our kids to look at a wider range of schools. For parents who need convincing: Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the utilitarian value in going to the “lesser” school—aka the big fish/small pond effect; your kid will do best at a college where they can be in the top 10 percent, not at the most highly selective school where they may end up in the bottom half of the class.

What was the most egregious example of helicopter parenting you saw in your years at Stanford? 
To me, egregious was simply a parent supplanting themselves in a role their son or daughter should easily have been able to play at that age, such as a parent who was unhappy with a grade and wanted to contest it with the professor, or a parent who wanted to be involved in resolving a roommate problem. These are the things that would make a professor or administrator say to themselves, “Really?”

How does a parent know he or she is on the right track to raising an adult?
You know you’re on the right track first and foremost if in your own head you know that your job as a parent is to put yourself out of a job by raising your kid to independent adulthood (where independence equals not turning to you to handle/fix/resolve everything) and when you appreciate that every day offers a chance to build that independence, no matter what age and stage your kid’s at.

It also means knowing and believing that your kid is a unique individual with skills and passions to be discovered and supported, not a little robot designed to carry out your plans and dreams.

It means knowing that no grade, school or score is going to make or break them—it’s the character and good habits they develop that will make them successful in their endeavors.

Finally, it means accepting that life is long and the lessons learned along the way are our kid’s greatest teacher. We fool ourselves by thinking we can neatly lay a path for them and fix or engineer every outcome – a kid raised that way may appear to have “succeeded” but inside they’ll know they haven’t done it for themselves, which will be very damaging to them psychologically.

In practice this means:

1) not saying “we” when you really mean your son or daughter (“we’re” on the travel soccer team; “we’re” doing a science project; “we’re” going to college).

2) not arguing with the authority figures in your kid’s life (teachers, principals, coaches, referees) and instead teach them to cope with difficult outcomes and to advocate for themselves if something really needs to be done (such as a test graded incorrectly.

3) not doing your kid’s homework. (Teach them how to do that math problem, but don’t do it for them; advise them about crafting an argument more effectively, but don’t sit at the computer and rewrite the essay or hand them a marked up essay and suggest they just input changes; talk with them about how to fill out an application but don’t do it for them.)

4) not acting as if their grades/scores and the colleges they get admitted to are the indicators of their worth and value as humans.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our feature on How To Raise an Adult and four other new parenting books.


Get the Book

How to Raise an Adult

How to Raise an Adult

By Julie Lythcott-Haims
ISBN 9781627791779

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Interviews