How to raise an adult — a parent’s guide
During a decade as a counsellor at one of America’s elite universities, Julie Lythcott-Haims observed how the lines between adolescence and adulthood were becoming blurred.
Each year she witnessed more extreme parental interference in the lives of college students and saw increasing numbers of 18 to 22-year-olds being grateful for their parents’ intervention rather than trying to handle matters on their own. “The alarm bells really began ringing when I noticed that these young people, ostensibly the best and brightest among us, were still thinking of themselves as ‘kids’,” says Lythcott-Haims. She began to wonder, she says, when these young people would claim the label “adult” for themselves and, if they did not, what would become of a society populated by perpetual kids.
Parents are emotionally closer to their offspring these days, and vice versa, and that is a good thing, says the Harvard-educated lawyer and former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, California. Too much parental involvement in every aspect of children’s lives, however, is robbing young people of the chance to become healthy adults, she claims. In her new book, How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims says young people are so used to having everything done for them that they emerge into adulthood unfamiliar with their own selves. “The term I use in the book is ‘existentially impotent’ and it means that overparented children don’t have what it takes to be well psychologically and to be able to move through the world independently,” she says.
At the same time, none of this is making parents happy. She claims: “Mothers and fathers are living in the service of their children and they’re frazzled, worried and disillusioned. Parents need to go back and reclaim their own lives, and make time for work and hobbies and relationships that matter to them, so that they can model a healthy, vibrant, adult life. It’s no wonder ‘kids’ don’t want to be adults because we haven’t made adulthood look terribly enticing.”
There are three primary parenting styles, and mothers and fathers are doing some combination of all three, according to Lythcott-Haims. “We are overprotecting, thinking the world is a scary and unsafe place, putting buffers and guardrails in place for our kids to ensure a safe and cocooned environment, when the statistics don’t bear this out,” she says.
The second type is overdirection: “This is the Tiger Mom example of parenthood, imagining they know best about what leads to success and wanting their offspring to do as they say. It’s about what activities their child must pursue, the course of their studies, the type of school they must attend and the grades they must get. The parent believes this harsh approach will lead to the child’s success but, increasingly, studies show it leads to tremendous mental health difficulties.”
The third type is hand-holding: “It’s the parent who acts as a concierge or a personal assistant to their son or daughter and helps them fill out paperwork, reminds them of deadlines, gets the deadline extended and talks to the adult or authority figure on their behalf.”
Effectively, this means that young people are not doing the work of living life by themselves, Lythcott-Haims says: “Their path is being laid, they are being helped along the way and they reach a point of chronological adulthood or maturity not having lived enough of life to know themselves, to be able to cope with what life will throw at them, to be able to make their own decisions and to pick themselves up and move on when things inevitably happen. It leads to a dearth of life skills. It leads to a lack of habits and capabilities required in the workplace where things like taking the initiative, thinking outside the box and being willing to do the grunt work will be demanded of them. Their childhood has prepared them for exactly the opposite.”
How To Raise An Adult is full of anecdotes that the former Lythcott-Haims uses to illustrate her point — of determined parents acting as spokesmen for their shy and passive children and negotiating on their behalf with teachers, and then with employers.
“One young man came to campus and his parents had his possessions delivered in boxes to his dorm and they sat there, outside the building, because they were too big for him to carry himself and he didn’t know how to ask for help. It’s such a parenting fail,” she marvels.
A mother called Lythcott-Haims’s office in a panic because she had not heard from her daughter in 24 hours. Now 47, the former corporate lawyer remembers her own college days when students called their parents once a week from a phone box in the hallway. “Nowadays we can be in touch with our offspring and our parents at all times, but that doesn’t mean we ought to be,” she comments. “There is this psychological distance that we all need — to have room within our own minds, our own hearts and our own souls, to mull over our own observations as well as our own difficulties, and find out how we want to move on, and not to always be reaching for the cell phone to get reassurance from mum or dad or from our child.”
A New York Times review called the book the Black Hawk Down of helicopter parenting. It asked when the main aim of parenting became preparing children for success, using academic achievement as a measure of accomplishment. “I’ve said from the outset that this is a problem in middle-class and upper-middle-class communities. Overparenting doesn’t happen in the working class and among the poor because they’ve got much bigger things to focus on,” says Lythcott-Haims. “This is happening in communities where parents have disposable time and income. We’ve narrowed our vision of success to a set of universities or colleges that somebody has said is best, and to four or five careers that we’ve decided will lead to the right salary and professional prestige.”
Parents mean the best for their child and love them fiercely, she says, “but we’re making them feel like failures if they don’t get perfect grades, don’t get into the best schools or universities and don’t embark on one of the five or six careers that we’ve decided are worthwhile. As a former dean, I can tell you that I have sat with hundreds, if not thousands, of students who were on a path towards someone else’s definition of success and who were withering because this plan was not aligned with their own sense of self, with their own skills and their passions and values.”
Parents want their children to be happy but have not closely examined what that means, she says. “They think happiness comes from a job in engineering or finance or medicine instead of appreciating that fulfilment comes from doing work that feels right to their children,” says Lythcott-Haims. “Most parents are well-intentioned and think they are leading their kids to a happy life, but they’ve got it wrong. There are a small number of parents whose egos are so wrapped up in their kid’s performance that they don’t actually care if their kid is happy, they just want their kid to make them proud.”
In the book, the author quotes the analytical psychologist Carl Jung. “He said that the greatest harm to a child is the unlived life of the parent, and when parents are lacking in their own sense of fulfilment, the child takes that on as a burden and lives it on top of any burdens they have as their own,” she explains. “So there is the importance of separating. A child must have his or her own life and experiences.”
Lythcott-Haims has gathered studies on the toll of over-parenting. She quotes research from an addiction clinic in Los Angeles that compares the anxiety suffered by affluent teens and young adults to the rates of depression and anxiety suffered by incarcerated juveniles: “The director of this institution told me that until fairly recently her clients were always 30 to 40 years old, but now more of them are 18 to 25 and from affluent families. She said these young people have had too much done for them and feel helpless and turn to addictive behaviour. They feel they have to have control over something.”
The clinic operates a parental outreach programme, which has been affectionately nicknamed Mothers Without Borders. The leader of the programme reminds parents that they are not meant to carry children for ever. “We have to put them down and let them make their own way,” says Lythcott-Haims.
In other research in the book she says that moulding young people into dependent beings restricts their imagination. “We speak of dreams as boundless, limitless realms,” she writes in the book. “In reality we often create parameters, conditions and limits within which our kids are permitted to dream.”
What should parents do? In a chapter called Be the Parent You Want To Be, the author suggests that young people should be given free time and space to think. They should be given chores to help build their work ethic and, if they fail at a task, mothers and fathers should not rush in to help.
Parents have to stop saying “we” when they mean their son or daughter, as in “We are doing a science project or we are applying to college,” the books says. “Every time we put ourselves in there we are taking something away from our children,” she explains. “It’s their achievement or their struggle.”
Another recommendation is to stop arguing with the figures of adult authority in the children’s lives. “Those folks are bewildered because they are confronted all the time by seemingly well-intentioned parents who are contesting every little thing,” says Lythcott-Haims. “We have to teach our kids that authority figures are people who are trying to do a good job and who are worthy of respect. If there is a problem, we have to teach our sons and daughters that they are the ones to have the conversation with that adult: we can coach them but they shouldn’t depend on mum and dad to do it for them.”
Further advice is to let children do their own academic work. “This happens both at school and at college or university,” she says with a sigh.
Lythcott-Haims left her counselling job in 2012 and is now pursuing a masters degree in San Francisco, as well as writing. A mother of teenagers aged 13 and 16, she says she hopes her book does not come across as “finger-wagging”, because she has also been guilty of overparenting. “A few years ago I did a talk with parents at Stanford telling them to trust their sons and daughters, to trust the college and just go home. And then I sat down with my own family and leant over my ten-year-old and began cutting his meat for him,” she says with a laugh.
When parents loosen the grip on nonsensically high standards, teach their children to work hard and accept their vulnerability and imperfection and to build resilience, it pays off in spades. “Our goal is not to raise children but to raise adults,” she says.
Learn to let go
Put yourself first
Reclaim yourself. In order to be good role models, we need to put ourselves first. This may sound incongruous to parents, and to mothers in particular, but the airlines’ instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others is good advice for life generally.
Learn to say no
Step back from the overparenting herd and decline things that feel like petty obligations. Resist the urge to make PTA meetings run like a company board or to treat your turn in making snacks for sports day as a referendum on your worth as a human.
Examine your motives
Ask yourself honestly: are you encouraging your child to work hard, do a certain course, follow a certain path, because you want them to be happy — or because you want them to make you proud?
Let your child make mistakes
Give them chores to help to build a work ethic. If they fail at a task, don’t rush in to help. Let children at school and at university do their own academic work.