As dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims encountered her share of helicopter parents, as well as students who’d been impaired by overparenting. “I’ve come across college students who don’t know how to pump gas because their parents always filled the tank for them,” she says.
Encounters like those — and her recognition of her own bent toward hovering — led Lythcott-Haims to write How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success (Henry Holt and Company, 2015). Scouting caught up with her during a recent book tour to learn more.
The obvious problem with overparenting, Lythcott-Haims says, is that it prevents kids from developing the skills they need to function as adults, whether that’s pumping gas, contesting a grade or filling out a job application. But the problem goes deeper. By hovering, parents send the not-so-subtle message that they don’t trust their children or the authority figures in their sons’ and daughters’ lives. “We’re signaling to our kids not only that authority is to be challenged all the time but that we need to do it for them,” she says.
Helicopter parents send another signal as well. “We shouldn’t be surprised that so many young adults these days seem not to want to assume that adult label and role for themselves, because we haven’t made adulthood look very attractive,” she says. “We’ve taught kids that adults’ primary purpose is to shuttle kids around, stand on the sidelines of their lives, hover over every happening and micromanage every moment.”
If you think you might be overparenting, Lythcott-Haims suggests listening to yourself talk. Do you say things like “We’re on the travel soccer team” or “We’re applying to college”? “That simple linguistic tic is probably not a tic; it’s probably an indication that we actually think this is ours, too,” she says. “We’re so wrapped up in our kids’ efforts and achievements that we seem to think that we share in them.”
The solution is not to go cold turkey. “We have fostered a tremendous dependency on us. They are ill-equipped to just wake up one day and not have us so involved,” she says. Instead, she recommends teaching life skills using a process that’s very close to Scouting’s EDGE method; her book even includes lists of skills young people should acquire from ages 2 through 20-something.
She also argues parents need to take better care of themselves. “We are far more useful in the lives of other people — our children, our spouse, our friends, our coworkers — when we can present to them a healthy, whole self, when we’ve managed to look after our own health and wellness, when we’re eating well and managing our stress through appropriate healthy measures,” she says.
That could mean skipping soccer practice to go for a run or planning a date night while your kids do their homework. “We’ve decided that showing up on the sidelines of our kids’ lives is a measure of our love,” Lythcott-Haims says. “It’s just not.”