This week, I sat in an auditorium with a couple hundred other parents at my daughter’s high school to hear what author and former freshman dean of Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, had to say about an epidemic of “over parenting” and the ways that this trend is influencing an entire generation of kids. Lythcott-Haims has experienced the problem firsthand as a college administrator and has written the book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, to document her experience and help parents re-prioritize and refocus.
I found this presentation to be incredibly insightful and I’m excited to share what I learned (it can really be boiled down to two main things which are mentioned at the end). But before I dive into the recap, a little background…
As Julie served as the Dean of Freshman at Stanford, she and her colleagues were astounded as the academic caliber seemed to increase dramatically from one freshman class to the next. “Every batch of freshman is more accomplished than the last” She explained.” Somehow their median GPA is a little higher, their SAT score is a little higher, they’ve done more APs than ever…they’ve got stories and novels and… Who are these people?” But she also found that their academic success is not the only thing that distinguishes them from previous generations.
She explained that, overall, this generation seems to lack the executive function necessary to make it on their own. Many students don’t make eye contact, don’t interact with teachers, and when they’re lost or need help, they text their mom before advocating for themselves. Julie believes that this is directly correlated with another new development: the behavior of parents.
Never in Stanford’s history have so many freshman parents called in to discuss things like: their student’s roommate situations, teacher complications, opportunities for their student to perform research at the college and even to discuss their child’s grades. Now remember, this isn’t 3rd grade, or 8th grade, or even senior year of high school that she’s talking about. This is COLLEGE and it’s STANFORD UNIVERSITY for crying out loud. Could there possibly be a correlation between these over-parenters and their kids who seem to be floundering in the basic skills of life? Julie is certain of it.
The problem, Lythcott-Haims asserts, is “helicopter parenting.” It’s defined by a parent’s will to “engineer” a particular outcome in their child. Julie likens it to the process of sculpting a bonsai tree. If you manicure it the right way (make it take certain classes, ace the right tests and master the most-impressive pastimes) it will become exactly what colleges want to see. I think that most well-intending parents are guilty of a little helicopter parenting from time to time. As I listened to her various examples and quite hysterical true stories that represent this parenting style, I found myself running through my own habits, trying to determine whether I fall into this category.
She mentioned some of her peers that won’t let their 12-year-old attend an age-appropriate movie with a group of friends (without an adult). She talked about the parent that finishes their kid’s school assignment because it might not be worthy of an A on its own. Or the parent who insists that their child FIND THEIR PASSION and then… “Take it off the shelf and show it to the college people.”
She talked about the concierge parents who insist on making little Trevor’s life as comfortable as possible so that he can excel in those areas that really matter…the stuff that shows up on the transcript. But something is continually overlooked by these helicopter moms and dads. It’s not just the grades that matter. It’s not just the extracurriculars. What studies indicate time and time again is that executive function comes from something more. We’ve got to take a step back from this “checklist” approach to parenting and start looking at the “raising” of our kids with the big picture in mind.
This push toward a sort of superhuman teen is imposing big consequences. Lythcott-Haims presented recent studies which indicate that college students are more depressed, anxious and hopeless than ever before. She explained that self-awareness and confidence are developed through a mastery of basic problem-solving skills. Skills that are found in the everyday tasks of life: keeping your room clean, making yourself breakfast, remembering your own deadlines and learning to self-advocate when things go wrong.
When we take away our child’s opportunity to solve problems, we also eliminate that process of growth. When we allow our kids to act for themselves (drawing up boundaries and giving guidance and love along the way), they will develop the confidence and compassion that they need to be successful adults. This won’t necessarily translate to straight A’s for every child, but, HERE’S THE CLINCHER, straight A’s aren’t the recipe for success.