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The UnCollege Blog

Do Parents Today Have the Courage to Raise Adults?

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The standing ovation ended and the audience slowly shuffled to the foyer where Julie Lythcott-Haims would soon be signing copies of her latest book, How to Raise an Adult, Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Groups of moms struck up conversations on their way out, reflecting on what they had just learned. I overheard their comments as I moved with the slow river of foot traffic towards the door:

“ I mean I know she’s right, god knows I’m exhausted, I mean I don’t know if I’m really over-parenting,  really I think I’m just doing what’s best. I want my kids to learn those life skills, but geez, it’s so much easier to do those things myself with no arguing and have them done right, you know?”

“I hear what she’s saying about the college arms race and that we need to back off. But if I back off while other parents are still doing all the chores so their kid can have an edge, where would that leave my kid?”

“I just don’t know if I believe everything she is saying, but you know, even if I do try to change, its scary. Where’s my guarantee?”

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The Davis Parent University talk led by Julie Lythcott-Haims was one of many well-attended events the author has hosted for her latest book. One thing is clear; she’s struck a chord or a nerve with parents across the country. Why?

How to Raise an Adult presents reams of evidence and examples that one current model of parenting –   over-parenting and pressuring kids into the “college arms race” –  is harmful to children’s emotional health, ability to function well in the workplace, and to become fully responsible adults. Julie challenges parents to do what needs to be done: embrace more effective, abeit unconventional parenting habits to facilitate successful futures for our kids.

The first two sections of the book detail the problems with what  parents are doing now and why we must change.

Lythcott-Haims delves into how parenting has changed over the years. She provides examples of overparenting at different ages and in educational and work related situations. She demonstrates the psychological and emotional harm of what she calls the check-listed childhood that has replaced a healthier approach to allowing kids to grow and learn.

Lythcott-Haims spent a decade as Stanford’s dean of freshman. She draws on her experience and from interactions with other academics to describe the problems with college admissions, college rankings, and the negative results of parents pressuring kids to choose majors or colleges that do not fit the child based on perceptions of quality that are inaccurate.  For example, in chapter 11 Haims breaks down the college ranking system:

...Anyone inside academia knows the Best Colleges ranking is meaningless when it comes to assessing excellence in education, yet the rankings are powerfully persuasive in steering applicants to just a tiny fraction of America’s great possibilities (pg 128-129)...Over 75 percent of a school’s ranking is based on what appears to be objective data(but is sometimes manipulated by the schools or U.S. News itself) such as retention rate, per-student spending, graduation rate and alumni giving. The final 22.5 percent of the ranking is from the “reputation” survey, where senior administrators rate the academic program at other schools on a scale from one(marginal) to five (distinguished), a process known among college presidents as the beauty pageant.” (p. 130-131)

She also looks at the workplace and presents examples from HR professionals about how and why many children are much less successful in their careers if parents have not allowed them to learn to work hard, make their own decisions, and to deal with disappointment, failure, and not being the center of attention. Accounts of parents calling employers to intervene on an adult child’s are almost unbelieveable. Employers want employees who are adults who can figure things out for themselves.

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Part 3 and 4 focus on solutions and what parents can do differently. Each of the chapters includes discussion, research, examples and tips for the following topics:

  1. Give them unstructured time
  2. Teach Life Skills
  3. Teach Them How to Think
  4. Prepare Them for Hard Work
  5. Let Them Chart Their Own Path
  6. Normalize Struggle
  7. Have a Wider Mind-set About Colleges
  8. Listen to them
  9. Reclaim Yourself
  10. Daring to Parent Differently
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On pages 167-169 Lythcott-Haims provides a helpful list for life skills kids need to learn arranged by the ages kids are developmentally ready to take on these skills. She also gives advice about how to approach teaching the skills to minimize micromanaging and maximize success.

I wish chapter 19 had been less focused on college, per se, and had focused on having a wider mind-set about education. She has good advice about finding a good fit and choosing majors that students are passionate about. She does not address three topics which help students thrive:

  • new educational opportunities and resources that are not college
  • the need for continued, self-directed learning as a successful and happy adult
  • learning how to be proactive in setting and meeting your education goals 
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Lythcott-Haims expresses in her conclusion that our love for our children leads us to shield them from pain and failure. But through that process, we strip them of the trials and errors that help us become real adults and live independent lives. Not only that, they need to know how to adapt in our fast-paced, ever-changing world:

They must be the authors of themselves as well as the authors of the twenty-first century, a span of time simultaneously more intimate and global, more understood and unpredictable, than we can yet comprehend. The most seemingly intractable environmental and social problems ever faced by humans will confront the next generation. They will be called upon to be hard workers, skilled thinkers, and problem solves, compassionate and involved citizens, persons of good character, and perhaps even parents themselves. As parents we’ll have succeeded if our kids have the wherewithal to be and do these things on their own rather than by counting on us to assist or stand in for them... If we develop and sustain good relationships with our kids, they will always value our perspective and perhaps even seek it. But as they age we must not be overly invested in having them do what we say. Soon we must pass the mantle of generational leadership to our children, and it would behoove us to do so gracefully, with great confidence that they have what it takes to be the adult in the room when the time for that comes. (p.303-304)

This is a book worth reading with advice worth considering. I hope that parents, educators, colleges and communities will take a serious look at how we can make changes that will support our children’s personal, educational and professional development in ways to maximize their chances of leading healthy and fulfilling lives.

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