HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT
Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
By Julie Lythcott-Haims
354 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $27.
When did the central aim of parenting become preparing children for success? This reigning paradigm, which dictates that every act of nurturing be judged on the basis of whether it will usher a child toward a life of accomplishment or failure, embodies the fundamental insecurity of global capitalist culture, with its unbending fixation on prosperity and the future. It’s no surprise that parenting incites such heated debates, considering how paradoxical these principles can be when they’re applied to children. When each nurturing act is administered with the distant future in mind, what becomes of the present? A child who soaks in the ambient anxiety that surrounds each trivial choice or activity is an anxious child, formed in the hand-wringing, future-focused image of her anxious parents.
“How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” seems to lie at the precise crossroads of this inherently conflicted approach. Like so many others in the jittery child-rearing mob, Julie Lythcott-Haims has identified overparenting as a trap. But once you escape the trap, the goal remains the same: to mold your offspring into thriving adults. Whether a child is learning to ride a bike or doing his own laundry, he is still viewed through the limited binary lens of either triumphant or fumbling adulthood. The looming question is not “Is my child happy?” but “Is my child a future president poised to save the environment, or a future stoner poised to watch his fifth episode of ‘House of Cards’ in a row?”
Even as tales of meddling parents reach a fever pitch, Lythcott-Haims’s bleak portrait may just be the “Black Hawk Down” of helicopter parenting. Lythcott-Haims, who brings some authority to the subject as Stanford’s former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, has seen varieties of extreme parental interference suggesting not just a lack of common sense, but a lack of wisdom and healthy boundaries (if not personal dignity) as well. Instead of allowing kids to experiment and learn from their mistakes, parents hover where they’re not wanted or welcome, accompanying children on school trips or shadowing them on campus. Caught up in what the author calls the “college admissions arms race,” parents treat securing their children a spot at one of 20 top schools (as decreed by U.S. News and World Report’s popular but somewhat dubious rankings) as an all-or-nothing proposition. Concerned about the effects of a flawed high school transcript, parents do their children’s homework, write or heavily edit their papers, fire questions at teachers, dispute grades and hire expensive subject tutors, SAT coaches and “private admissions consultants” (26 percent of college applicants reported hiring these in 2013). Even after kids graduate, the madness continues. Lythcott-Haims offers anecdotes of parents touring graduate schools, serving as mouthpieces for their shy, passive children, and submitting résumés to potential employers, sometimes without their children’s knowledge. These behaviors do more than mold kids into dependent beings, she argues; they corral and constrict their possibilities and their imaginations. “We speak of dreams as boundless, limitless realms,” Lythcott-Haims writes. “But in reality often we create parameters, conditions and limits within which our kids are permitted to dream — with a checklisted childhood as the path to achievement.”
And in spite of her title’s emphasis on success, Lythcott-Haims takes pains to demonstrate that overparenting doesn’t merely threaten a child’s future income; it also does enormous psychological harm. She cites a 2011 study by sociologists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga that found a correlation, in college-student questionnaires, between helicopter parenting and medication for anxiety or depression. One researcher at a treatment center for addicts in Los Angeles found that “rates of depression and anxiety among affluent teens and young adults . . . correspond to the rates of depression and anxiety suffered by incarcerated juveniles.” Other studies suggest that overparented kids are “less open to new ideas” and take “less satisfaction in life.” For Lythcott-Haims, the message behind this research is the same: Kids need to sally forth independently without constant supervision. They need to try and even fail. And when they fail and look around for a parent to bail them out, they need to hear the words, “You must figure this out for yourself.”
The irony, of course, is that after years of lamenting the benign neglect suffered at the hands of 1970s parents who told kids to “go outside and play until dinnertime,” today’s parents are starting to second-guess the ways they’ve overcorrected such hands-off child-rearing. Indeed, Lythcott-Haims’s explicit instructions for parents read like a page straight out of a ’70s-era parenting playbook: “Value free play.” “Work on creating space between you and your kid.” “Don’t apologize or overexplain.” Oh, and give your kids chores — lots of chores. Halfway through the book, one almost expects to discover instructions like, “When it comes to spanking, wooden spoons are far more effective than your bare hands!” And: “Push those kids out the door and lock it. Now, crack open that pack of Virginia Slims, fix yourself a nice Tom Collins, and dig into the latest Doris Lessing novel.”
But even as “How to Raise an Adult” joins others in the same vein — from “The Overparenting Epidemic” to “You Are Not Special” to “All Joy and No Fun” — this emphasis on giving kids a little more space hasn’t seemed to have had much effect on the premature apprehension of the schoolyard: the endless, nervous chatter about the Common Core, the uneasy comparing of report cards and standardized test scores, the tireless griping about the never-ending hassles of homework, soccer season, piano lessons, art classes, dance classes and Kumon tutoring. If everyone agrees that overscheduling and multiple hours of homework a night are the enemy, shouldn’t more parents be stepping back and relaxing a little, thereby showing, by example, how to live in a nonsensically competitive world and still be happy?
Lythcott-Haims sees this inability to disengage as a side effect of the prevailing fantasy among parents that the “right” college education will secure a child’s comfy seat in the upper-middle-class tax bracket. Parents are so laser-focused on how to ensure success against a backdrop of an increasingly insecure global economy that they’re willing to trade in the joys and self-guided discoveries of a rich childhood for some promise of security in the far-off future. But it’s absurd for parents to allow this illusion that success in life depends on admission to one of a handful of elite colleges to guide their behavior from the time their kids are in preschool forward, Lythcott-Haims asserts. A 1999 study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger suggests that graduates of a hundred or so “moderately selective” schools “had on average the same income 20 years later as graduates of the elite colleges.” While schools may be more competitive than they were 36 years ago, when the subjects of the study were in college, this statistic (which applied to graduates of “moderately selective” schools who had also gained admission to elite schools) should at least cast a shadow of doubt on parents’ extreme fixation on top-tier colleges. There are also several alternatives to the U.S. News and World Report rankings that could shift common thinking about what constitutes an “elite” education. The “Fiske Guide to Colleges” evaluates schools based on “the quality of the experience and their price tag,” while The Alumni Factor ranks schools based on intellectual development, average income of graduates and whether alumni would choose the college again, among other factors.
Although loosening that grip on getting kids into the “perfect” school does seem important, it’s somewhat unlikely to end the current plague of controlling, stressed-out parents and helpless, insecure children. In this anxious age, the future will always trump the present. But even if “How to Raise an Adult” gets thrown onto a growing pile of books for worried, upper-middle-class parents and is summarily forgotten, Lythcott-Haims’s central message remains worthwhile: When parents laugh and enjoy the moment but also teach the satisfaction of hard work, when they listen closely but also give their children space to become who they are, they wind up with kids who know how to work hard, solve problems and savor the moment, too. In other words, get a life, and your child just might do the same someday.
HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT