How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Do you know what scares me?  The prospect of doing my kids’ laundry when they’re in their 20s.  My goal as a parent is never again to see or hear about their laundry after they have left home for university.  I am trying to minimize my involvement with it even now, so that my dreams for the future are realized.  As far as parenting goals go, it’s not especially lofty, but it’s a goal dear to my heart.

Reading Julie Lythcott-Haims’s How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success gave me plenty more to be scared of.  Not only are parents face-timing with their university (and working!) offspring to help them sort laundry, they are going along to university, and even to work with their kids, micromanaging their lives all the way along.  And kids they will forever be, says Lythcott-Haims, unless parents stop over-parenting, over-directing and acting as concierge for their special snowflakes.  With over two and a half million views, her TED talk is one of the most-watched TED talks.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Julie Lythcott-Haims speak last week, and I had the refreshing experience of feeling that I had finally met a parenting expert who speaks my language.  But, as she so adroitly put it, she does not want to be a parenting expert.  The verb “to parent” bothers her because it puts parents at the centre of the effort.  Her interest is in humans thriving. Parent-ing, she says, is getting in the way of humans thriving.

What are parents doing wrong?  What is getting in the way of kids growing into adults?

She breaks over-parenting into three main types: parents who over-protect their children rather than preparing them for life (helicopter parents), parents who over-direct their children rather than letting them make their own choices in life (tiger moms), and parents who act as concierge to their children, asking, “How can I make your childhood more pleasant?”  All of these styles may bring short-term wins–extra-safe kids, kids with perfect resumes, kids who happily play while mum and dad happily do all the chores–but these lead to long-term losses–young adults who cannot or will not advocate for themselves, young adults who are unfamiliar with their own goals and desires, young adults who chafe at hard work and responsibility.

Much of the book is concerned with the arms race that the college admissions process has become in the US.  The race to gain admission to an elite set of universities is not quite as heated in Canada, but much of what she says about the mistakes parents make on the way to the goal of the prize of admission applies.  And all of the stress over homework, extracurricular activities, extra classes and enrichment do not actually translate into success.  One study she quotes examines the most important factors in the success of university graduates.  It is not test scores and enrichment, it’s chores and a loving home.  In other words, learning to work and take responsibility in a supportive environment.

How to Raise an Adult is full of apocryphal stories of Millennials’ extended infancy: parents monitoring their kids’ movement on phone apps while they’re at university, parents intervening with professors and employers on their kids’ behalf.  To be honest, while there is great shock value in this kind of thing, it did wear thin rather quickly.  There is a limited value to shock.

What didn’t wear thin was the persistent call to action to stop being so helpful that we hurt our kids’ ability to thrive.  Overparenting, says Lythcott-Haims, is leading to a crisis of anxiety and depression in young adults.  By over-protecting, over-directing and doing-for our kids, we are depriving them of the ability to develop self-efficacy.  They arrive at a nominal adulthood without getting themselves there.

Our job as parents, she insists, is to put ourselves out of a job.

Here, here.

Now I’m off to enlist them in folding their laundry.

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