I hope you are enjoying the long weekend. The fall colors are out in full force, and I’m hoping to get a chance to get into the mountains to enjoy them in their full glory.
As you know, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book How to Raise an Adult, will be coming to Dawson on October 24 and 25, and we are looking forward to hearing what she has to say both to parents and to faculty. The event on the evening of October 24 is sold out, so if you are not able to make it, or if you are coming and want a preview, I’d highly recommend listening to a recent podcast put out by MindShift, a subsidiary of KQED. MindShift produces several wonderful and thoughtful articles regarding education, and they also produce a podcast through NPR that I love.
In any case, this most recent podcast, which features is entitled “Stepping Back from Overparenting.” The podcast begins with a discussion with Lythcott-Haims, the former Freshman Dean at Stanford, noting three trends she saw during her tenure from 2002-2012. First, she found that students were arriving on campus as freshmen more accomplished than ever before, in terms of their grades and their extracurricular activities. These kids’ resumes far outshone those of teens from an earlier era. I can concur with this observation, having done alumni interviews for my own college almost every year since I graduated twenty-five years ago. The kids I interview these days have near perfect GPAs, have played multiple varsity sports, have traveled abroad extensively doing community service, and have help multiple internships. They are incredibly impressive in as far as what they have done in an effort to achieve success.
But the two other trends that Lythcott-Haims has noticed are not so positive. The second trend is that parents are more involved than ever before in their children’s lives, and it seems completely normal to kids. She tells the story of a student casually mentioning that she had sent her paper home for her parents to edit, as if this was a normal thing to do. Another story involves a student who was having trouble getting along with her roommate. Rather than trying to work it out, she called her parents, who then called the school to ask for a roommate switch. In other words, parents are stepping in at the slightest sign of distress, and this is becoming the norm, so much so that kids feel like they can’t do anything without their parents’ help.
The third trend, which is a result of the second, is that college students are not at all self-reliant. They lack the impulse to solve problems, or to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. Their first impulse is to call home and ask for help. Lythcott-Haims calls this behavior “existential impotence.”
The reason she decided to write her book is that she feels it is crucial for parents to start working on self-efficacy with their kids long before they send them off to college. And she worries that, instead, parents are setting their kids up for failure early on. When we bring our kids’ forgotten homework to school for them, or “help” them with their projects by essentially doing them for them, or haggle with teachers for higher grades, we’re acting more like a concierge service than like parents. And, we’re depriving our kids of developing the self-efficacy that is so crucial for them to do in order to be productive adults. If we want our kids to initiate the change they want to see, we need to take a step back and let them learn how to manage life on their own.
Lythcott-Haims talks about three things we can look out for as parents. If you find yourself doing any of these things, you are in over-parenting territory. The first is watching the language we use to talk about our kids. If you find yourself saying, “We’re on the travel soccer team,” you are too involved in your kids’ lives.
Second, if you find yourself over-helping with homework (i.e. doing it for them), you may be achieving a short-term win (a higher grade for a class,), but you need to remember this is a long-term loss. Not only are you depriving your kids of the sense of accomplishment that they would get by doing it on their own, but you are also effectively telling your children that they are not capable of doing the work on their own, and this sense of inability to solve problems will follow them.
Finally, she warns that if you find yourself frequently challenging authority figures in your kids’ lives (teachers, coaches, school administrators), you need to take a step back. Yes, authority should be questioned, but we should be teaching our kids the skills to do this on their own – not just to challenge authority, but to speak respectfully while doing so. If they head off to college and adulthood without being able to do this, they will most certainly feel lost without their parents.
A friend of mine who is an executive in a financial institution told me an alarming story recently. He had given a review to an employee that had some unfavorable feedback. The goal, of course, was to help the employee learn from the feedback and make improvements based on this feedback. Instead, my friend got a phone call from the employee’s mother, complaining about the feedback. My friend calmly told the mother that she was putting her child’s job in jeopardy by making this call. She was trying to help her child, but all she did was demonstrate that the employee couldn’t advocate for herself (and also clearly couldn’t take constructive feedback).
I certainly hope that story is an anomaly – most of us, I think, recognize that by the time we send our kids off to college and beyond, they should be able to fend for themselves, for the most part. But we can’t wait until we send them off at eighteen to let them go. We need to gradually give them responsibility to handle things on their own so that they believe in themselves and can handle the everyday challenges that the world will throw at them.
And so, I ask you to work with me to rescue our kids by not rescuing our kids. The next time you see some homework on the kitchen counter after your child has already left for school, ignore that instinct to hop in the car and take it to them. It may be hard in the short term to feel like you are failing your kids, but you are actually doing them a huge favor in the long run.
The podcast also talks about the bad rap that millennials get, quoting Simon Sinek (one of my favorite people!) and discusses the backlash that some parents receive when they try to give their kids more freedom and responsibility. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing! Here is the link if you would like to do that (it’s the second podcast in the list): http://www.npr.org/podcasts/464615685/mind-shift-podcast
Have a wonderful week!