'I began to wonder whether lately we’ve been raising Stepford Children.' A Stanford dean on overparenting, and how to avoid it
As the author of a new book on parenting it’s heretical for me to disclose that I’m not particularly interested in the subject. But it’s true. I’m not interested in parenting. I’m interested in human beings.
I believe in humans. I believe that all of us should have the right and chance to make our way in the world. I believe this, not only for the sake of each individual but for the sake of a world that gains a little bit when any one of us figures out who we are, what we’re good at, what we love, and what we value, and then works very hard to be the very best version of that self we can muster. From my work with countless young adults over a decade as Stanford’s freshman dean I’ve learned that having the courage to be who we are regardless of what other people want us to be—even parents—is the path to a meaningful and rewarding life. I’m interested in that for all of us.
So I’m also interested in what gets in the way of each of us being our best self. And in doing something about it. I used to think the obstacles stemmed chiefly from otherness, outsider-ness, from being on the margins because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship, family background, hardship, trauma, or abuse. And yes, of course, those things are obstacles—sometimes tremendous obstacles—to a person’s chances for becoming their best self. When I was freshman dean, I presumed that it would be students from underprivileged, underserved backgrounds who would most need a caring, thoughtful dean to believe in them when their background and family narrative collided with all that Stanford would ask and expect of them. And some of my favorite moments as dean were indeed spent mentoring such students.
So imagine how surprised I was to discover among my more affluent, well-connected students a growing number who seemed to be lacking the ability to make their way independently in the world, as, frankly, 18-22 year olds always had been able to do and just as crucially, used to desire to do. I’m deliberately being vague about what exactly was missing in so many students because frankly I couldn’t quite tell at first. Something was just off. Odd. It took most of my ten years as dean before I figured out what exactly the problem was.
For starters, each year my students were more and more and more and more accomplished. The grades, but not just the grades: the scores. And not just the grades and the scores but the awards, and the accolades, and the activities, and community service, and leadership, and, and, and, and, and, every other prospect for perfection. Yet each year I noticed that more and more could tell you what they’d done but not so much why they’d done it. Could tell you what they’d achieved but not so much about what mattered to them. These students were far more interesting to look at on paper than to talk with in person. Was any of this stuff really their passion? Did they even know what that word meant or was it just something someone said they needed in order to get into the quote unquote right college? Did they have a budding sense of self, or were they really just content to let their parents plan life for them? As someone who believes in humans, this perplexed me.
Meanwhile, each year I saw more and more parents come to campus with their freshman kid and then . . . stay, literally or virtually, to: ask questions; select courses, activities, majors, internships, and careers; solve problems; handle conflicts; defend and advocate for their student; register for classes; fill out applications; track deadlines; and call to wake their kid up. And to top it all off, these students weren’t mortified when their parents did all of this—as my generation and the ones before it would have been—they were grateful! Grateful to be able to communicate with a parent multiple times a day, in the dorm, in the dining halls, in the student union, going to class, going to another class, going somewhere after class, in the lobby of the advising office. Even in my office. Or they tried to. “It’s my mom,” they’d say, sheepishly, with a small shrug. “Do you mind if I just… get this? I’ll just… Mom?”
I believe in humans so I thought to myself, Something’s not right. Is this college, or is it middle school? Remember the Stepford Wives—that 1975 feminist allegory of women who were not actually humans but instead were robots programmed by their husbands to be the paradigmatic perfect wife? The bots came to mind as I watched my students live their college lives still somehow looking over to the sidelines for mom or dad’s direction, protection, or intervention, as if they were five years old playing soccer and needing mom or dad to point in which direction to kick the ball. I began to wonder whether lately we’ve been raising Stepford Children.
Yes, of course, closeness, affection, love, frequent communication between parent and offspring, that’s all good. Who among us wouldn’t wish for a closer relationship with our own parents? I’m GenX. One of the “latchkey” kids. So this kind of constant communication between parent and child at first seemed so cute to me. But I believe in humans, and when the dynamic between parent and adult child is this constant chatter—about choices, possibilities, and outcomes, the should and shouldn’ts of life, the want to and ought nots, the how do I do this and the let me take care of that for yous—when it came to all manner of their academic, professional, emotional, and personal lives, this intertwinedness moved, in my view, from something cute to something rather bleak. My students were not only celebrating the joys of life with parents, they turned to them whenever something went even mildly wrong: a flat tire, a tiff with a roommate, a less than great grade on an assignment, as if their first instinct was to call or text a parent—an instinct as natural as taking a breath of air—and as essential. They didn’t seem to know how to contend with what life would throw their way. How to sit with discomfort or indecision or opportunity and emerge with their own sense of how to move forward. So intertwined with their parents they didn’t seem to know how to be their own selves.
As a believer in humans, that made me worry for the future lives of these students. And even for our future as a species, which I know sounds absolutely hysterical, but when you work with thousands of the so-called best and brightest, and you see this kind of existential impotence, and then you talk to colleagues at colleges around the country not just at the elite schools but at schools in every tier, and they see this, and you realize that this isn’t just a Bay Area thing or a Stanford thing but a middle- and upper-middle-class American thing, and the rates of mental health problems in children, adolescents, and young adults are soaring, particularly in affluent communities, you get concerned. Really concerned. That concern for humans is what made me write my book. On, well, as it turns out, parenting.
What’s going on? we’re all wondering in communities wherever this is being read. I was mortified to discover the answer staring back at me in the mirror one day. It was freshman orientation 2009 and in that year as in every other, I’d give a talk to parents, the purpose of which was to embrace parents, empathize with the big transition they were experiencing, and ask them to go home. Trust your kid is capable, I’d say (i.e. stop doing everything for them). They’re ready to engage this opportunity they’ve worked so hard to earn, (Stop interacting with the university on their behalf). As I recall it I never actually wagged my finger at parents but inside I was thinking Come on folks, back off. This is college now. Go away. In 2009, the day after giving that annual speech, I came home from work, sat down for dinner, and reached over and began cutting my kids’ meat. They were 8 and 10 years old. And it was like all of a sudden I was being visited by Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future. If you want your kid to be independent at 18, at some point you have to stop cutting their meat. I sat bolt upright. When do you stop cutting their meat? When do you stop looking both ways for them as they cross the street? When do you stop helping with homework? When do you let them talk to strangers? I realized I was still treating my kids like little kids. They never went anywhere alone. They did no chores. They had no responsibilities. I praised every little thing. A day earlier I’d been tsktsking my students’ parents about not letting go, not letting their kids be independent, and now I realized I was fostering tremendous dependence in my own kids with no end in sight. Was I in danger of being one of those parents who couldn’t let go when my kids were in college? What, me?
I’d been given the rare gift of seeing so many of other peoples’ grown-up children; the results of thousands of upbringings and childhoods, who, during my decade as dean, started referring to themselves as ‘kids.’ How would my generation pass the mantle of leadership on to such “adults”? Why was childhood no longer preparing kids for adulthood? How am I and countless other parents getting it so wrong? Because it’s not as if we aren’t trying. God knows we are trying so very hard to get it right.
For some perspective let’s go back to how it all begins. In the beginning our love is our umbilicus, our heartbeat, our body, and then our arms, our kiss, our breast. We bring them home to a sheltering roof and we delight weeks later when they make their first intentional eye contact with us. We nurture early babbles into first words, and applaud as they gain strength to roll over, to sit up, to crawl. We scan the horizon of the twenty-first century and see an increasingly interconnected and competitive world that at times seems familiar and at times utterly not. We gaze down at our precious little ones with a promise to do all we can to help them make their way into the long life that lies ahead. There is no amount of direction on our part that will teach them to stand or walk before they are ready. (When they’re learning to walk may be the last time today’s parents actually believe that falling, or failure, is the essential teacher, the builder of a human’s capabilities and resilience.)
We see almost instantly that they are their own person, but we also want them to start where we left off, to stand on our shoulders, to benefit from all we know and can provide. We expose them to experiences, ideas, people, and places that we think will help them learn and grow and thrive. We want them to reach and be stretched by the kind of rigor and opportunity that will maximize their potential and their chances. We’re sure we know best what it takes to succeed in today’s world and we’re quite eager to protect and direct them, and be there for them at every turn, whatever it takes.
We mean so, so, so, so well. But in affluent communities where parents have the disposable time and income to do everything for kids, doing ‘whatever it takes’ has come to mean what I call the “checklisted childhood” – all the things our kids must experience and achieve in order to gain entry to a small number of schools and a specific set of careers and therefore be successful in life. In furtherance of that, everything is: safe, selected, chosen, recommended, planned, decided, approved, improved, done, accomplished, handled, coached, figured out, fixed, arranged, solved, resolved, absolved, shaped, designed, orchestrated, enabled, and dreamed up for them.
Then we hover over our kids as they check off all the items on the checklist. We keep them safe and sound, fed and watered, and when we see an obstacle in their path we try to remove it all the while encouraging them along, nudging, cajoling, hinting, helping, haggling, nagging, as the case may be, to be sure they’re not screwing up, not closing doors, not ruining their future, calling for help when they need it in the form of tutors, coaches, handlers, extra spiffy coaches and handlers, in order to improve the child in front of us. We say we just want them to be happy but when they come home from school all we ask about is their grades. And they see in our faces that approval, love, and worth, comes from A’s. When the work is hard we stand ever closer, running alongside with clucking praise like a trainer at the Westminster Dog show, coaxing them to jump ever father and soar ever higher, arguing and contending with the rulemakers when they fall or fail, forcing them back on the path, using our own strength to boost their effort. Their ears are filled with our chirps of “perfect,” a rhetorical tic we use even when we don’t mean it, and we commend them to our friends and with stickers on the back of our cars and also we commend ourselves. Look what we’ve done. We did this amazing science project. We wrote this beautiful essay. We earned this GPA. We got this SAT or ACT score. We’ve gotten into this college.
When I finally connected the dots between that dinner with parents of Stanford freshmen and what was happening at the dinner table in my own house, I realized that this omnipresent overinvolvement means kids grow to be chronologically adult while remaining utterly stunted, dependent on parents to do not only the heavy lifting of life, but the lovely, light, ethereal dreaming as well.
The worst part of this is—besides the arrogance it takes to chart someone else’s path, the ethical slipperiness of overhelping with their schoolwork, the cruelty of being a constant crutch that will not always be there for them, the harm that comes from conditioning love on performance—the worst part, unintended yet insidious, is this hidden message we send to kids: I don’t think you can do this without me. Trying to boost them up, we are paradoxically tearing them down. We overhelp so as not to disadvantage them, yet they’re disadvantaged because we do so much. You’re not good enough for this life as you are, is the message. You never will be. You need me. You will always need me.
Our kids need us to back off but it’s healthy for us parents, too, if we back off. Carl Jung says the greatest impediment to the development of a child is the unlived life of the parent. Many of us spend our lives scheduled to the hilt between work and home, homework and homeroom, practice tests and practice fields, trying to keep up with the judgmental Joneses. Ours is an endless shuffle to a rehearsal, a practice, a tutoring session, an expert of some kind designed to make our kid better at something. We are on auto-pilot in our minivans, going through the motions, making the snacks, being on the committees, arguing with teachers, principals, coaches, and referees, serving as our kids’ concierge, personal assistant, and secretary, fearing our spouse’s expectations, vaguely wondering when we’ll get off the sidelines of soccer practice and start living our own vibrant life again. Our morning medication is caffeine. Our evening medication is wine.
Long, long gone are the days of throwing open the back door and saying “get out there and play; I’ll call you for dinner.” There are no wide-open afternoons. No wide-open doors. And no one is home to play. There is only the schedule and the dropoff and the pickup and some semblance of that family dinner we know we’re supposed to have. And then the homework. Until some set of us plus them is exhausted. Sleep. Repeat.
I believe in humans, in all of us, and I’m here to tell you—warn you—that this way of parenting is harmful to kids, to parents, to us all. You know it, I know it. We all know it. We see our children withering under the pressure of the checklisted childhood, feel ourselves struggling to keep up, and we imagine a different, saner way, exists elsewhere. Wyoming? Yet we look over our shoulder and see the galloping herd of other parents who are spending more money, hiring more help, taking more time off just to ensure their kid makes the grade, makes the cut, and gets admitted to that school over ourkid, all the while bragging about their outcomes. We want to trust our instincts, wish we were brave enough to walk away, focus on family time not test prep, incite laughter, prompt joy, let our kids just be, but we fear the herd, and the short term win their kid will achieve with all that help. The overparenting herd has become a bully we feel the need to go along with.
There’s a lot that’s wrong in society. A college admissions arms race and other large forces that both constrain and impel us as parents. But let’s not forget we have tremendous control at what I call the local-local level–at our kitchen counter and dining table, where we’ve got children who need dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow morning. Join me in doing right by our children, by leaving the herd of hoverers, by fostering independence not dependence, and by supporting them in being who they are rather than telling them who and what to be. Together, we can push the parenting pendulum back in the other direction: toward raising the healthy, independent, happy, successful, adults they deserve to be.
Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success.
Adapted from How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Julie Lythcott- Haims. All rights reserved.