How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success


How to Raise an Adult
Category: Parenting
Published: 8/2/2016
A provocative manifesto that exposes the harms of helicopter parenting and sets forth an alternate philosophy for raising preteens and teens to self-sufficient young adulthood

Book Summary - How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Key Insights

Parents always want their children to have better than what they had and to achieve more than what they were able to achieve. Most parents hope for this, anyway. For these parents, the internal battle is ever-present: how do we best support our children while simultaneously encouraging them to be their own true selves? How do we allow them to make independent choices while still preventing them from enduring big missteps? The line is a fine one and many parents dance precariously close to the edge.

At the end of the day, helicopter parenting is a disservice to our children, and even if it feels like the appropriate course of action at a particular time, its long-term effects can actually be very harmful to our kids. Let’s keep the helicopters in the sky...and the parents safely on the ground.

Key Points

Too Much

Helicopter parenting, a term that was coined in the 1990s, refers to people who hover--like helicopters--over their children rather than allowing them to make choices independently.

We see this trend among parents in the United States, especially as children go off to college and become overwhelmed at the prospect of handling life’s nuances all on their own after being coddled for so long. We see college students who are incredibly book smart, but are ill-equipped to do their own laundry or to figure out how to set up a bank account.

In life, there is certainly a lot to be afraid of. We’ve got accidents, strangers, and illnesses. But, it is important to remember that our fears are not always directly proportional to the level of actual risk we face.

For instance, a common fear of both parents and children alike is kidnapping. As it turns out, though, your child is significantly more likely to die in an equestrian accident than be abducted.

But, helicopter parents are not motivated to protect and intervene in their children’s lives based on fear alone. These well-intended but often misguided individuals are instead thinking about opportunity. Simply put: they want their kids to succeed.

As a means to this end, you will see helicopter parents packing their children’s resumes with every extracurricular activity under the sun, even if the child would really just like some time to decompress.

Don’t forget, though. Just because your child is accepted into a big-name school or lands the job you had always hoped they would have, this doesn’t mean they will be happy. And, at the end of the day, isn’t our childrens’ true happiness what should really matter most?

Battling the Demons

So, we’ve talked about why overparenting is bad ideologically, but in practice, it can also lead to serious health concerns. Kids who grow up without learning how to connect with others and how to complete basic life tasks often end up socially shunned and isolated as they get older.

According to a 2013 study out of the American College Health Association, 83.4 percent of college freshmen felt overwhelmed by their obligations and as many as 8 percent had gone so far as to consider suicide.

Of course, we cannot chalk every mental health concern up to an overparenting issue, but there is no doubt it plays a role.

When parents take care of everything for their children, their children miss out on at least one very fundamental skill: the ability to develop confidence in themselves.

Parents often talk about the successes they have had in life, not the failures. And therein, this paints a picture of parents who never had to struggle, but constantly achieved their goals. This creates unrealistic expectations for a child. A child needs to know how to fail, because through failure they build resilience and coping skills.

Think of it this way: if the bridge is cleared for the child before they walk over it, they will never understand and appreciate the effort required to cross to the other side.

Lingering Impact

The impacts of overparenting might start to appear when children are young, but the effects can linger well into adulthood.

Consider the world of work.

Typically, a company would want an employee who is independent and mature, traits that are often absent in children who come from overparenting situations. There are even some cases where parents get directly involved in their children’s jobs, such as calling the child’s supervisor if there is an issue rather than encouraging the child (employee) to act on their own behalf.

Once a child starts working, it is critical that the parent only be there for moral support.

In other cases, children serve as surrogates for their parents’ egos. And if these children do not live up to the standards their parents have set, the parents and the children both feel as though they have failed.

Ironically, quantitative academic measures such as SAT scores tend to correlate more with socioeconomic status than cognitive ability. Think about access. The children who have the opportunity to be tutored for these kinds of exams are much more likely to score well on them than those who cannot afford to be professionally trained.

Authoritative vs. Authoritarian

Every parent has a parenting style. While we might not be consciously aware of the parenting patterns we most often exhibit, we are likely embodying one of the following forms of child-rearing:

Authoritarian parenting

Authoritarian parents are strict and expect both obedience and respect from their children. These parents do not feel that they need to explain why they are making certain requests of their children--children should listen to them without requiring explanation.

Permissive/indulgent parenting

Permissive/indulgent parents attend to their child’s every need and they prefer not to establish set expectations, because they do not want to upset their children or create rules that are hard to follow.

Neglectful parenting

Neglectful parenting is by far the least effective style of the four. When parents are neglectful, they are not engaging at all in their childrens’ lives. Instead, these parents are emotionally distant and in many cases, physically absent. They are unresponsive to the needs of their children.

Authoritative parenting

Authoritative parenting is essentially a cross between authoritarian parenting and permissive/indulgent parenting. These parents set high standards for their children, but they also provide emotional support and work together as a unit to overcome challenging scenarios. Authoritative parents allow their children the freedom to make their own choices, but also set boundaries and explain why said boundaries are important in staying safe.

Work Hard and Play Hard

Children need to play. After all, when you ask most children what their favorite subject in school is, you will receive a less than astounding answer of ‘recess’ 99 percent of the time.

But, apart from it being fun, why is it important from children to play?

Playtime actually serves a purpose in a child’s development. It should be unstructured and spontaneous in order to achieve the best effects. Playtime is a chance for children to try new things, develop hypotheses, and experiment with the world around them. Engaging with toys in a unique and unplanned way also leads to creativity, an important skill to cultivate among society’s youth.

On Interests

As adults, we feel best when we have a strong sense of purpose in our lives. For children, this statement still holds true. When helping our children discover their true calling or ultimate goals, we must be sure that we are not overlooking the interests of our sons and daughters in favor of where they intellectually thrive. In some situations, a child’s interests and abilities may align, which is great, but in other cases, they do not.

You may have a child who loves to write, for instance, but excels much more at math.

You could feel inclined to push your child towards exploring math on a deeper level, but this could take away from his or her ability to truly cultivate a love of art. Don’t be too quick to pivot your child in a particular direction, because you can see it being more lucrative down the line.

You never know how things will work out in the long-term and even if it takes your child a while to find the right path, it is better that he or she discovers their calling organically rather than being told what to do.

Your child could be an unhappy doctor one day or perhaps a passionate, but less than wealthy artist. In the end, what would you decide? What would you want for your child?

Reclaiming Personal Time

While our children are likely to be a big part of our lives, they should not be our entire lives. We had lives before we had our kids and we will inevitably continue to exist long after they have moved out of our homes and into the world. In helping our children achieve success and happiness, we must be careful not to be neglectful towards ourselves.

With authoritative parenting, we have the opportunity to rekindle our own passions and interests while still supporting our children in their goals. Through positive role modeling, we can demonstrate the commitment that it takes to be proficient in a given area and encourage our children to explore these spheres of interest on their own.

In some cases, we might even be able to share these interests with our children. For instance, if you have a kid who loves football and you love it too, rather than just passively attending all of his or her games, try practicing together in the yard. Your child will be happy to have you involved and you will be a happier parent too.

The Main Take-away

No one ever said that parenting would be easy. No one ever said that parenting would be worth the effort 100 percent of the time. However, one thing is for certain: in order to raise happy kids, you must strike the balance between challenging and supporting your children’s endeavors. You must set rules, but explain why they exist. You must know when to step in and involve yourself and you should also know when to step back and let events unfold on their own. How to Raise an Adult turns the idea of overparenting on its head and explains why, in our efforts to raise fully functional young adults, we are actually underestimating the resilience of our children.

Through the employment of an authoritarian parenting style as well as instilling confidence in our kids by allowing them to stand on their own two feet, we will raise a generation of smart, well-adjusted adults who know how to advocate for the things they want out of life.

About the Author

Julie Lythcott-Haims was born in 1967 in Lagos, Nigeria. The former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University is an author, speaker, and activist who studies the barriers that commonly prevent humans from being their most authentic selves. In addition to How to Raise an Adult, Lythcott-Haims has written and published two other books, Real American: A Memoir and Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. Currently, Lythcott-Haims is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts.

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