October 16, 2015
Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade as a dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of taking care of themselves.
At the same time, parents were becoming more and more involved in their children’s lives. They talked to their children multiple times a day and swooped in to personally intervene anytime something difficult happened.
From her position at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children by trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment and failure and hardship.
Such “overhelping” might assist children in developing impressive resumes for college admission. But it also robs them of the chance to learn who they are, what they love and how to navigate the world, Lythcott-Haims argues in her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.
“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” she writes. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”
Lythcott-Haims is one of a growing number of writers—including Jessica Lahey (The Gift of Failure) and Jennifer Senior (All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood)—who are urging stressed-out helicopter parents to breathe and loosen their grip on their children.
“Don’t call me a parenting expert,” she said in an interview. “I’m interested in humans thriving, and it turns out that overparenting is getting in the way of that.”
She cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people. She has seen the effects up close: Lythcott-Haims lives in Palo Alto, California, a community that, following a string of suicides in the past year, has undertaken a period of soul-searching about what parents can do to stem the pressure that young people face.
Her book tour is taking her to more school auditoriums and parent groups than bookstores. She tells stories about over-involved mothers and fathers, and shares statistics about rising depression and other mental health problems in young people, that she hopes will spark change in communities around the country where helicopter parents are making themselves, and their kids, miserable.
So are you a helicopter parent? Here are some of Lythcott-Haims’s simple tests:
1. Check your language. “If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter—as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’—it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy,” Lythcott-Haims said.
2. Examine your interactions with adults in your child’s life. “If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested,” she said. “When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”
3. Stop doing their homework. Enough said.
And how can parents help their children become self-sufficient? Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own, Lythcott-Haims said. And have them do chores. “Chores build a sense of accountability. They build life skills and a work ethic.”
Lythcott-Haims said many parents ask how they can unilaterally de-escalate in what feels like a college-admissions arms race. How can they relax about getting their child into Harvard if every other parent is going full speed ahead?
She said colleges could help tamp down on the admissions craze by going test-optional, leaving it up to students whether to submit SAT or ACT scores. And perhaps top-tier schools could agree to limit the number of such schools that each student may apply to, she said.
She urges families to think more broadly about what makes for a “good” college. There are excellent educational experiences to be had at schools that aren’t among U.S. News and World Report’s top 20, she says, and there are schools that will accept students who don’t have a perfect resume.
Parents need to see that even children who succeed in doing the impossible – getting into Stanford, or Harvard, or other elite schools – bear the scars of the admissions arms race.
“They’re breathless,” Lythcott-Haims said. “They’re brittle, they’re old before their time.”
Emma Brown, a staff writer for The Washington Post, writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
by Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today
January 31, 2014
The independence of young American adults just took a great leap backwards. It was precipitated by the advance of their parents into new territory, a province once deemed innocuous enough for their offspring to navigate by themselves—getting into graduate school.
Now parents of 25-year-olds are only too eager to call graduate admissions officers and sing the virtues of their “children” or show up uninvited for campus visits intended for prospective students. Think of it as college displacement.
Adults, of course, rationalize their intrusive behavior by pointing out that they’re the ones paying the bills, so they are entitled to know what’s going on with their adult children. But commandeer the process? The money rationale rings awfully hollow. Parents have long paid the way for their offspring, usually with the clear aim of seeing that the kiddies acquire the knowledge and skills that support independence. Now, parents counter, costs are so great that schooling is an investment, as if some magical amount of money trips a switch in their brain that says it’s OK for them to rob their kids of any degree ……………………………………………………………………………………. of self-sufficiency.
Even if parents don’t know where to draw a line, colleges should. They are, after all, in the business of promoting the development of young adults. Instead, they see an opportunity for their own survival, and some are going so far as to actually cultivate parental invasiveness. So many parents now show up for campus visits on admitted-student days that the University of Texas law school in Austin has quadrupled the number of such days it holds. An administrator at another graduate school advises that parents be looked on not as overzealous but as trusted partners and “benefactors,” and that wooing parents can be the pipeline to more applicants.
“It’s so sad,” observes psychologist Michael Ungar, who heads the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University and is a fellow PT blogger. “The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks. I can fully understand coaching a child on how to fill in applications and how to deal with admissions officers. But doing that for the child is misguided and short-sighted. This is not a strategy for long-term well-being. It is always better to empower children to make good choices for themselves rather than having them remain dependent on parents to sort out problems for them.”
The real motivations of parents are probably multiple. Without question, they are anxious about the future success of their kids and think that clearing every path for them, including taking over tasks, will smooth the way to achievement. Many parents want to continue the kinds of connection they had when their kids were younger; it feeds the illusion that the adults aren’t aging after all, and it keeps the adults from having to carve new roles for their own post-parenting lives. There are studies showing that some parents are especially needy emotionally, expecting their children to supply the closeness missing from from their marriages or their own social life. However you slice it, parents are putting their own emotional needs ahead of the developmental needs of their children.
The ultimate outcome of such behavior is not good. Only a few studies have examined the effects of helicopter parenting. It is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, at least on a large scale (there have always been overbearing parents, but they were a rarity, and we used to laugh at them). It takes time to realize that something fundamental in parenting has shifted and time for scientists to suspect that it may cause problems, and more time for them to pinpoint and define the elements of intrusive parenting so that they can then study its effects. That is just now happening. Leading the charge is Chris Segrin of the University of Arizona, along with Michelle Givertz of Cal State at Chico and Neil Montgomery of Keene State College.
“The over part of overparenting,” the researchers observe in a recent study, “is a reference to excessive levels of involvement, control, and problem solving dispatched seeming in the service of the child’s well-being.” The big surprise of one of their recent studies overturns the conventional wisdom that parents always act with the good intentions and positive regard for a child’s well-being.
Au contraire, the researchers find, the inappropriate, anxiety-driven parenting tactics not only compromise children’s autonomy, mastery, and personal growth, they often reflect a critical attitude by parents, who praise their children when they do well but withdraw affection, subtly or overtly, when they don’t bring home that A. It’s known in the psych biz as “parental conditional regard.” At least that’s how children perceive it. And that’s what matters: The threat of criticism has corrosive effects on attitudes toward parents and self-development, and contaminates relationship with others. “Emotional overinvolvement and criticism often go hand in hand in family relationships,” explain the researchers.
This is just the beginning. Now that there are validated criteria defining overparenting, other researchers can study its effects. In the meantime, the latest study by Chris Segrin and colleagues shows that overparenting young adults breeds narcissim and poor coping skiils. And having ineffective coping skills amplifies anxiety and stress.
To say that the new studies are significant is an understatement. They demonstrate how those who mean only the best for their kids can wind up bringing out the worst in them.
Hara Estroff Marano is an editor-at-large at Psychology Today and writes the advice column.
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