King David High School students with Teaching for Tomorrow keynote speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims, who spoke on the topic How to Raise an Adult. (photo by Jocelyne Hallé)
Our kids are not bonsai trees that need to be clipped and sheared! That was the message Julie Lythcott-Haims delivered to a packed audience at Congregation Beth Israel in her May 17 talk, How to Raise an Adult.
The keynote speaker at King David High School’s Teaching for Tomorrow evening, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lythcott-Haims was previously dean of freshmen at the University of Stanford for 10 years. There, she said, she saw a lot of “helicopter parenting.”
“My freshmen students seemed to be like drones in their own lives, driven by someone else and constantly tethered to home and parents by their phones, the world’s longest umbilical cord,” she reflected.
Lythcott-Haims described how parents would email asking for their children’s passwords so they could register them for classes, parents calling her “unhappy with the grade a professor gave their child” and parents wanting to know where their kids were at all times. “I would rail against this absurdity,” she said. “I’d give a speech to parents each year, telling them, ‘Trust your child, they have what it takes to thrive. Trust us at the university. And now, please leave!’”
A mother of teens herself, Lythcott-Haims realized that it’s impossible for parents to let go of their 18-year-old freshmen unless they started relinquishing their helicopter-parenting tendencies years earlier. “We love our children fiercely and we’re fearful about what the world has in store for them. But we make the mistake of thinking we must cloak them in our arms instead of preparing them to be strong out there. So, we end up being overprotective, over-directive and doing excessive handholding with our kids, being like a concierge in their lives. We treat our precious kids like bonsai trees – we plant them in a pot, but we won’t let them grow.”
Lythcott-Haims peppered her talk with anecdotes about her personal adventures parenting. She described her desire to give her kids independence and trying to balance that with the over-protectiveness of their friends’ parents. She and her husband chose a house in a particular neighbourhood, she admitted, because she wanted her kids in the “right” preschools and schools, so they would have better chances of getting into the “right” universities.
Along the way, she realized she was misguided. Her son did not tick the boxes required by the “right” universities. She saw that she was inadvertently pushing him so hard to succeed, she was losing him in the process, robbing him of happiness.
What’s at the root of this tendency to overparent? “Love and fear motivates our actions, but also ego,” Lythcott-Haims stated. “We fear being judged. Our measure of worth is saying what our kids are doing. We want to brag about them because it makes us feel we’ve succeeded as parents and in life.”
A hushed, sobered silence descended over the large synagogue auditorium as Lythcott-Haims delivered an emotional talk about her own parenting mistakes and what she learned.
“Our children are not investments, they’re humans and they deserve to know they’re loved – and not because they got a particular grade. For kids, their knees go unskinned if we catch them before they fall. When we hover over every bit of play, we get short-term wins, but the long-term cost is to their sense of self and their ability to self-advocate. They emerge chronologically as adults but they’re still kids inside.”
There are serious consequences to overparenting, she continued. “When we over-direct them and lift them to the outcomes we desire for them, it leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression. They emerge as university students who are failure-deprived and who want to have a parent tell them what to do, how to feel. Though they might look beautiful on paper, when something bad happens, they don’t have the internal sense of self that says, I’ll be OK.”
Lythcott-Haims’ message to parents was a warning to back off, particularly if they want their kids to enter the world as fierce warriors, “strong individuals who are loving of themselves and feel capable and able to keep going when things go wrong.”
Just before receiving a standing ovation, she said, “It takes humility to be a good parent. The ego has to come out of it.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.