Do you find yourself driving your kids’ lunches, forgotten homework or permission slips to school? Do you wake up your school-age children each morning? Do you worry more about their homework than they do? If you answered, “YES” to any of these questions, you are in the company of many other well-meaning, but unintentionally debilitating parents.
What starts off as caring for our infants by anticipating and meeting their needs becomes disabling and discouraging when we continue doing things for children who are (or could be) perfectly capable of handling them on their own. While we can get away with over-parenting when our kids live with us, it gets in the way of their ability to succeed once they have left the nest.
Julie Lythcott-Haims felt compelled to write The New York Times bestselling book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success” after seeing the results of intrusive and over-functioning parenting on her students at Stanford. She will address this and other topics in a webinar on Wednesday, March 21, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. EST, organized by the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland. In the following interview, she discusses some of the problems caused by over-parenting and offers suggestions for breaking the habit.
Q: Have you observed any positive changes since publishing “How to Raise an Adult” in 2015?
A: When I first began speaking, I met with a lot of audiences that were skeptical or highly defensive. They didn’t believe the extent of the concern I was raising. But now many parents around the country have experienced a set of children who are withering underneath this parenting style.
Q: What negative changes have you observed in the years since publishing your book?
A: Our technology-based ability to control our children is increasing – GPS tracking kids, electronic monitoring on their ankles. Our desire to surveille our children 24/7 seems to be very much on the increase. Is this psychologically healthy for any human? All freedoms taken away, all trust gone? These devices make me shudder. Where do you stop? How do you stop? Parents seem terrified that their children aren’t going to be able to conduct themselves in a trustworthy manner or meet their obligations unless a parent is there pinging them, reminding them, overseeing them. But actually we are supposed to be building trust.
Q: How does a community change? It’s hard to take the first step when the parents, the teachers and the schools are afraid to let go first.
A: Take a community approach. Consider the public school district, local mental health practitioners, law enforcement, clergy across various religions, the youth themselves and parents and coaches – in other words, a wraparound approach. Then ask, “Who are we as a community? How do we want kids in our community to feel living here? What are we all going to do to re-route this thing?” There is inertia around these behaviors. It’s like a big barge on the ocean and it takes a lot of effort to move that barge just slightly in another direction: It takes many small efforts. There can be a lot of information-gathering, sharing cross-pollination and learning. In other words, no one is singing out who has to go first. Remember, as parents, we are supposed to be spending the years 0-18 teaching our kids how to function without us. If we are over-parenting, we have completely lost sight of the end goal. When instead we keep doing things for them, we end up with adult children who can’t fend for themselves.
Q: What do you think about grading portals?
A: I think the portal is ruining the relationships between kids and parents, parents and teachers and kids and teachers. I think it should only be open at the end of each quarter, not every moment of the day. I think schools that allow constant access are abdicating their roles as educators and are just turning over information constantly to parents, as if the parents are their overseers. This is another aspect of the 24/7 surveillance that is harming kids. Everyone is forgetting that it’s up to the child to learn and turn in homework, and the only way they learn is by feeling the sting of not having turned it in. This is the kid’s responsibility.
Q: What then is the parent’s role in homework?
A: The family sets the expectation: “We do our homework in this family.” Create a clean space – a desk or a table – and a certain set of hours in the afternoon or evening for homework. Parents provide the environment to support homework completion, but that homework is the kid’s responsibility.
Q: How do parents stop over-functioning?
A: If the mental health evidence doesn’t sway people, I don’t know what will. When we over-help, we create anxiety and depression in kids. It’s the parents’ own needy ego that causes this. Parents need help to stop treating their children like objects, projects, pets or stocks in the stock market. It’s the parents’ un-wellness that needs their children to prove that the parents are worthy. I end my talks by saying, “Get a life and then maybe your kids can, too.” If this feels hard for you, go get some therapy.
Q: What is your most asked question?
A: “When are colleges going to stop demanding flawless applications?” In other words, we are only doing this because we think we have to. I think in time the expectations of colleges will change. I see small bits of progress here and there. But we can’t wait. The good news is there are plenty of great colleges that don’t require a flawless childhood. You don’t have to go to a brand-name school to have an amazing life.
Q: What’s your favorite question?
A: “What do I do? Is it too late?” That says the parent really gets it. I say the older the kid is, the harder it is. Kids get accustomed to being handled, helped and served. We have beaten down their desire to take care of themselves with our love and kindness. That said, it’s never too late. And you always start with an apology: “Hey kid, we’ve now come to realize we’ve done too much for you instead of teaching you to do for yourself, and we are sorry.” Then work with them to pick three things they can start doing themselves.
The 4-step process to breaking the over-parenting cycle:
- First we do it for you.
- Then we do it with you.
- Then we watch you do it.
- Then you do it completely independently.
Example: College student buying an airline ticket.
- Parent buys ticket.
- Parent sits at computer to go over dates and possible flights with child and show him or her travel websites and how to enter credit card information.
- Child sits at computer with parent and does the research, with the parent available to answer questions only if asked.
- Child buys own plane ticket.
Information on the Parent Encouragement Program webinar with Julie Lythcott-Haims on March 21, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m., is at pepparent.org/noted-author-series/.