Five years ago, Julie Lythcott-Haims, then the dean of freshmen at Stanford University, addressed a crowd of brand-new freshman parents at an orientation dinner. She told them to trust in the skill set they had instilled in their sons and daughters and have faith in the university of which they were now a part. And then compassionately yet emphatically, she told them, "Now, please go home."
She said this in 2009, years after she and her colleagues at Stanford and at universities around the nation had started to notice an ever-growing creep of parental involvement into college students' lives. Parents were "showing up and not leaving, literally or virtually," she said, helping their students to register for classes, choose a major or extracurricular activities or solve a problem when something went wrong with a teacher, a roommate or a grade.
A mere 24 hours after her orientation dinner speech, Lythcott-Haims discovered this creep in her own home. She was having dinner with her husband and two young children, who were then 8 and 10 years old. She leaned over, started cutting the meat on her 10 year old's plate and realized she was on track to be the very parent she had wagged her finger at the night before.
"I looked around and realized there are equivalents of cutting his meat everywhere," Lythcott-Haims said in an interview with the Weekly. "When do you stop holding their hand? When do you stop crossing the street with them? When do you let them talk to strangers? When do they walk some place alone? All of a sudden I understood why 18-year-olds might be showing up a little bit more attached to mom or dad if these tiny micro-steps toward independence had not been taken along the way."
Lythcott-Haims, now the parent of two Gunn High School students, left her post at Stanford in 2012 to document the broad-reaching harms of overparenting, which she saw, most alarmingly, leading to a "decline in hunger to be the self" in the young men and women at Stanford and beyond.
The product is Lythcott-Haims' new book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success." Due out June 9, the book offers in-depth history, research, anecdote and advice on, essentially, how to parent less.
The book begins with a reflection on the childhood of yesteryear, when kids ran free after school, "sport was for sport" and "play was for play." Kids, including Lythcott-Haims herself, had what she describes as a "free-range childhood." This is compared to the "checklisted childhood" of today within which "Boredom doesn't happen. It isn't on the schedule," she writes.
Lythcott-Haims ended up in Palo Alto in 1985 as a freshman at Stanford. She left to attend Harvard Law School but later returned to serve as associate dean for student affairs at the Stanford Law School. Four years later, she became the university's first-ever dean of freshman, charged with overseeing the new students' transition into college. And even before that, she had noticed the trend of "parents coming and not leaving" and students being grateful for rather than rejecting their mothers' and fathers' extensive support.
In 2005, she penned an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune called "When did caring become control? Blame Boomers."
"These parents are Baby Boomers, who, more than any generation past or present, questioned authority when they went to college," she wrote.
"So why this seemingly contradictory, protectionist behavior, now that these Boomers have college students of their own? Because Baby Boomers are still questioning authority by intervening, even when it comes to the very adult matters of their increasingly adult children. This group has great confidence in its own abilities and judgment, and knows no limit to sparing its children the heartache of an unwanted outcome or frustration of an arduous process. 'Mom and Dad to the rescue, darling. We know better.'"
In researching for "How to Raise an Adult," Lythcott-Haims interviewed more than 150 people at every level of the problem, from a department head at West Point to some of Palo Alto Unified School District's own administrators to, of course, parents and students themselves. She said almost all reaffirmed her hunch and concern that "this encroachment, this parental involvement in the spaces and places that used to be of adulthood, would lead to some kind of emptiness, some kind of psychological under constructiveness of the child."
She also cites research (and personal observations from her time at Stanford) that suggests a devastating link between overbearing parents and their sons' and daughters' mental health, including increasing their chances of suffering from depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. The college students of today are also reporting higher and higher rates of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, depressed, angry and hopeless.
The book is also incredibly honest about Lythcott-Haims' own overreaching as a parent. One page in, she admits, "In many ways, I am the problem parent I'm writing about." She said after the meat-cutting incident of 2009, she and her husband decided to get off the track they were on with something small yet concrete: making their children do chores around the house.
"We realized, they need to start contributing, they need to feel a sense of accountability and responsibility. ... I think one of the reasons it's hard for parents to stop helping is a parent usually is quicker, neater, gets it right the first time. So as a matter of efficiency, often, we want to handle things," she said.
But chores are a symbol of a larger effort to recognize that a parents' job should be to step back rather than in, Lythcott-Haims said.
In "How to Raise an Adult," Lythcott-Haims describes this parenting style as hitting the ideal sweet spot between other styles that are authoritarian, indulgent, permissive or neglectful.
"These parents set high standards, expectations, and limits, which they uphold with consequences," she writes. "They are also emotionally warm, and responsive to their child's emotional needs. They reason with their kids, engaging in a give-and-take for the sake of learning. They give their child freedom to explore, to fail, and to make their own choices."
Though the book revolves around the role of the parent in a young person's development, several chapters are devoted to that of the colleges and universities so many desperately seek to attend. As audience members perpetually asked Lythcott-Haims during her talks on the harm of overparenting that she gave while still a dean at Stanford, "Aren't the elite schools to blame?"
"Nobody intended this, but with every year beating the last, we've set our kids on this exhausting, breathless race toward the same result, which is admission," she said.
The Stanfords of the world are not to blame, but there is still something they could do to counter this extreme shift in expectations, Lythcott-Haims said. Universities could require that applicants meet a minimum GPA or SAT score that indicates they "have the cognitive capacity, the work ethic, the various aptitudes we expect you to have so that you can succeed in our classrooms."
"Once somebody meets that threshold, why not stop looking at the numbers?" Lythcott-Haims asked.
Dozens of schools across the country have moved in a similar direction by dropping their SAT/ACT requirements. The list of of these "test-flexible" schools include names like Wake Forest University, American University, the University of Arizona, Middlebury College, Pitzer College and Sarah Lawrence College.
"You see these outliers -- you see the Sarah Lawrences, the Reeds who say, 'We're not going to look at scores.' And those are great schools. But the schools that people are just hell bent on getting into, if they could signal, 'We don't want you to mortgage your childhood; it's not about these tiny differences in GPA; that's not why we want you,' I think they could really lead by doing something like that," she said.
Above all, "How to Raise an Adult" is a passionate call to action for parents to "push the parenting pendulum back in the other direction," from raising children to raising adults.
"I think those of us who believe we're harming our kids by overparenting, who believe we know better and are trying to do things differently, we have to be brave enough to be vocal," Lythcott-Haims said. "It can be hard to go against the herd of parenting, the trend, the way everyone seems to be doing it, but to be gently, respectfully vocal about a counter opinion is, I think, required. That bravery is required. Our kids deserve that."
Lythcott-Haims will be speaking about her new book at the Oshman Family JCC on Saturday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to paloaltojcc.org.
To read a Q&A with Julie Lythcott-Haims, click here.