This is a condensed version of an interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University dean of freshmen, Palo Alto parent of two and author of new book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success." Lythcott-Haims will be speaking about her new book at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Saturday, June 13. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/1JXvbDA.
Q: In the book, you talk about the way childhood used to be -- mostly unrestrained and unscheduled compared to the childhood of today. What was your own upbringing like?
I was born in 1967. I grew up in the '70s (and) came to college in 1985 out here (at Stanford University). I was raised in the Midwest and East Coast, moved around a lot. I'm GenX. I'm that generation sandwiched between Baby Boom and Millennial that was called "latchkey." What was happening was moms were going back to work or going to work in the '70s. That was a wonderful thing. Dads weren't exactly coming home (in the afternoon) all of a sudden so (there was) this open question of, 'What do we do with the kids after school or before school?'
Very many of us were accustomed to being kissed goodbye and so on: "Make your own breakfast" or "Here's breakfast, I'm leaving, lock the door behind you." And then (when you) come home from school, you're on your own for three hours, let's say, until 6 p.m. when your parents get back from work. That was standard. It wasn't considered neglect; it wasn't weird; it was just how people handed the situation of two parents working. It was before there was a sense of after-school day care associated with every public school or all these public school activities and so on. (There were) far fewer activities, far less homework and no organized day care to speak of once you were of age to go to school.
In that sense, I think I had a very hands-off, hands-free, free-range kind of childhood, which was just childhood. It was very normal. It was no different than anything else. I think it is my memories of what that felt like as a child that certainly informs my sense of what has changed. I like to say that as dean (of freshman), I saw the results of close to 20,000 childhoods. I had, in my 10 years, just under 20,000 students come through Stanford at that time. As freshman dean, I had the great fun and privilege of getting to know many of them. I remember when we began to be worried that so many parents are all of a sudden seeming to feel that they ought to play a role.
Q: Was there a noticeable shift?
There was. I was at Stanford for 14 years, the last 10 of which were as freshmen dean. The first two were as associate dean for student affairs at the law school and then I worked for President (John) Hennessey for two years. In that first role, in 1998 ... that's when people began noticing that parents are coming and not leaving. Parents used to wave goodbye at the airport or fly with you or drive you up or the sense of, 'Maybe we'll help you unpack your bags, but we go.' It was around 1998 that parents started to feel the need to stay -- not very many, but every year brought more and more who seemed to have this eager worry, this "I need to help; I should help." It was that kind of approach.
In the beginning, we just wanted to reassure (parents). ... As the numbers grew, by the early- to mid-2000s, we found ourselves saying, there are so many parents who are now showing up and not leaving, literally or virtually, who expect to play a role in the life of the university that in prior years, the student had played -- registering for classes, choice making around major or activities, problem solving when something goes wrong, a dispute of some kind or just a misunderstanding, roommates, grades. We gathered as a group -- those of us who were thinking about such things -- and reaffirmed that the university's primary relationship is with the student, but that parents are an important partner in supporting the student in being successful.
We were very much trying to remain respectful of the role a parent plays in the life of a son or daughter but were also chafing against the notion that this person was still a child. I remember when people began using the word -- I don't literally remember when but I noticed that folks started referring to sons and daughters as 'children.' The rudder that I had under me at the time was saying, "But wait a minute, these are the same 'children' that we send into the Army and the Navy and the Marines and the Air Force to fight and die for our country. How is it that we find them so equipped to make that choice and perhaps face that sacrifice if they're still children? Why is it that we might treat folks in the military as their best option at 18 differently in our minds than those who march off to college or university?"
I wrote the book because on top of all of this, I noticed that my students were quite grateful for their moms' or dads' help. And that's a marked change from when my generation was in college. This is sort of the hallmark of millennial. It's wonderful that millennials -- and I say millennials because they're the first generation to be parented this way -- millennials and their parents are closer as sons and daughters and parents than ever before in recorded history. So there's this tremendous bond, which is fabulous and good, and as a parent and as a daughter, obviously I know the bond between parent and child can be an amazing thing and we hope for that, we want that. And yet this tremendous respect and closeness comes with little desire to separate from the parent, which has sort of always happened. Psychologists will tell us: This is a natural stage, a natural part of development -- some kind of separation from the adult in order to form the self.
So when I saw my students essentially grateful that mom and dad were there to help them out of a bind, to figure something out, to make a choice, to provide approval -- I thought, "Back in my day ... we would have (said), 'Get away, I know better, don't get in the way' or 'I want to do this.'" And that wasn't happening. There was this tremendous cloak of politeness and happiness and "It's all good" and "We're close" and "We're best friends," which all seemed beautiful. And yet in my students, I saw what was missing. I saw the absence of this sense of hunger, (of) "I'm an adult now and as hard as it might be to tackle this or deal with this or confront this, I kind of want to do it. I want to prove to myself that I can." I didn't see that. Over the years, that seemed to be diminishing in this population of people who heretofore could be characterized by that hunger for independence. That's what made me write the book.
Q: Once you decided you wanted to write the book, what was your process like? You mentioned that you interviewed more than 150 people.
I wrote my first piece on helicopter parenting in 2005 in the Chicago Tribune. So I've been thinking about it. This book is coming out basically 10 years later. It's been in my mind as a problem, as a concern that grew greater and greater over the course of the many years. I knew that what I was seeing was only what I was seeing.
So while I was still dean, I was very interested in, what were other colleagues around the nation at different schools seeing? I would go to conferences and top of mind for many, many colleagues -- whether at the highly selective schools in tiers one, two, three, whatever the tiers were -- at colleges and universities around the country, colleagues in advising, as I was, or freshman transition or residential education were all noticing the involvement of parents and this sort of helplessness of students. We were all talking about it.
So I knew that it was more than just my perception and at Stanford. I knew that my colleagues elsewhere were saying they were seeing the same kind of stuff. My hunch was 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. I had that hunch. I'm not a psychologist ... I had this hunch because I like humans. I'm interested in humans. And I was watching young humans go past me and I was watching this decline in this hunger to be the self.
When I wrote that op-ed in 2005, there were no studies out. There might have been one study out somewhere saying, "This is likely to contribute to greater rates of anxiety or depression or whatever," but there was nothing. Now there are plenty of studies out there. What I'm telling you is that the evidence mounted around me. My own gut sense, my own instincts, were confirmed.
But still I thought I needed to go talk to lots of people. Where can I go? If my hunch is that things have really changed and that young adults are really different today and that that might not be good for them or for us as a society, where do I go? My first attempt at interviews was with West Point, which has sent young men and now young men and women into harm's way, to be officers in the United States army for over 100 years. What were they saying? There are a couple great interviews in the book.
We're not talking about every kid, by any means. We're talking about some in this population and more and more each year, it seems. And West Point would say the same thing: "We never saw this and now we're seeing it and we're seeing it at greater numbers and it worries us."
Teach for America has been in existence since I graduated from college and (is) sending the best and brightest into the nation's most underperforming school districts. They are seeing this encroachment of parents into the corps' members' lives. So those were two kind of vanguard institutions, I felt, that could tell me a thing or two about how their cohorts were changing over the years. Their stories, their frustrations, their opinions, their experiences began to bear this hunch out. When I found some traction there, that's what gave me the sense that, "OK, this is a good path to pursue. Let me talk to as many people as I can and let me see what resonates."
Fundamentally we're talking about shifts in the human experience and the human story unfolding. I wanted to interview as many people as I did to really try to understand the shape and the nuance and the inflection points. It's like when a wave comes in and disrupts the sand. The sand used to look this way, and now it looks like this. How did that happen? I was trying to get a sense of what happened, why it happened, how it happened, what it would mean, what are the consequences.
Q: How were you influenced by being a parent in Palo Alto, a community notorious for its helicopter parents and culture of hyper-achievement?
It's emblematic. (It's) not unique -- certainly there are communities like ours, many around the nation -- but we certainly are a prime example. I had my "aha" moment in 2009. Every year at (new student) orientation ... we had a big dinner for parents of Stanford freshman. I got to be one of the people that spoke at this dinner. In my remarks, I would say, essentially, "Trust that you've instilled in your kids a set of skills such that they've got this. Trust that the university is here to do not as little as we can get away with, but as much as we can for your son or daughter. its what we do. And now please go home." Those were essentially the three messages but delivered in a very compassionate yet emphatic way.
I give this speech ... get home, my kids are already asleep. I go to work the next morning and come home for dinner the next day. Twenty-four hours later, I'm at dinner now, not with 2,500 parents but with two kids and my husband. My kids are 8 and 10 (years old). I lean over and I start cutting my son's meat. He was 10. I had this, "Oh my god, I'm one of those parents!" When do you stop cutting their meat? No one tells you. It's not in any book. There's not a video about this. This is just meant to be common sense. We've lost our common sense about how to foster these skill sets in our kids. You can imagine, I was mortified.
Also, I looked around and realized, there are equivalents of cutting his meat everywhere. 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. How do you expect someone at 18 to just be ready? It was that moment that made me examine what I was doing, made me realize, "Wait a minute, I know better. I see what I see with 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds and 22-year-olds, and now I get how childhood is meant to be constructing this independent self and may be failing to because we're doing so much, because we're so helpful and we're so present and we've got it all figured out." We're trying to be the best parents we can be and we're helping, helping, helping, helping.
I became in that moment empathic. I think I had been compassionate but critical before that. That was the humbling part. I realized ... I am on track to be that parent. I'm glad I had that moment because my husband and I had to figure out, what are we doing to foster dependency right here? I had many, many students who were wonderful examples of 18 (years old), adult, independent, working hard to become themselves, wanting to do it for themselves. I want my kid to look like that one, not like that one. What do I do now? And, of course, it's less what I need to do and (more) what do I need to stop doing to create that path to independence for my kid?
Q: What kind of changes did you make?
My kids weren't doing any chores. So they had no responsibilities. They were being waited on hand and foot. We made their meals; we did their laundry; we cleaned up after them. That was the first thing we did. 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, but what we fail to recognize when we do all that is the kid never learns. And then what? Our kids, if they were 8 and 10 at the time, they were very quick to say, "What? If this is so important, why haven't we been doing it all along?" We said, "We made a mistake and we learned and now this needs to happen."
So very quickly we came up with a set of chores, and over the years they've increased. When a kid began to whine and say, "I can't; I don't know how," we said, "OK, here's how you do it." We'd show them and then we'd back off ... recognizing that our job is to continue to step back, to step out of their picture so that they can be in the front and we can step to the back, always there if they need us.
Q: What about with school and homework? In your book you write about parents who are very heavy-handed with their children's homework and school projects.
For me, we weren't overstepping when it came to homework. These were the ways in which we were kind of bewildered by what was happening around us. It was the "mission project" (in) fourth grade. ... My husband and I walked in for the evening where the teacher displays all the projects and kids walk around. It was so obvious that some of the projects had been done by parents. They were just perfect. They were precise ... it was just not done with the hands of a 10-year-old. I thought, "Who do these parents think they're fooling?" What about this poor kid who's getting the message ... "Everyone is ooh-ing and ah-ing over my project" but somewhere in the kid, I bet, they sense that "This is not of my making. I am being praised for something I didn't actually do." I write about this in the book -- this encroaching sense of "I'm not good enough; I need my mom or dad to be there to correct my papers, to do my math homework, to do my mission project." The horrible message no parent would ever intend to send is "You're not capable without me -- but don't worry, I'll always be there for you." Both of those are lies. We won't always be there. If things happen in the natural biological order of things, we predecease our kids. That's how it works. We will not always be there. But we have to know that when we're gone that they (have) it.
We saw the mindset of our kid needs tutoring, our kids needs a coach for this and tutor for that and "fix, fix, fix; mend, mend, mend; perfect, perfect, perfect." Quite frankly, it all looked exhausting to us. We thought, "Who is doing this? How do they have the space and time?"
Q: What role do elite colleges and universities like Stanford play in the "college arms race" and intense attention paid to academic achievement? Do they have some responsibility here? As one person asked in your book, are the elite schools to blame?
My former colleagues in admissions at Stanford are wonderful people. I know that they worry about the extent to which childhood today seems to be so compromised by this exhausting effort to study repeatedly for standardized tests to raise scores, to study madly at the level required by AP classes. I know that they regard this as a real problem in our society. In my book, I say that they're not to blame, but I also say there's probably a lot that the really elite schools could do to help shift behaviors.
Over the years it seems that a higher and higher SAT score is required, a higher and higher GPA is required, more and more activities are required, leadership and community service and all of that seems to be required of a kid to get into college. Everyone my age would say, "There's no way I, the student I was when I was 17, would have gotten into this college today," and we all mean it. But what we're really saying is the expectation of what it means to be an accomplished, hardworking child with promise worthy of admission to a university -- that definition has changed. It's gotten ratcheted up every year. The scores and numbers keep getting higher. 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. It used to take far less to demonstrate effort and accomplishment and promise.
What if a college or university said, "We think it takes a GPA of at least 'here' for a kid to thrive at our school, to really be one of us and make it. You have to have at least this kind of GPA from high school and you have to have at least this SAT or ACT score. It tells us you 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? When you are now looking at the thousands of kids who have made that cut, what you really want to know then is who are they? What do they really care about? What will they contribute to our campus and to the learning of each other? That's where an essay, a letter of recommendation tells you so much more than a 3.917 versus a 4.013. But when those numbers are staring at an admissions committee member, it's hard not to see them somehow as differentiating.
"This one's GPA is 0.1 higher." When you're looking at that incredibly high end of the spectrum, does that really mean anything anymore? It told you something for purposes of they made the cut, but now that you're examining all those who made the cut, maybe we can focus more on the qualities and characteristics that really get at who the human is as opposed to how much they were able to study. When you take into the account the fact that people say that the SAT score is to some degree a function of wealth -- that is, your score improves the more you can study for it and take it, which itself is a function of how many dollars you have because its expensive -- you don't want that to be the distinguishing factor. I think if colleges were to say, "In order to be in the running you've got to be at least here," but then stop looking at those things, what would happen is a place like Stanford might end up accepting people -- if this is the band (holding her hands up, with one about a foot above the other) they might end up accepting many people in this range (gesturing toward her bottom hand). Their average SAT score would go down. I think it's only the biggest schools, the biggest brand name schools that have the heft of reputation such that if they followed that route and their average SAT score took a bit of a ding, they would still be regarded as a preeminent school. The biggies, I think, are the only ones. 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.
Q: Are you hopeful that could happen?
Essentially, I think, we have to reset the bar of what's expected of our children. The phrase that I use is "They're mortgaging their childhood." This is a debt. ... When you look at the rates of mental health difficulty experienced by adolescents and young adults and college students, it's hard not to put the two together. Again, this is not my area (of expertise). But there's something about childhood today that is just breeding this helplessness and hopelessness. I'd really, really like to see us reset the bar and figure out how to more effectively assess a young man's or woman's capacity for thriving at an institution. I am optimistic, actually, because educators fundamentally care about helping a human grow into their adult selves, enhancing a human's intellectual capacities and aptitudes. But more than that, they're interested in the whole human. Who's more interested in that than educators? I know the concern is there. I think the question is, how can this be done? How can these shifts be made thoughtfully and meaningfully? But I am optimistic that the people who do this for a living will come up with a better way, a way that either creates a disincentive for all of this resume building or creates a different kind of incentive. I'd be really excited to see that happen.
Q: How do you reach the parents who are overparenting but don't realize it, who aren't seeking this kind of narrative out?
This problem arises whenever you're trying to create societal change. There's always the choir -- you're preaching to the choir -- and then there's everybody else. How do you get to the everybody else? It happens in politics; it happens in communities. I think often what you really need is someone from within that community of non-adopters to get it and then preach to their own choir. As parents, we're influenced by our own values and our own ideals. If we've got a partner, hopefully we're on board with them. But we also join a community of other parents with whom we're like-minded, and we tend to be interested in following or joining people we respect. 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. 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. Those of us who feel this way must speak out.
I think there are people in communities where overparenting is regarded as the standard way -- there are people in those communities who do speak up and I think those are the voices that need to be heard. For example, Frank Wu, who I quote in my book, who's the dean at UC Hastings Law School, is Chinese-American (and) has written about what it's like to endure a childhood where you're expected to be No. 1 or it's not worth getting out of bed. I think someone like Frank Wu needs to say that in his community, as an example. Frank Wu is going to be the effective voice of change; Frank Wu has the greatest chance of being respected in the Chinese-American community because he's of the community. I think there are communities of all kinds where somebody from within is going to be the strongest, most compelling voice.