Julie Lythcott-Haims: What's The Harm In Overparenting?

Apr 6, 2018

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Turning Kids Into Grown-Ups.

About Julie Lythcott-Haims's TED Talk

Former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims says overinvolved parents prevent kids from developing agency. She urges parents to focus on what's more important: unconditional love ... and chores.

About Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims formerly served as dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising for more than a decade at Stanford University.

She is the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success (2015) and Real American: A Memoir (2017).

Julie is a graduate of Stanford University, Harvard Law School, and California College of the Arts.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So what do you think it takes to get into a top-tier university like a Harvard or a Stanford?

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: OK, you know, who were - were they the top in their high school class or were they not? What SATs they get? 4.5 weighted GPA, and 10 APs and leadership, and, you know, you cured cancer and wrote a novel in childhood - you know, the biggest brand-name places are demanding a degree of perfection from our kids that they never asked of us when we were coming up.

RAZ: OK, if this is stressing you out, Julie Lythcott-Haims gets it. She's a former dean of freshmen at Stanford, and she met a lot of stressed-out students and their parents during her decade there.

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Parents are so concerned about getting our kids to the right place in life, whatever that might be in our own minds, we've decided it's our job to arrive them at that destination. I, the parent, will get you there. And that mindset is changing how parents approach K-12 education. Parents who have in mind, you know, this set of schools for our kid, that brand-name approach, that is conspiring to really mess with high school education. And now it's trickling down to middle school and even, in some places, elementary school. Why did my kid get a zero today? Why did they get a B-plus yesterday? We think good parenting is to try to control and engineer outcomes for our kids - what we now call overparenting or helicopter parenting - and it harms them. And that's why we have to stop.

RAZ: On the show today, Turning Kids Into Grown-ups - ideas about raising kids, from the way we treat boys and girls differently, to the way we help them cope with trauma and adversity and even homework, and how despite our best efforts, we're probably still doing it wrong.

And Julie Lythcott-Haims says that part of the problem is overparenting. She says we're not giving kids the tools they need to become independent adults. Here's more from Julie on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: When we raise kids this way, our kids end up leading a kind of checklisted childhood. And here's what the checklisted childhood looks like. We keep them safe, and sound, and fed and watered. And then we want to be sure they go to the right schools, but not just that - that they're in the right classes at the right schools and that they get the right grades in the right classes in the right schools - but not just the grades, the scores - and not just the grades and scores, but the accolades, and the awards, and the sports, and the activities and the leadership. And so because so much is required, we think, well, then, of course, we parents have to argue with every teacher, and principal, and coach and referee, and act like our kids' concierge, and personal handler and secretary.

And then with our kids, we spend so much time nudging, cajoling, hinting, helping, haggling, nagging, as the case may be, to be sure they're not screwing up, not ruining their future. And in the checklisted childhood, we say we just want them to be happy. But when they come home from school, what we ask about all too often first is their homework and their grades. And they see in our faces that our approval, that our love, that their very worth comes from A's. And then we walk alongside them and offer clucking praise like a trainer at the Westminster dog show.

(LAUGHTER)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: ...Coaxing them to just jump a little higher and soar a little farther day after day after day. And when we live right up inside their precious developing minds all the time like our very own version of the movie "Being John Malkovich," we send our children the message, hey, kid, I don't think you can actually achieve any of this without me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So what are some of the long-term consequences of overparenting?

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, doing that teaches kids that parents will always be there to intervene for you and leaves the kid feeling psychologically bewildered, maybe even incompetent. They grow up sort of feeling like, I got to have a parent attend my every move; I'm not capable of being a successful fourth grader without my parent kind of doing my homework for me. And I say kind of, but when I go around the country, Guy, parents admit to me that they're doing their kid's homework. This coddling epidemic really treats kids as if they are an investment.

But kids are not an investment, and they must do the work. They must travel their own pathway, make their own choices, fall down a few times, get back up and get stronger as a result of that experience. And that's what we're depriving of - them of, which is why too many young adults today - and by no means all - are bewildered at the task of being adult. What we now know to be the long-term cost of this is a cost to our kids' mental health and wellness. Depression and anxiety are spiking in young adult populations and adolescent populations. And I cite a few studies in my book that correlate an overinvolved parenting style with these higher rates of anxiety and depression. We are depriving our kid of developing agency in their own life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Now, am I saying every kid is hardworking and motivated and doesn't need a parent's involvement or interest in their lives, and we should just back off and let go? Hell no.

(LAUGHTER)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: That is not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is, our kids need us to be a little less obsessed with grades and scores and a whole lot more interested in childhood providing a foundation for their success, built on things like love and chores.

(APPLAUSE)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Did I just say chores? Did I just say chores? I really did. Here's why. The longest longitudinal study of humans ever conducted, it's called the Harvard Grant Study, it found that professional success in life, which is what we want for our kids, that professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid. And the earlier you started, the better. That a roll up your sleeves and pitch in mindset, a mindset that says there's some unpleasant work, someone's got to do it, it might as well be me, a mindset that says I will contribute my effort to the betterment of the whole, that that's what gets you ahead in the workplace. Now, we all know this. You know this.

(APPLAUSE)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And yet in the checklisted childhood, we absolve our kids of doing the work of chores around the house, and then they end up as young adults in the workplace still waiting for a checklist, but it doesn't exist. And, more importantly, lacking the impulse, the instinct to roll up their sleeves and pitch in and look around and wonder how can I be useful to my colleagues? How can I anticipate a few steps ahead to what my boss might need? A second very important finding from the Harvard Grant Study said that happiness in life comes from love. Not love of work. Love of humans. So childhood needs to teach our kids how to love. And they can't love others if they don't first love themselves. And they won't love themselves if we can't offer them unconditional love. They need to know they matter to us as humans, not because of their GPA.

RAZ: You know, Julie, I think a lot of us listening to this will hear, you know, part of ourselves in it, right? And hopefully maybe some people won't. But I think every parent to some degree struggles, right? Struggles with this balance between over-parenting and then being completely hands off.

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. Well, I think - you know, it's hard to describe over the radio, but I'm drawing a little diagram here on my notes in my hand. First of all, the people who study parenting say that there's an axis, an X Y axis, from, you know, very demanding to not demanding on the Y axis, and then how responsive we are - not responsive to very responsive - to our kids' needs and wants on the X axis. And the authoritarian parent, that my way or the highway, I don't care, because I said so, that's the parent who's highly demanding but not at all responsive to a kid's needs. That's authoritarian. And we don't want to be that. A parent who's very responsive to a kid and not at all demanding, that's the indulgent or permissive parent, you know, who just wants to be their kid's concierge or their best friend. We don't want to be that, either. The parent who's not demanding and not responsive is basically completely neglecting their kids, a parent not capable, basically, of doing any parenting.

We're supposed to aim for the sweet spot of highly demanding and highly responsive, authoritative parenting. The highly demanding, like authoritarian, but also highly responsive to a kid's needs and wants, like the indulgent permissive. It's a sweet spot where we have high expectations but we also give a darn about them as humans. That's what we're supposed to be aiming for. It's that subtle difference between loving a kid, caring about a kid, creating a culture in the home that homework gets done, we work hard in this family, effort is what matters. We've, as a Palo Alto parent told me when I was interviewing him for my book, I've taken algebra, he says to his kid. I've been an eighth grader. Now it's your turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: All right. So you're thinking, chores and love. That sounds all well and good, but, give me a break. The colleges want to see top scores and grades and accolades and awards. And, I'm going to tell you, sort of. The very biggest brand-name schools are asking that of our young adults. But here's the good news. You don't have to go to one of the biggest brand-name schools to be happy and successful in life. Happy and successful people went to a state school, went to community college, went to a college over here and flunked out.

(APPLAUSE)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And, more importantly, if their childhood has not been lived according to a tyrannical checklist then when they get to college, whichever one it is, well, they'll have gone there on their own volition, capable and ready to thrive there. I have to admit something to you. I've got two kids I mentioned, Sawyer and Avery. They're teenagers. And, once upon a time, I think I was treating my Sawyer and Avery like little bonsai trees...

(LAUGHTER)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: ...That I was going to carefully clip and prune and shape into some perfect form of a human that might just be perfect enough to warrant them admission to one of the most highly selective colleges. But I've come to realize, after working with thousands of other people's kids...

(LAUGHTER)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: ...And raising two kids of my own, my kids aren't bonsai trees. They're wildflowers of an unknown genus and species.

(LAUGHTER)

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And it's my job to provide a nourishing environment, to strengthen them through chores and to love them so they can love others and receive love. And the college, the major, the career? That's up to them. My job is not to make them become what I would have them become, but to support them in becoming their glorious selves. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: That's Julie Lythcott-Haims. She's the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of "How To Raise An Adult." You can find her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about Turning Kids Into Grown-ups. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.