by Elizabeth Coady
If you are a helicopter and/or angst-filled parent planning to attend author Julie Lythcott-Haims’ upcoming talk at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (Tuesday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m.) on her book, “How to Raise an Adult” (Macmillan Publishing), keep this in mind should you fret her insights will make you squirm:
Lythcott-Haims waited TWO DAYS after giving birth to her first child before she delivered his application to the coveted preschool she wanted him to attend in tony Palo Alto, Ca. She had gotten and filled out the application 18 months earlier but had to wait to deliver him to fill out his name and birthdate.
“I didn’t want to ruin his future, so I had to get that turned in,” the former Stanford University dean of freshmen joked during a brief telephone conversation.
But it took a decade for Lythcott-Haims to realize that, just like the moms and dads of her college students, she too was guilty of wanting and doing too much for her son and daughter.
“For years, I was wagging my finger at parents, and then I came home and realized, ‘Oh my goodness; I’m a helicopter parent,” she said. “I realized this when I was cutting my 10-year-old’s meat … That was my A-ha wakeup moment.”
Raising two children in the hypercompetitive Silicon Valley and working with incoming freshmen at one of the most coveted American universities allowed Lythcott-Haims to witness firsthand how overbearing parents handicap their precious progeny. Her book is an attempt to help these parents detach in a healthy way.
Lythcott-Haims shares college staff horror stories on these pages: Parents doing their children’s high school homework and selecting their college majors. Moms visiting campuses to do the kids’ laundry. She tattles on one mom who telephoned her son’s boss to tell him to let up on the workload. The boss listened — and fired her son.
But the figurative coup de gras to independence is delivered by the parents who set up a webcam inside a dorm room so they could make sure their child got up in time in the morning.
“I tell parents that I know you love your kids fiercely, and I love my kids fiercely, but we have to imagine the day when we’re gone,” Lythcott-Haims said. “When we are indulgent and permissive, we are depriving them of the chance to learn how to do things for themselves. And when we are dead and gone, they will lack the skills they need to go on.”
Lythcott-Haims’ “how to parent better” tome joins the cacophony of voices vying for the dollars of America’s middle- and upper-class parents who jostle against each other to propel their children up a narrowly defined social ladder. Yet Lythcott-Haims and other experts will tell you: There’s no one path to success, but there is a right and wrong way to get your child ready for the challenges of adulthood.
The right way: by removing the safety net and letting them fail. By encouraging them to take risks, make mistakes, explore mental and physical terrains independently and discover who THEY want to be rather than demanding that they fulfill the expectations of cloying parents. The best parents do this while remaining emotionally and intellectually engaged with their children.
But many of today’s children of the upwardly mobile classes are raised like prized hothouse flowers: sheltered in artificially protective environments that, once taken away, leave them wilted and withered. In her book, Lythcott-Haims talks about the “orphan as role model,” both in fiction and real life, for achievement and independence precisely because of the absence of a parent.
In contrast, helicopter parents have “created a role for ourselves, a position that’s partly personal assistant and partly like the role high-end publicists play in the lives of some Hollywood stars: observer, handler and often, go-between,” she writes in the book.
For some unhealthy parents, the kids have become just another tableau in which they compete for status. These moms and dads reach for the toniest addresses, the most expensive labels, the priciest restaurants — and that hyper-competitive spirit extends to their children, with the ultimate prize admission into an exclusive college.
Parents need to understand that there is no singular path to success in America despite the “mythology” and the college rankings racket that encourage that thinking, she said. Micromanaging our children’s lives may prevent some bruises, but ultimately it prevents them from developing the skills that allow them to survive and thrive over a lifetime filled with challenges.
“We’ve definitely lost perspective,” said Lythcott-Haims, whose son is now a freshman at Reed College in Oregon. “We have forgotten as parents that our job is to put ourselves out of a job.”
For more information bout Lythcott-Haims’ presentation, visit www.sch.org.