Checklisted childhoods

Julie Lythcott-Haims isn’t just a former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success. She’s also a parent herself, one who openly admits that at the same time in her life when she first began chastising Stanford parents for hovering over their kids, she also caught herself doing the same thing with her own young children. I think that’s why her advice resonates so much with me, and why I share her as a source so often here. She knows the difficulties, the grey areas, the uncertainties a parent can face. But she’s also seen Stanford freshmen, some of the world’s brightest and most accomplished 18-year-olds, who were unable to face even the most common of daily challenges without calling Mom or Dad for instructions.

This recent Time article, adapted from her book mentioned above, shares Julie’s story of how she came to the realization that someone needed to speak out against what she had seen for herself as a harmful parenting practice. If this passage below resonates with you, if you’re a parent who wants to step back but worries that doing so will put your student at a disadvantage, I hope you’ll give both the article and the book a read.

“… I’m here to tell you—warn you—that this way of parenting is harmful to kids, to parents, to us all. You know it, I know it. We all know it. We see our children withering under the pressure of the checklisted childhood, feel ourselves struggling to keep up, and we imagine a different, saner way, exists elsewhere. Wyoming? Yet we look over our shoulder and see the galloping herd of other parents who are spending more money, hiring more help, taking more time off just to ensure their kid makes the grade, makes the cut, and gets admitted to that school over our kid, all the while bragging about their outcomes. We want to trust our instincts, wish we were brave enough to walk away, focus on family time not test prep, incite laughter, prompt joy, let our kids just be, but we fear the herd, and the short term win their kid will achieve with all that help. The overparenting herd has become a bully we feel the need to go along with.”

Goofing off = better learning

Dr. Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. Here’s a snippet from her recent article in The Atlantic, “How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn.”

“When parents seek my advice about what activities their child should be doing, they’re often surprised when I pare down their proposed list and prescribe free time during the week for good goofing off. It’s not that kids aren’t paying attention during this time, it’s that their attention has shifted within. Important things are going on in there. Even adults can only pay attention for about 20 minutes at a time before getting less effective. When a child has finished her math homework and is taking time between assignments to make a smoothie or read a chapter in a book, or when he comes home after school and blows off steam by shooting baskets in the backyard for an hour before starting his homework, the brain is still processing information very effectively. It’s sorting through what it’s taken in, attaching emotional meaning to it, cementing it in memory, and integrating it into the individual’s core self. It’s all part of building a child’s identity, about learning who they are apart from what they do.”

A university professor’s perspective on over-involved parents

Duquesne University professor Dr. Karen Fancher’s office is directly in front of the elevator doors, leading to a recurring experience which she describes as follows (the link within this quote also appears in the article):

“I’m concentrating on something, but out of the corner of my eye I see the elevator doors slide open. It’s a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman, presumably her mother. The parent walks into my office, with the girl trailing sheepishly behind. The mother says, ‘My daughter will be starting here in the fall. We want to change one of her elective classes.’ I try to make eye contact and address the girl as I politely give them directions to the Office of Student Services down the hall, but it’s the mother who apologizes for interrupting me. They leave my office, Mom leading the way with the class schedule in her hand. Do you see the issue here? The child has been accepted into a major university and is weeks away from starting a difficult area of study, but it’s her parent who is doing all of the talking to get her problem corrected, while she says nothing and appears to be dragged along against her will.”

The article goes on to share not only a thoughtful analysis of both the long-term detrimental effects on kids and the challenges for faculty dealing with over-involved parents, but also some tips for parents that can help you step back and allow your kids to take responsibility for their own educations.

The role of “parent”

Parents, imagine you had a big presentation at work. You worked and worried. You put in the long hours and maybe even a restless night or two. But unfortunately, it just didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. You’re disappointed. The wind is officially out of your sails. You feel like you failed and you need to muster the energy to pick yourself back up and get back to work tomorrow.

What would you want your kids to say to you when you got home?

“Maybe you should have started on the presentation earlier.”

“Is this going to negatively impact your chances at a promotion?”

“What’s your boss’s email address? I want to talk to her and see how we can fix this.”

“You’ll need to make up for that with some extra sales numbers this quarter.”

“Making good slides is definitely not your strong point. We should get you someone to help you with that before the next presentation.”

Or would you rather your kids told you they were sorry that it didn’t go as you’d hoped, gave you a hug, and kept treating you like their mom or dad who they love unconditionally, regardless of your professional successes or failures?

I know that parents feel inextricably linked to their kids’ education. But as much as possible, try to preserve your role as mom or dad, a role that doesn’t change with any grade, test score, or admissions decision.

Bonus suggestion: Say one thing to your kids today that reminds them exactly what role you’re playing. Don’t assume that they know.

Recharging vs. enduring

From bestselling authors Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan in a recent Harvard Business Review piece, “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure“:

“A resilient child is a well-rested one. When an exhausted student goes to school, he risks hurting everyone on the road with his impaired driving; he doesn’t have the cognitive resources to do well on his English test; he has lower self-control with his friends; and at home, he is moody with his parents. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. And the bad habits we learn when we’re young only magnify when we hit the workforce.”

The article then goes on to share some compelling research showing the importance of real “recovery periods,” and the distinction between simply stopping your work and actually recovering from the time spent doing it. It’s worth a read for students looking to get an edge without necessarily adding more hours of work to the day, and for parents who may welcome a reminder that the strategically placed video game session or other completely-non-school-related distraction can actually be a long-term improver of mind, health, and performance.

Life grades on a curve

A recent Atlantic article, “The Ethos of the Overinvolved Parent,” made the rounds in our counselor and admissions officer social media groups yesterday, generating frustration with the reality but also a fair amount of understanding, especially from fellow parents, about why it’s so hard to let go.

Stacy, the mother interviewed for the article, argues that for $65,000 a year—the cost of her daughter’s “prestigious private college”—she won’t hesitate to call school officials when she perceives things aren’t going well. That’s exactly what happened when Stacy’s daughter waited four weeks for the school to schedule an interview for a desirable internship at a local hospital. Stacy intervened and called her daughter’s advisor.

As Stacy describes today’s college experience:

“‘It’s a lot for them to navigate, and it wouldn’t be fair to tell them to navigate it on their own,’ she said. ‘It’s not called helicopter parenting. It’s called Parenting 2017.’”

I can see the basis for this argument. Parents like Stacy pay a lot of money for college. And they’re evaluating not only what the post-college return on that investment will be, but also the degree to which the promises are being kept for the benefactors—the students.

But here’s the twist I would add. At what point will it be her daughter’s responsibility to manage her own life, and how soon before then should she be allowed to start learning those lessons?

I don’t know what steps Stacy’s daughter had taken with her advisor to get that interview scheduled. Had she checked by phone or email? Did she visit during office hours? Did she offer to schedule the interview herself, only to have all of these efforts rebuffed or ignored?

Or did she just sit back and “frantically wait” as the article describes it?

Whichever scenario it was, it would seem that the only lesson this student likely learned is that when she experiences a frustration or setback, Mom will swoop in and fix it for her.

What would have been the worst-case scenario had Stacy not intervened? The student doesn’t get the internship? I find it hard to believe that there’s only one worthwhile internship available to a college kid in Boston. And the lesson learned might have been an invaluable one—if you really want something, show initiative. Be resourceful. Don’t just sit back and “frantically wait.”

The world is not a place that caters to our every whim. We all have to face obstacles, deal with difficult or unresponsive people, and navigate our way through situations that don’t have a clear path or correct answer. It takes time to learn how to do these things. There’s no class kids can take to learn the steps in just one semester.

But life is its own best teacher here. It will throw a lot of material at kids as they get older. And this instructor is also forgiving of many wrong answers as long as kids learn from their mistakes. It’s up to parents to let their kids enroll in this course, and to commit to offering only the occasional guidance or tutoring rather than jumping in to do the homework or take the tests for their students.

Students won’t get a perfect grade in this particular class—nobody does. But most successful people have failed in their lives. And that’s proof that life grades on a curve.

When great parenting = great managing

The increasing complexity of the college admissions process can occasionally leave parents unclear as to what they should be doing to best support their kids. Yes, we all know to take care of them and to love them unconditionally. But when does supporting them become over-parenting? When does backing off become disengaging from their lives? When does encouraging them to pursue their dreams become pushing them too hard? Much like the job of a great manager is to help their employees be happy and successful at work, an argument could be made that one important job of a great parent is to help kids be happy and successful in life. Here are five ways great parenting looks like great managing.

1. Define what success looks like.
A good manager doesn’t just define the job responsibilities—she defines what success looks like in the role, how it’s measured, and why it’s important to the mission of the company. A great parent can take the same approach with his kids. Rather than create a narrow definition that ties to transcripts and test scores, think of the values you’d like your kids to develop and take with them when they leave the nest, like work ethic, character, curiosity, and kindness. High school is going to end someday, but a broader definition of success, one that isn’t prescribed by the college admissions process, is something they bring with them into adulthood.

2. Offer regular recognition and praise.
Great managers know that effective praise and recognition can help employees better understand both their own value and what’s important to the organization. And great parents know that one of the best ways to encourage the success they define in #1 is to recognize and praise the right behaviors when they see them. I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on how to praise effectively.

3. Let them find their own route to success.
The best managers don’t legislate every step an employee should take to do an important job well. And they don’t constantly jump in and take over to make sure things are done to their exacting standards. Instead, they describe the desired outcomes, offer appropriate support to guide their people, then let their employees find their own individual routes to get there. Great parents make their expectations clear, but they also acknowledge that every kid is different. They recognize and appreciate what makes each of their kids unique. Instead of expecting that your kids will approach the world exactly as you or their siblings do, encourage them to find how they learn, work, and thrive best.

4. Allow for recoverable failures.
Workplaces can’t benefit from innovation if they don’t allow people to try things that might not work. So great managers encourage employees to experiment, to initiate, and to try new things, all while making sure that any potential failure is one that’s acceptable and recoverable. Great parents appreciate that many of the best opportunities for learning and growth come from the failure that follows trying something that’s new, different, or challenging for their kids. As long as kids aren’t doing anything to put their health or their future at risk (crimes, not test scores, put their future at risk), the occasional recoverable failure can breed resilience, knowledge, and long-term success. Embrace and encourage those opportunities, help them see the ensuing lessons, and enjoy the benefits that come from raising kids who aren’t afraid to fail.

5. Care about the person, not just the results.
Great managers don’t just care about the work—they care about the people behind the work. Employees need to know that they are more than just a name on a paycheck and that someone is concerned about them as people first and employees second. I know that parents don’t need to be reminded to care about their kids. But kids need to know—and to occasionally be reminded—that their parents love them for who they are, not just for what they achieve. Don’t allow the college admissions process to overshadow what’s really important. Happy, healthy kids who feel cared about will bring more joy and fulfillment to your family than any grade, test score, or admissions decisions will.

Stretch, learn, and grow

Since becoming a parent myself, I bristle a little at didactic parents who dispense free advice about how people should raise their kids. Beyond the universal parenting principles just about everyone can agree on, every kid is different. What works for one may be a train wreck for another.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, recently gave a talk at Cannon School in Concord, North Carolina, on how parents can help kids ages 5-10 start learning skills that will later help them succeed independently from their parents. She also distilled that advice into Avoiding Helicopter Parenting: 8 Tips for Parents of Young Children, a piece published in the school newsletter and shared publicly here.

I mentioned the earlier caveat because while I agree with Lythcott-Haims’s suggestions, they may not be appropriate for every child within that age range (it took me several tries to figure out how to correctly do a load of laundry with our new washer—I can’t imagine trying to teach a five-year-old to take that chore on).

But if you have younger kids, give the piece a read and ask, “Which of these suggestions could my student do with just a little help getting started?” If you make a habit of helping your kids to take on just a little more responsibility for themselves, I think you’ll enjoy the feeling of watching them stretch, learn, and grow.


Parents: how to build better parent/school relations

Parents, here’s a simple exercise that will help you engage productively and appropriately with your student’s high school, forge healthy relationships with faculty, and even give you a nice mood lift.

1. Identify five positive things you’ve witnessed, experienced, or appreciated in the last three months at your student’s school.

Maybe the chemistry teacher spent a lot of extra time with your son helping him improve his grade. Maybe the school gave the girls’ cross country team a lot of well-deserved recognition on campus when they won the league title. Maybe you’re always impressed when you attend the jazz band concerts, or the counselor was the sounding board your student couldn’t find in someone else, or the steps the school is taking to curtail drinking during formal dances makes you feel more secure sending your kids out on those nights.

Just five positive things, big or small, that resonated with you.

2. Thank the person or persons responsible.

Send an email. Write a note. Or say thank you in person. The delivery method doesn’t matter nearly as much as the message does.

You might also have a list of concerns, negative experiences, or constructive criticisms. But that’s not what this exercise is about.

Teachers, administrators, parent leaders—they all appreciate the occasional thank you and pat on the back, just like the rest of us. And in many schools, those expressions don’t arrive nearly as often as the recipients deserve.

So find five reasons to express thanks. And if you can make it a regular habit, imagine how much more receptive those parties will be in the future if you do have a concern you’d like addressed.

Not-so-harmless embarrassment

I worked with a student years ago who told me that when her father drove her to middle school every day, he’d roll down the windows and purposely blare his “old-time music” as he approached the school’s curbside. Then he’d yell, “Go get ‘em honey—another day to excel!” as she exited the car. She still rolled her eyes about it at age 17, but there was also a touch of love for Dear Old Dad as she retold the story.

I’ll admit that I usually find it endearing when a parent does something that exasperates their teen to the point of venting, “You’re embarrassing me!” They’re usually harmless acts with no lasting damage done, even to the most fragile of teen psyches.

But last week, an admissions officer from a selective college posted a description to a private social media group of some recent parent behavior during the school’s tours, none of which seemed endearing.

One parent demanded to sit face-to-face with the admissions representative responsible for their territory. The current admissions officer who was slated to speak with interested families? Not an acceptable option, apparently.

Another berated the tour guide, who was unable to immediately fulfill the parent’s request to speak with a mechanical engineering professor.

And yet another showed up outside the scheduled group tour times, was unhappy that they would not immediately do a tour just for her family, and then not only inserted herself into a private tour organized for a specific high school, but also dominated the Q and A portion at the end.

What’s most troubling is that it wasn’t just one parent, and the incidents weren’t isolated. These kinds of behaviors are showing up regularly from parents of potential incoming freshmen.

That post included an acknowledgement that not all parents are like this. But it concluded with a reminder of just how important it is for students to speak for themselves.

Parents, there’s nothing wrong with you being an engaged participant in your student’s college search. It’s your child, after all, and you deserve to be included and heard, especially if you’ll be paying the bill.

But if your behavior—on a tour, at a college event, on the phone with the admissions office, etc.—demonstrates that you’re demanding and difficult, that you expect concierge-like service, and most troublingly, that you do not allow your student to ask their own questions and make their own collegiate discoveries, you’re embarrassing your student, potentially in a not-so-harmless way.