How to Raise a Successful Adult

Reflections on a Book by Julie Lythcott-Haims

“Helicopter parents” – moms and dads who hover, schedule their kids’ every move and bail them out when problems arise – are so common today we’ve had to invent a term to describe them.

Today’s parents tend to handle life for their kids. We wake them, transport them, remind them about deadlines and drive their homework to school when they forget it. We help them make friends and expect teachers to fill their grade portals with up-to-the-minute results. As soon as we can, we buy our child a cell phone so that we may be in constant contact — for safety reasons, of course.

Let’s face it; many of us can be described as over-involved. While no parent would aspire to the helicopter label, most of us agree that parenting today is different than ever before, even here in the Roaring Fork Valley. Sociological and cultural forces have affected the way our generation cares for its children.

Applying to college is a “rite of passage,” a young person’s first real step into adulthood. As a college adviser, I know that many students, both Anglo and Hispanic, find it difficult to hear their own voices, to listen to their hearts and to determine what they want out of college, or out of life. In part because I protect the student’s sense of autonomy, many students and families are relieved to have an objective, third party providing information and structure throughout the journey to college.

Unfortunately, too few students in our country have achieved true independence by the time they reach college, or even the world of work.

Real research is finally coming in, and it appears that helicopter parenting creates children who are unable take flight themselves. We have created a generation of depressed young adults who lack a sense of purpose and who are unable to think or creatively solve problems for themselves.

Making Our Kids Sick

Julie Lythcott-Haims, the dean of students at Stanford, became so concerned about the students she met during the past decade that she began to conduct research and has recently shared her findings in a book called How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

In her research, Lythcott-Haims found that college counseling centers all across the nation were seeing an increasing number of significant psychological problems. She writes, “The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere…at every tier of college…(these problems) appear to stem not from what it takes to get into the most elite schools, but from some facet of American childhood itself.”

Parenting Out of Fear

How have we gotten to this point? Lythcott-Haims explains that, as a culture, we have succumbed to our fears: We fear for our kids’ safety, so we drive them everywhere. They don’t go outside, play freely, negotiate friendships or navigate the bus system.

Even here in the Roaring Fork Valley, where you would think we could let our children roam, many parents won’t let children ride the bus or even walk around town on their own, even in middle school. Ironically, the world is statistically much safer than it has ever been. Our fears are unjustified, especially in this valley.

Parents also fear that children won’t get accepted to college – or to the right college. Kids are pushed into the “right” courses and activities, despite their own interests. Because we fear that our own parenting won’t measure up, when our peers support their children with extreme measures, it is difficult not to follow suit.

As a result, says Lythcott-Haims, we ask too little when it comes to life skills, too much when it comes to the academic plans we’ve made for our kids.

More Harm Than Good

Lythcott-Haims claims that helping too much “can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life…As parents, we’ll have succeeded if our kids have the wherewithall to be and do things on their own rather than counting on us to assist or stand in for them.”

Unfortunately, millennials who have been parented by helicopters have not fared well in the workforce. Lythcott-Haims notes that they have been called “orchids (can’t survive outside the greenhouse) or teacups (easily chipped and then ruined).” Having lived “checklisted” childhoods, they are willing to work hard but lack autonomy, independence and a sense of their own purpose in the world.

Surprisingly, Lythcott-Haims isn’t only concerned about the kids. She thinks that today’s parents are losing themselves, sacrificing everything and becoming increasingly anxious and depressed in the parenting process. She encourages parents to keep up with their own passions and take care of themselves.

What Do We Do?

As parents, we cannot simply stand on the sidelines and watch our children grow up. In Lythcott-Haims words, we need to “support our children’s interests and teach them the skills and values that will foster independence and prepare them to lead meaningful, adult lives. But we must allow them to develop a sense of independence and self-reliance as they age.”

Lythcott-Haims offers four principles for raising healthy adults:

  1. The world is much safer than we’ve been led to believe and our children need to learn how to thrive in it, rather than be protected from it;
  2. A checklisted childhood designed to lead to a narrow definition of success robs children of proper developmental opportunities and can lead to psychological harm;
  3. Children learn, grow and ultimately succeed by digging into what interests them, doing and thinking for themselves, trying and failing and trying again, developing mastery through effort; and
  4. Family life is richer and more rewarding for all when parents aren’t hovering over and facilitating every moment of a kid’s life.

Helicopter parenting is not just a funny term that describes our behavior. It’s a type of toxic parenting that must change for the betterment of our children and our health.

We parents can help each other to foster independence and self-reliance among our children. We have a sociological, generational challenge before us.

Carolyn Watt Williams of Carbondale has worked in education for more than 20 years and helps students find and apply to colleges through her private practice, Carolyn Williams College Consulting