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How Schools Are Handling An 'Overparenting' Crisis

LA Johnson

Have you ever done your children's homework for them? Have you driven to school to drop off an assignment that they forgot? Have you done a college student's laundry? What about coming along to Junior's first job interview?

These examples are drawn from two new books — How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Both are by women writing from their experience as parents and as educators. Lahey is a middle school teacher and a writer for The New York Times and The Atlantic; Lythcott-Haims was the longtime freshman dean at Stanford.

The books make strikingly similar claims about today's youth and their parents: Parents are "too worried about [their children's] future achievements to allow [them] to work through the obstacles in their path" (Lahey) and "students who seemed increasingly reliant on their parents in ways that felt, simply, off" (Lythcott-Haims).

I asked them to join me for a conversation about the problem — and what parents and schools can do about it.

What is the core of what's happening with kids and parents today?

Lahey: After three years of research and a lot of soul-searching, here's where I've ended up: Kids are anxious, afraid and risk-averse because parents are more focused on keeping their children safe, content and happy in the moment than on parenting for competence. Furthermore, we as a society so obsessed with learning as a product — grades, scores and other evidence of academic and athletic success — that we have sacrificed learning in favor of these false idols.

Lythcott-Haims: We parents are overprotecting, overdirecting and doing a lot of hand-holding, ostensibly in furtherance of kids' safety — physical, emotional — and security — emotional, academic, reputational, professional, financial. But also in furtherance of our own ego. Our kid becomes chronologically adult but still expects us to tell them what to do and how to do it, and is bewildered by the prospect of having to fend for themselves as an actual independent human. God help them when we are gone.

Lahey: We really need to stop looking to our kids for validation. They are not extensions of us, nor indicators of our performance, and it's unfair to saddle them with that responsibility.

Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. And our need for validation needs to be taken up with a therapist, not imposed on our kids' existence. As Carl Jung said, "The greatest harm to a child is the unlived life of the parent."

How are schools playing into this dynamic?

Lahey: Teachers and administrators complain about parents, but we helped create this frenzy.

One mother told me she was willing to step back, but felt like she could not because the standards have moved for what constitutes an A on a science project. Teachers have come to accept that parents interfere and co-opt school projects, and have begun to take that for granted when grading.

Lythcott-Haims: The other way in which high schools in particular play into the dynamic is during the college admission process, where they feel judged based on the brand names of the colleges their seniors get into, and their incentive is to brag about that.

Can parents help reverse the tide when it comes to their kids' experience in school?

Lahey: Watch what happens when you go to a teacher and say, "I'd like to give my child some increased autonomy this year, so I won't be meddling in his homework and I'd like for you to hold him accountable for the consequences of his mistakes." You will have an admirer for life.

And what can schools (Jessica) and colleges (Julie) do differently to promote a culture of independence and achievement?

Lahey: Schools and parents need to stop blaming each other, and work together to show children that we value learning. We can talk about the importance of education all we want, but our kids are too smart to fall for that hypocrisy. As long as we continue to worship grades over learning, scores over intellectual bravery and testable facts over the application of knowledge, kids will never believe us when we tell them that learning is valuable in and of itself.

Lythcott-Haims: Some schools have an explicit policy against parents doing kids' homework and in favor of kids raising issues and concerns themselves rather than relying on their parents to do so. These schools are part of the solution.

Some colleges kowtow to this overinvolvement of parents in the lives of college students, but they're the exception. Some schools are taking a proactive approach to this problem by trying to normalize struggle, such as the "Resilience Project" at Stanford that shows videos of professors, students and alumni talking about their own failures. Some legitimize these matters further by embedding it into the curriculum through classes and workshops on positive psychology, such as Stanford's course "The Science of Well-Being" or Harvard's mindfulness workshops offered in small groups in the residences.

What are the worst-case scenarios here? What's so bad about a little coddling before our kids hit the cold, cruel world?

Lahey: Absolutely nothing. As I write this, my younger son has been sick for about a week. As an adult, he will have to forge ahead, taking care of his family, work and other aspects of the cold, cruel adult world. But for now, he's 11, so I feed him soup and buy him popsicles, kiss his hot, feverish forehead, and love him up. However, I try to keep in mind that I have an incredibly short period of time to teach him the things he needs to know in order to be a competent, secure and emotionally healthy adult. To steal a line from Julie, I may parent two children, but I'm raising two adults.

Lythcott-Haims: I'm all for love between parent and child from now until forever. What I'm concerned about is when coddling means a kid doesn't acquire the skills they're going to need out in the real world.

Lahey: Just last week, I was sitting in a Department of Motor Vehicles watching my son fill out an application for his learner's permit, while the woman on the other side of me was filling out her 17-year-old daughter's application for her, asking for vital information such as height and weight, while her daughter texted on her phone. It seemed like such a lost opportunity to me.

I get the sense from reading the reactions to your books that parents want to find a way out of this but they don't always know how — and you both have shared that you feel that you yourselves have been implicated in this kind of "overparenting" at times. What do you tell other parents?

Lahey: I simply wrote the book I needed but could not find on bookstore shelves. I read everything — all the books, academic articles, dramatic headlines, and while they all clarified that I was going about this whole parenting thing wrong, no one offered a strategy. I felt called to action but had no way forward. That's the book I wrote, one third research, two thirds strategy, and I hope it gives other parents a way forward, too.

Lythcott-Haims: Look, once upon a time I was a finger-wagging dean tut-tutting parents for being so involved in the lives of their college freshmen. I thought, What's the matter, folks? Don't you trust your kid can do this, just like you were able to do? Then when my own kids were 8 and 10 I realized I was still cutting their meat. I got the connection between overinvolved parenting in childhood and not being able to let go at 18.

Three things parents can do right away:

1. Stop saying "we" when you mean your kid. "We" aren't on the travel soccer team, "we" aren't doing the science project and "we" aren't applying to college. Our kid is. These are their efforts and achievements. We need to go get our own hobbies to brag about.

2. Stop arguing with all of the adults in our kids' lives. As Jess well knows, teachers are under siege from overinvolved parents insistent upon engineering the perfect outcomes for their kids. Principals, coaches and referees see the same thing. If there's an issue that needs to be raised with these folks, we do best for our kids in the long run if we've taught them how to raise concerns on their own.

3. Stop doing their homework. Teachers end up not knowing what their students actually know, it's highly unethical, and worst of all it teaches kids, "Hey kid, you're not actually capable of doing any of this on your own."

Lahey: Julie made me giggle a little there. I'm forever asking parents to stop saying "we" when it comes to the college-application process. I was talking to a former student's mother about her son's essay on the phone (I know, I know, Exhibit A, but I was invested in educating that mother) and I reminded her about adopting a "he" versus "we" and "his" versus "ours" mindset when it came to his college application. Not five minutes later, she told me she "just wanted to double-check our essay one last time before hitting 'send' on our application." Oy vey. I had to concede defeat on that one.

How do you respond to the criticism that the problems you're describing affect only privileged kids?

Lahey: Guilty. ... However, just because some kids are suffering more than others from a particular kind of trauma — whether that's poverty or depression or anxiety — that does not mean that the trauma is not worth our time or our ink. The good news is that the effects of high anxiety and academic pressure are far easier to heal than poverty, violence and childhood trauma. If parents and teachers in high SEL schools would just calm down and value individual autonomy, learning, competence, and personal fulfillment more than grades and wish-fulfillment, we could fix the high-SEL problems pretty darn fast.

Lythcott-Haims: It's a true statement and I don't see it as criticism, actually. If the kids subjected to this type of parenting weren't suffering greater rates of anxiety and depression than the general population, then maybe we could wave this off as not-a-real problem. But they are suffering; there's no way around that fact. I certainly hope we won't divert policy and resources away from those kids in order to help the elite; it doesn't take policy or resources to fix the problem I'm writing about, after all — parents just need to back the hell off.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.