Helicopter Parents: You Need to Get a Life

If parenting is a pendulum slowly swinging through decades of prevailing trends, it might have just reached the pause — before it sways back away from the current standard of over-parenting. At least that’s what Julie Lythcott-Haims hopes, as the author highlighted at a recent Family Action Network event. As Stanford’s former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, and a parent herself, she’s in a unique position to view the detrimental effects all of this “helicoptering” has had on our children.

In her new book, “How to Raise an Adult,” and in her presentation, Lythcott-Haims shares stories of parents she’s seen select their children’s college courses, activities and majors; who pull her aside to say things like, “My son wants to do research in chemical engineering, so I’d like to have an in-depth conversation with you about the opportunities available in research;” who submit resumes to potential employers on behalf of their kids; and of one parent who even installed a webcam in her son’s college dorm — not to spy, mind you, but to wake him up for class.

“To top it off, the students associated with these over-involved parents were not mortified,” says Lythcott-Haims, “No, they were grateful.”

There was a time when students arriving at college were thrilled to finally be free of parental rules and control and when kids couldn’t wait to do things their way; but self-sufficiency has been supplanted with dependency. Lythcott-Haims reminds us, “It’s cruel to be a constant crutch that won’t always be there for them.” We are also inadvertently sending the message, “I don’t think you can do anything without me.” And yet, Lythcott-Haims understands the urge.

“We want our children to start where we left off, to stand on our strong shoulders, to benefit from all we know and can provide and rightly so.” She notes that, to that end, we (herself included) seem to be following “a checklist to childhood, where everything is safe, planned, decided, resolved, absolved, orchestrated [23 more revealing verbs here] and even dreamed for our kids.”

Evidence from study after study confirms that this excessive hand-holding harms our kids. A 2013 study by the American College Health Association surveyed 100,000 students on 153 campuses to find that in the past year: 84 percent had felt overwhelmed, 60 percent felt very sad, 57 percent felt very lonely, 53 percent experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 46 percent felt things were hopeless.

Through her cross-country book tour, Lythcott-Haims has had the opportunity to meet with auditoriums full of young adults. She asks what they’d want her to share with their parents. They said: “Would you please tell our parents that there are more colleges than they think?” and “Please don’t care so much about every little thing,” and “Please don’t micromanage me, it’s scary; I put pressure on myself, I don’t need more from you,” and “I have no social life but I need one,” and “Please start believing in me and stop comparing me to my peers or your friends’ kids.” Powerful words from our children.

Lythcott-Haims reminds us, “You can’t let go of your 18-year-old if you’ve been holding tight to your 17-year-old.” The time to start building independence is now. But how can we prepare our children cross the proverbial road of life without us holding their hands? Lythcott-Haims says not to do the following for our children:

  • Things they can already do
  • Things they can almost do
  • Things that are only about our own ego

Want to foster more independence in your children? Here are some ways to start:

Assign chores

Research has demonstrated the positive impact of chores. Ironically, parents fill their kids’ time with activities they believe will help them develop important skills, yet those chores they never have time for are a proven predictor of success. Chores not only build responsibility and self-reliance, but also create better relationships as kids learn to be empathetic and helpful. Make sure to include chores that help take care of the family, like dusting or setting the table, rather than those that benefit your child such as cleaning his or her room.

Allow failure

Learning to walk may be the last time our children fell and had to pick themselves back up. Resist the urge to help with homework. Let your child’s car project head off to school with a wobbly wheel. Don’t drop the left-behind backpack at school. Removing all obstacles for our kids gives them an unrealistic view of themselves and also takes away their incentive to improve. Failure is a stepping-stone to success. Thomas Edison didn’t say that he failed 1,000 times before inventing the light bulb, but that the invention was a 1,000-step process.

Value free play

“We’ve allowed homework and activities to become a tyrant,” says Lythcott-Haims, “We don’t have to measure rigor and challenge by volume.” She notes that each year college applicants have become more accomplished, yet far less interesting to talk to. Kids are missing out on unstructured time, those moments when we get bored and explore. Restlessness is the breeding ground of creativity and when real development takes place. When your children whine, “I’m bored,” smile and know you’re doing something right.

Loosen your grip on the “perfect” school ideal

We push for our kids to get the right grades and the right combination of activities and service so that they can get into the right schools. Lythcott-Haims says we’ve been duped by U.S. News and World Report into thinking that there are only a handful of “best” schools. Be open to a wider range of institutions for your child; it’s an illusion that success depends upon acceptance to an elite college. In fact, one 1999 study found that graduates of “moderately selective” schools had, on average, the same income 20 years later as did graduates of the “best” universities.

Get a life (and your child might do the same some day)

All of this over-involvement isn’t good for parents either. Lythcott-Haims recounts being pulled aside by a fellow mom at a school meeting. The mom’s eyes filled with tears as she asked, “When did parenting get so stressful?” Between carpools, games, practices, meals, snacks, lunches, committees and more, we’re living our lives on the sidelines. We’ve become our kids’ personal concierges. “Our morning medication is caffeine and our evening medication is wine,” Lythcott-Haims says. If our kids start taking more responsibility for themselves, we will have time to care for ourselves, too.

Each of us deserves the chance to make our own way in the world, to figure out our passions and preferences and thus learn to be ourselves. Lythcott-Haims acknowledges, “You know as well as I do that it is the most humbling, precious, bewildering task to try to raise another human. And to be alongside younger humans unfolding into their adolescent and adult selves — well, that can be ugly before it’s beautiful, but that’s how it goes.”


Visit Lythcott-Haims website to learn more about the book and explore the message boards sharing other parents’ experiences. Watch the full FAN presentation here.

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