New York Times Bestseller
"Julie Lythcott-Haims is a national treasure. . . . A must-read for every parent who senses that there is a healthier and saner way to raise our children." -Madeline Levine, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well
"For parents who want to foster hearty self-reliance instead of hollow self-esteem, How to Raise an Adult is the right book at the right time." -Daniel H. Pink, author of the New York Times bestsellers Drive and A Whole New Mind
A provocative manifesto that exposes the harms of helicopter parenting and sets forth an alternate philosophy for raising preteens and teens to self-sufficient young adulthood
In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims draws on research, on conversations with admissions officers, educators, and employers, and on her own insights as a mother and as a student dean to highlight the ways in which overparenting harms children, their stressed-out parents, and society at large. While empathizing with the parental hopes and, especially, fears that lead to overhelping, Lythcott-Haims offers practical alternative strategies that underline the importance of allowing children to make their own mistakes and develop the resilience, resourcefulness, and inner determination necessary for success.
Relevant to parents of toddlers as well as of twentysomethings-and of special value to parents of teens-this book is a rallying cry for those who wish to ensure that the next generation can take charge of their own lives with competence and confidence.
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About the Author
Julie Lythcott-Haims is the New York Times bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult and Real American. She holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA from California College of the Arts. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and resides in the Bay Area with her partner, their two teenagers, and her mother.
Read an Excerpt
How to Raise an Adult
Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
By Julie Lythcott-Haims
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Julie Lythcott-Haims
All rights reserved.
KEEPING THEM SAFE AND SOUND
THIS IS HOW IT STARTS
Childhood is the most researched phase of life, and parenting occupies sizeable shelf space in any decent bookstore. The takeaway for any parents who are paying attention (and we're all paying attention) is that it is our job to keep kids safe and sound. It is basic. It is biological.
Among the photos in my son Sawyer's baby book, there's one of him at seven months of age in which he stares out at the camera, unsmiling. The camera captured only a little baby lying at a slant atop a slide, but I recall that my strong hands were holding him in place just beyond the camera's eye.
It was Sawyer's first trip to the park, his first trip down a slide, and as I look at the picture I can still hear myself and my husband both chirping, "It's all right, baby, we're right here." From the look on my son's face, we hadn't managed to be convincing.
When I see the photo I recall the dread that filled me that day as my baby lay perched at the top of that small slide. It couldn't have been more than four feet off the ground, and my husband and I were on either side, but still I worried. Would Sawyer be afraid as he traveled that short distance? Would he get to the bottom, plop out onto the rubbery ground, and maybe bonk his head? Would he have an unpleasant experience we might — should — have prevented?
Over the years when I've sat nestled on the couch with Sawyer looking at the images of his earliest childhood, I've characterized the fear in his eyes as his. But these many years later I wonder if my baby was just mirroring what he saw in his dad's eyes and my own. How does a parent travel from that place of wanting to utterly protect an infant to the place of letting them go out into the waiting world?
In a world of abundance and advanced technology, we feel capable of ensuring that no child will get hurt in any way and have faith in our ability to exert control. Toward that end we've made the world much safer, more predictable, and kinder for kids. It starts when our babies are in utero where every facet of pregnancy is monitored. Once born, our children enter homes completely safeguarded for their protection.
We've also made the world beyond our home as safe as possible for kids. Between 1978 and 1985 every state enacted laws requiring children to be in car seats, and mandatory seat belt laws soon followed. These laws sounded the death knell for cherished freedoms — like the "way, way back" of the family station wagon — but the goal of saving kids' lives was by far the greater concern. At the same time, the American National Standards Institute approved the first-ever bicycle helmet standard and by 1994 more than a third of the U.S. population was covered by a bicycle helmet law. Efforts to safeguard children also led to increased use of helmets and pads for things like roller skating, ice skating, and skateboarding. Without question, these laws and practices saved lives.
We parents took things a step farther, though, personally functioning as bumpers and guardrails between our kids and the world, as if our kids will be totally safe as long as we are present. I was thinking about this the other day when I saw a parent and child crossing the street together — it could have been any city or town. The mother walked confidently. Her son, a kid of about eight years, was a step behind wearing earbuds and staring at his cell phone. The mother looked left and right and left again, and then she and her kid proceeded through the intersection. The kid never once looked up. Soon after, I read about a product called MiniBrake for kids' bikes that lets a parent operate a brake on the child's rear tire via remote control if the kid nears a busy street.
* * *
School is the critical first locus of opportunity for our kids' intellectual development, but just getting them to and from the place leads to safety concerns. We resolve this by being alongside them as much as logistics allow.
When our kids are little many of us escort them to school to make sure they're safe, and often we carry their stuff to lighten their load. I chuckled recently at the sight of a dad with a tiny, bright pink backpack strapped across his broad shoulders as he biked the three blocks home from the local elementary school behind his daughter, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight. It was adorable. But that afternoon, and on many more afternoons before and since, I've wondered, When is a kid old enough to carry her own stuff? And What degree of independence is right for an elementary school kid? Seeing parents so proximally close to elementary schools in my town, I wanted to investigate how far-reaching this trend might be.
I spoke with a mom named Lora in an Ohio suburb who told me of a mother who escorts her third grader onto the school bus every day. And yes, the kid is healthy and able-bodied. She told of a father who bikes the mile-long trip to and from school right behind his daughter; he sounded just like the dad with the pink backpack in my town, except his kid is a sixth grader. Even when school is within walking distance and although carbon emissions are a mounting concern, many of us drive our kids. Often, we don't stop escorting at the school doors.
I spoke with a family friend named Ellen Nodelman, who since 1969 has graced the halls of Rockland Country Day School, a private, pre-K through twelfth grade school located across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in the town of Congers, New York. Ellen began on the faculty in the English department at RCDS, then continued teaching and serving as academic dean and college guidance counselor. Over her forty-plus years in those roles, she was eyewitness to the rising phenomena of parents at and beyond the school gate.
Half of the kids at RCDS take school buses, "and a good half of the kids who could take the bus are driven by a parent," says Nodelman. Rather than just drop kids off, parents of younger students will sometimes come inside the school with their kid, and some want to come right into the classroom with them. "We try to keep them from coming beyond the main lobby. If they could do what they wanted they would spend the whole day in class with them." She adds, "We've had some ask."
* * *
Then there's the cell phone — a recent enough development in the lives of parents and child communication so as not to have caused helicopter parenting, but that certainly facilitates the ability to helicopter if the tendency is there. Researchers call it "the world's longest umbilical cord."
Take, for example, the mother of a Beverly Hills high schooler who insisted her son text her hourly on his way to and from a beach outing with friends. It was the drive, not the boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean, that scared her. Or the Stanford parent who contacted the university to say he thought his daughter was missing because he hadn't heard from her in over a day. Or the parent of an American college student on a study abroad program in New Zealand who called the program director terribly worried that her son hadn't answered his phone since returning from a hiking trip in the mountains (she knew he was back on campus because she tracks him by GPS).
Parental vigilance and technology buffer the world for our children, but we won't always be there to be on the lookout for them. Raising a kid to independent adulthood is our biological imperative and an awareness of the self in one's surroundings is an important life skill for a kid to develop. When we're tempted to let our presence be what protects them, we need to ask, To what end? How do we prevent and protect while teaching kids the skills they need? How do we teach them to do it on their own?
THE OVERBLOWN FEAR OF "STRANGER DANGER"
Many of these safety precautions — regulations, gear, parents helping kids cross streets and brake their bikes and travel to school — aim to protect kids from accidents, but we're also very concerned about humans who might intend to harm our kids. Toward that end, we teach children never to talk to strangers; supervise them in any outdoor play that still exists; accompany them almost everywhere; and keep them right by our side in the grocery aisles. Decades-old childhood rituals have been impacted. Take Halloween, for example. Kids used to scamper through neighborhoods gleefully gobbling up candy offered by neighbors and strangers. But today in my community children as old as twelve or thirteen are escorted by parents who hover at driveway's end and who will check each and every piece of candy for a razor blade or needle before the child is permitted to gorge themselves silly (which really isn't allowed anymore, either).
You might think these precautions are well founded, when in fact almost all reports of razor blades and needles in Halloween candy have been debunked as hoax or prank. And the overriding concern about stranger abduction is also based on rare incidents. Evidence suggests that the initial airing of the 1983 movie Adam — about the 1981 abduction and murder of a child — was the catalyst for the fear of stranger abduction that is commonplace in America today. In the early 1980s, child safety advocates falsely claimed that hundreds of thousands of children were disappearing every year, by lumping together runaways and kids "kidnapped" by noncustodial parents with the very few cases of stranger abduction that were actually taking place. Today our smartphones and 24/7 Internet access amp up the frenzy, alerting us at a moment's notice when anything bad has happened to a child, anywhere in the world. Our fears continue to be fueled by the media, whose ratings go up when they tell scary stories. Parents all over the country have told me matter-of-factly, or wistfully, that kids just can't walk alone anymore. Why? "Because of pedophiles." We perceive that our nation is a more dangerous place, yet the data show that the rates of child abduction are no higher, and by many measures are lower, than ever before.
The U.S. Justice Department published its first study on "missing, abducted, runaway, and thrownaway" children (NISMART-1) in 1990, and its second, and most recent, study in 2002 (NISMART-2). NISMART-2 showed that an estimated 797,500 children were reported missing in that one year, and of that number, just 115 children were the victims of the most serious, long-term nonfamily abductions called "stereotypical kidnappings" (40 percent of whom were killed). While NISMART-2 was conducted some time ago, we can have confidence that the number of "stereotypical kidnappings" today is now no worse and likely lower, because FBI statistics show the number of missing persons of all ages went down 31 percent between 1997 and 2011, "and the numbers of homicides, sexual assaults, and almost all other crimes against children have been dropping, too."
Let's put these data into context. In 2014, the U.S. population was approximately 318 million, and 74 million of those were children. If 115 of those were victims of stereotypical kidnappings, and 40 percent of them were killed, that is an infinitesimal number. Children abducted by strangers represent .01 percent of all missing children. The other 99.99 percent of children reported missing have been erroneously thought by caregivers to be missing, taken by family members, have run away, or have been thrown away (meaning their families do not want them to return). It is a cruel myth that more and more children are going missing and that most missing children have been abducted by strangers.
Of course, serious harm coming to any child is an unspeakable tragedy, and real child predators are out there even though very few commit stranger-to-stranger crimes. But why do we base our daily decisions about our children's comings and goings on a one-in-a-million chance that our kid could be killed by a stranger, when, as the Palm Beach Post reported in 2006, in any given year a child is more likely to be killed in an equestrian accident (1 in 297,000), as a result of youth football (1 in 78,260), or as a passenger in a car (1 in 17,625)?Taking the long view, we need to teach our kids street smarts, like the importance of walking with a friend instead of alone, and how to discern bad strangers from the overwhelming majority of good ones. If we prevent our children from learning how to navigate the world beyond our front yard, it will only come back to haunt them later on when they feel frightened, bewildered, lost, or confused out on the streets.
Look, I've felt these fears, too. Even though I'm familiar with these data and as a result, theoretically, should know better, I've succumbed to the myth of stranger danger. I remember the first time Sawyer walked home alone from a friend's house through our low-crime, upper-middle-class neighborhood. He must have been about ten, it was twilight, and the walk was ten minutes at most. Even knowing what I know about our fears being way overblown, even knowing what I know about the importance of developing independence in our kids, I felt my heart beating in my throat and had to work very hard to focus my mind on other things as the minutes ticked by until my boy was safe at home.
Terrible things happen everywhere in the world. But terrible things have always happened and they are statistically less likely to happen today than in previous decades. Yet we hear about bad things wherever they've happened and mere moments after they occur. Our evolutionary fight/flight responses are triggered but we never have the experience of fighting back or running away from the stressor, so we stay on heightened alert.
Evolutionary biologist Robert Sapolsky is an expert on human stress. In Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, now in its third edition, he explains how a fear of the bad things that might happen can cause us harm.
When we activate the stress-response out of fear of something that turns out to be real, we congratulate ourselves that this cognitive skill allows us to mobilize our defenses early. And these anticipatory defenses can be quite protective, in that a lot of what the stress-response is about is preparative. But when we get into a physiological uproar and activate the stress-response for no reason at all, or over something we cannot do anything about, we call it things like "anxiety," "neurosis," "paranoia," or "needless hostility."
Thus, the stress-response can be mobilized not only in response to physical or psychological insults, but also in expectation of them. It is this generality of the stress-response that is the most surprising — a physiological system activated not only by all sorts of physical disasters but just thinking about them as well.
Basically, the 24/7/365/worldwide news cycle is a recent development in human existence and we haven't evolved to cope with it yet. There is such a thing as too much information.
CRIMINALIZING COMMON CONDUCT
Even if we aren't personally fearful, we are socializing ourselves to feel negligent unless we are on constant alert for predators. A child alone outside is such an uncommon sight that when we do see unattended children we fear something is wrong. Has the child wandered off from the attending adult? Or worse, is the child unsupervised? The police or child protective services might get called.
A South Carolina woman named Debra Harrell was jailed in 2014 for child abandonment after allowing her nine-year-old daughter to play at the park while Harrell worked her shift at McDonald's. Harrell was released on bond a day later and soon regained custody of her child, who had been placed in Social Services; but, as of this writing, her Department of Social Services case is still ongoing with a court date pending.
Writer Kim Brooks was arrested for leaving her four-year-old son alone in the car for five minutes on a cool day, and then had to hire a lawyer to defend herself from a charge of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor," which, if proven, could have resulted in her kids being taken away from her. A person some would call a Good Samaritan had been in the parking lot and recorded a video of Brooks's child alone, then contacted the police.
But were the strangers who saw Brooks's son and Harrell's daughter acting as Good Samaritans or as fearmongering safety vigilantes? No harm came to Harrell's daughter or Brooks's son; the potential for harm is what constituted the mothers' criminal offenses. These are just two of the over a dozen recent published cases in which parents (almost always mothers) have faced criminal charges for behavior that was not only commonplace a generation ago but is arguably a necessity today, in the sense that kids can't literally accompany parents at all times. Kids are twenty times more likely to be killed by relatives than strangers — but vigilante fearmongerers acting as Bad Samaritans are ready to indict a mother just trying to do her best under trying circumstances, a mother whose kid has suffered no actual harm. These vigilantes are a real threat to worry about. And their numbers may be sizeable.
Excerpted from How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Copyright © 2015 Julie Lythcott-Haims. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: What We're Doing Now
1. Keeping Them Safe and Sound 11
2. Providing Opportunity 29
3. Being There for Them 43
4. Succumbing to the College Admissions Arms Race 55
5. To What End? 72
Part 2: Why We Must Stop Overparenting
6. Our Kids Lack Basic Life Skills 77
7. They've Been Psychologically Harmed 87
8. They're Becoming "Study Drug" Addicts 102
9. We're Hurting Their Job Prospects 109
10. Overparenting Stresses Us Out, Too 119
11. The College Admission Process Is Broken 128
Part 3: Another Way
12. The Case for Another Way 143
13. Give Them Unstructured Time 150
14. Teach Life Skills 162
15. Teach Them How to Think 176
16. Prepare Them for Hard Work 195
17. Let Them Chart Their Own Path 211
18. Normalize Struggle 228
19. Have a Wider Mind-set About Colleges 243
20. Listen to Them 262
Part 4: Daring to Parent Differently
21. Reclaim Your Self 275
22. Be the Parent You Want to Be 286
Appendix A 307
Appendix B 310