I’ve been thinking about the consequences of helicopter parenting on college-aged kids. From everyone I’ve spoken to and everything I’ve read, it’s clear that over-protecting and coddling our kids is doing these young people a lot of unintended harm.
I’ve been closely following what the experts have been saying. One of these experts is Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of students at Stanford University and the author of the best-selling book on parenting, How to Raise an Adult.
Recently, Ms. Lythcott-Haims appeared on my Ruthless Compassion podcast. We had a lively discussion about why parents today are so prone to over-protecting and micro-managing their kids. She also had some excellent ideas for how to improve the situation, starting right now.
One important call to action that Lythcott-Haims has for parents is to think about their own childhood and ask themselves if they really want to give their kids less freedom and fewer opportunities than they themselves had. This led me to think about my own childhood and the way that I was raised.
Although my parents were far from perfect, I have a new-found perspective on the things they did right. For example, as soon as I learned how to cross the street at age five, I was walking to school on my own. I was biking and skate-boarding around the neighbourhood at age seven and that was also the last time I remember my parents helping me with my homework.
At age twelve, my parents put me on a Greyhound bus to go visit family friends in New York City. When I was nineteen, my parents reluctantly agreed to my plans to hitchhike to the west coast. They didn’t like it, but they respected my decision and trusted me to take care of myself.
When I came down with a case of amoebic dysentery from swimming in a dirty creek in New Mexico, my parents bought me a plane ticket home. I survived both these trips intact, with a combination of the skills and self-sufficiency I’d learned while growing up as well as some timely parental intervention.
My mother worked full-time, so I was responsible for cleaning the house and cooking the family dinner by age fifteen. I had full-time summer jobs starting at sixteen and this continued through University.
My parents certainly knew when to back off but they were there for me when I needed them. Not hovering, over-protecting, or micro-managing your kids doesn’t mean not loving or caring for them.
I had a good deal of freedom while growing up – freedom to explore, develop skills, gain independence and build character. Sometimes things went well, sometimes they didn’t, but it was all part of the process of learning and growing into the adult I am today.
I count myself lucky that my parents didn’t overprotect or over-manage me. I learned from a young age to stand on my own two feet and figure things out for myself, and any confidence I have today comes from having been allowed to try things, succeed or fail on my own, and learn both from my mistakes and from my successes.
Actually, I’m not that different from the majority of kids of my generation. We all benefited from parents who helped to guide and protect us but who also knew when and how to back off.
Lythcott-Haims explains how parenting took a dramatic turn in the early 1980’s with the advent of the self-esteem movement, in which kids began being rewarded simply for showing up. At the same time, play-dates came about and parents began taking charge of their kids’ schedules, leading to excessive planning and hovering.
Simultaneously, the increased awareness of “stranger-danger” and a new notion that teens needed more standardized testing in order to compete on an international level led to parents being more anxious about their kids’ safety as well as their school performance. All of these events contributed to the trend of over-protecting and micro-managing kids.
This new style of parenting had its immediate advantages, which only served to reinforce it. Lythcott-Haims describes how “all hovering behaviours have short-term wins. They prevent bumps and scrapes. They get the coach to cooperate. If the parents do their kid’s homework, the kid gets into a better school.” However, she adds that “there’s “a long-term cost.”
She explains that when parents do too much, “kids have no skills and no sense of self because they haven’t done enough in life to get a sense of agency.” She cites research demonstrating how over-parenting causes “increased rates of anxiety and depression.” These facts are borne out by several recent articles published in Ontario.
Lythcott-Haims quotes the psychologist, Dr. Madeline Levine, the author of Teach Your Children Well, who admonishes parents not to do for their kids what the kids can already do for themselves – because this leads to the child feeling incompetent, and not do what the child is almost able to do – because it interferes with the child’s process of learning to do it on their own.
Lythcott-Haims wants parents to remember that “our job… is to put ourselves out of a job.” She offers a way for parents to see if they’re over-involved and shows them how they can take a few steps back. She asks them to:
1: Check your language. She says that if you’re saying “we” when you’re discussing your kids; for example, “we’re in advanced math,” you’re “intertwined with them” in a way that’s not good for them.
2: Examine your interactions with adults in your child’s life. Constantly arguing with teachers, principals and coaches is a sign of being overly-invested in your kid’s life. Lythcott-Haims says that “when we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”
3: Stop doing their homework. Kids need to learn how to do their own tasks and rise and fall on their own merit. This is how they develop skills, confidence and autonomy.
Instead of doing too much for our kids, Lythcott-Haims recommends that parents teach their kids new skills in the same way as her neighbour Stacy Ashland does. This simple four-step process applies to making a meal, talking to a coach or crossing the street:
1: Do it for the child, while explaining the steps as you go;
2: Do it with the child, while continuing to explain the process;
3: Watch the child do it without interfering;
4: Step back and allow the child to do it independently.
I was lucky to have grown up in a time when parents instinctively did these things, but parents today can just as easily learn to do the same for their kids.
They must realize that what kids really need is for parents to step back from coddling and micro-managing them, and that teaching kids how to stand on their own two feet is the best way to show them love and guarantee them a happy and successful future.
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Check out my latest podcast. Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses how we became helicopter parents and how to switch gears and give kids what they need to grow up into high-functioning adults.