Home > Features > How To Raise An Adult

How To Raise An Adult

• By Rena Wong •

Why did parenting change from ­preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own? And why do these problems I’m writing about seem rooted in the middle and upper middle classes?
And what of our own lives as parents? (‘What life? is a reasonable ­response.) We’re frazzled. Worried. Empty. Our neighborhoods are photo-worthy, our food and wine are carefully paired, but with childhood feeling more and more like an achievement arms race, can we call what we and our children are living a ‘good life’? I think not. Our job is to monitor our kids’ academic tasks and progress, schedule and supervise their activities, shuttle them everywhere, and offer an outpouring of praise along the way. Our kids’ accomplishments are the measure of our own success and worth; that college bumper sticker on the rear of our car can be as much about our own sense of accomplishment as our kids. – How to Raise An Adult

Julie Lythcott-Haims in ‘How To Raise An Adult’ examines the ­crippling practice of overparenting and its consequences. ­‘Parents protect, direct, and handle so much for children today that we prevent them from the very growth that is essential to their ­development into adult human beings,’ she writes.

At Stanford University, Lythcott-Haims was known for a mix of expertise and empathy that made her masterful with parents and helpful to students. As dean of freshmen she found herself regularly interacting with students whom she felt over-reliant on their parents. She understood parents were acting out of love. But what those parents might not have understood is the high price paid by their children for that over-involvement. Students who have had all of life paths cleared for them are unable to advocate for themselves or cope with setbacks, are more prone to depression, anxiety and even drug use. They lack simple life skills such as juggling academics and outside activities or managing money, and — more important — have a fear of failure that requires the dangerous strategy of always playing it safe.

What brought us to this point, according to the author are: overblown fears of ‘stranger danger’, the self-esteem movement where everybody gets a trophy, the thought contagion of bullying, the relentless competitiveness of a parent class needlessly concerned about levelling the playing field and the overscheduled, checklisted childhood resume that boasts the ‘right’ schools, sports and extracurriculars for the university admission.

Lythcott-Haims’ advice is most valuable when it gets down to the brass tacks of how to cultivate a parenting style that produces a resilient, resourceful grownup. As the psychoanalyst John E Gedo has noted, it is not the parents’ job to raise a doctor or a lawyer or a senator, but to raise a child who can live independently. The building blocks of autonomous adulthood includes unstructured time, learning as opposed to ‘doing school,’ and letting kids flail in the deep end of life’s mistakes whether it’s poor grades or not making to varsity. Parents should stop doing their kid’s homework. She says, ‘When we do the work for them they may get a better grade (another short-term ‘win’), but the teacher doesn’t know what our kid’s actual capability/aptitude is, and our kid doesn’t learn the material (what they do learn is the devastating lesson that they’re not capable without us being there to do the work for them). Besides, it’s unethical…’

Someone wrote to Julie Lythcott-Haims on Quora ‘What are the skills every 18-year-old needs?’ Here is an extract of her answers.

  • An 18-year-old must be able to talk to strangers. Faculty, deans, advisers, ­landlords, store clerks, human resource managers, co-workers, bank tellers, health care providers, bus drivers, mechanics — in the real world.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to find his way around… a campus, the town in which his summer internship is located, or the city where he is working or studying abroad.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to manage his assignments, workload, and deadlines.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to contribute to the running of a household.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to handle interpersonal problems.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to cope with ups and downs of courses and workloads, college-level work, competition, tough teachers, bosses, and others.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to earn and manage money.
  • An 18-year-old must be able to take risks. They should understand that success comes only after trying and failing and trying again.

Remember: they must be able to do all of these things without resorting to calling a parent on the phone. If they’re calling us to ask how, they do not have the life skill.