Book Review of "How to Raise an Adult" by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by David Skeen, Middle School Director, Canterbury School, Greensboro, NC
If I could get a show of hands through a book review, I wonder how many of you would raise your hand if I asked if you’ve ever said, “I swear, I’m not THAT parent, but....” I imagine there would be quite a few hands up out there. As an educator, I swore when I became a parent I would never let that phrase enter into any parent/teacher conference I participated in. In my experience as a teacher, whatever follows this statement is, at its most innocent, an attempt to smooth their child’s way by a well-meaning parent or, at its most egregious, an outright request for favor when something didn’t go this parent’s – err, child’s – way.
However, in my daughter’s very first (I didn’t even make it past Pre-K!) parent/teacher conference, I asked a question and without realizing what was happening, I uttered those fateful words. At that moment I joined the burgeoning ranks of caring, loving, dedicated – yet anxious, fearful, protective, and generally hyper-concerned – parents that researcher Foster Cline and Jim Fay labeled “helicopter parents” all the way back in 1990 (p.4). In Julie Lythcott-Haims new book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, the author speaks to those of us who are just entering into this parenting thing and those who have been around a while and offers a way out of the overparenting woods.
As her title may suggest, our perception of success has changed over the years, influenced by a society in cultural upheaval, a boom-bust economy, and technological advancement leading to an exponential increase in access to information (and each other). Naturally, parenting has changed in response. In order to ensure success in the world (as defined by admittance to the top 20 colleges according to U.S. News and World Report) parents have gone to incredible lengths to point to, pave, bulldoze, or just plain slash and burn the way for their child to their (read: the parents’) desired outcomes. She notes too, importantly so, that this is an “epidemic” specific to the upper-middle and upper classes in our country and should be understood in the context of this underlying privilege. Certainly a point well made to those of us who have grown up in and worked at independent schools.
Lythcott-Haims is one of a number of authors imploring Generation X and the Millennials to rein themselves in or suffer the consequences. In her role as dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, Lythcott-Haims was uniquely positioned to witness the outcomes of an over-parented generation. And what she describes in the first two parts of her book – what led to the epidemic of over-parenting and what it is doing to our kids – is bleak. Her chapters cover it all: from a lack of basic life skills (how to speak to strangers) to disturbing mental health conditions on our nation’s middle, high school, and college campuses to parents joining in on job interviews to the loss of personal identity felt by parents themselves.
However, Lythcott-Haims does not leave us wanting in terms of what we can do about it. She offers a roadmap to what she describes as authoritative parenting, a paradigm that is both responsive and demanding and in the eyes of the author leads to young men and women who are better equipped to succeed in the world. You can imagine, I’m sure, some of the topics she covers in this outline, but most pressing to us as independent educators, perhaps, are her chapters related to critical thinking, hard work, and struggle – all buzzwords in one way or another in how we are shaping our schools to prepare our students for the 21st Century.
Over the next 10 years, Millennials, who Lythcott-Haims describes as taking the brunt of the over-parenting crisis, will begin to dominate our independent school parent population. This book, and others like it, offers an opportunity for independent schools to contextualize “how we do school” for parents whose schooling experience was very different. At our schools, we are in the midst of reclaiming instructional practice in the name of progressive principles, emphasizing inquiry-based learning, design thinking, valuing “grit” and resilience, and, most importantly, normalizing failure.
My sense, both personal and professional, is that parents will read a book like How to Raise an Adult and feel relieved. Combined with our continual efforts to develop children prepared for a future where the only constant will be change, we are, in effect, giving them permission to back off, to say no to the parenting rat race, to let them feel discomfort and know they will be better for it. And, perhaps, it will create a virtuous cycle where parents keep the pressure on us to examine and reflect constructively on our practices and priorities, leading to honest conversations around the developmental underpinnings of how we do what we do.
David Skeen is middle school director at Canterbury School, Greensboro, NC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DSkeenJr.