Kids can travel the road to success many ways -- after-school tutoring, music lessons, sports teams and volunteer work are just a few to start -- but New York Times best-selling author Julie Lythcott-Haims insists that parents can help more by actually doing less.
The former Stanford University dean of freshmen has spent the past 15 years drawing attention to the downsides of parental over-involvement, first writing an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune in 2005 and again in her 2015 book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success".
Lythcott-Haims's philosophy will be explored deeply in her keynote speech for the upcoming fourth annual Community Education Series Parenting Forum, entitled "Dare to Parent Differently," on Feb. 1 at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton. As the keynote speaker at the inaugural forum in 2017, Lythcott-Haims focused back then on the importance of fostering independence and self-reliance in children by allowing them to make and grow from their mistakes.
Many parents know that being too helpful can hinder their child's development; Lythcott-Haims wants to help this year's forum attendees learn how to recognize those harmful behaviors in themselves, why it happens, and what to do about it.
"It's focusing more on why we parents feel the inclination to over-parent. We feel a need to control our children's outcome in part because we feel safer when we do that," Lythcott-Haims told the Weekly. "(The speech is) more a focus on what's going on inside our heads that lead us to these behaviors that are seemingly innocuous or helpful...but in the long term it's compromising their mental health. This approach says if we can be more aware why we're doing this in the first place, maybe we can heal ourselves."
Lythcott-Haims said she realized her parenting style was meddlesome years earlier when she "had my own ah-ha moment" while cutting her then-10-year-old son's meat during dinner one evening. "I was the college dean at Stanford railing against overparenting and I come home and I'm overparenting my own children," she said. "It's just one tiny example of all the skills I'm supposed to be teaching my kid. Once I realized that, it became very humbling and I became motivated to undo it."
Helicopter parenting is damaging because it reduces the parent-child bond to a transactional relationship, especially when grades are involved. According to Lythcott-Haims, academic performance is one of the most common concerns for parents but she said modern technology has resulted in over monitoring.
"If a high school offers a portal where parents can see their kid's grades all the time, they feel it's their job to check it all the time," Lythcott-Haims said. "What's happening is the kid's like a stock in the stock market -- the parent has made an investment in the kid, in the school, and is checking to see how it's doing, and it's as if all of that growth and return is coming back to us as a parent in the same way as if a stock did really well."
There's no harm in a parent caring about their child's grades but, Lythcott added, "when we act like we need to know what grades they get (every day), we need to argue with the teacher...it makes the child feel like, 'This is not my education, this is not my endeavor, this is somebody else's.'"
A parent's anxiety about their children's future and success can stem from their own insecurities and need for assurance but Lythcott-Haims said it can also be triggered by external sources. "The other why, whatever's going on with ourselves, is the peer pressure we feel in our community," she said. "When the in-group in the community is overparenting, it's really hard to stray from that herd, but I'm finding parents increasingly...are hungry for a better life."
Some signs that a parent might be overly invested can be subtle; one indicator is the language they use when discussing their child's life, Lythcott-Haims said. "If you're constantly saying 'we' when you mean your kid -- 'we have a test tomorrow,' 'we're applying to college,' 'we're on the softball team' -- that's a linguistic hint that says, 'I think that my kid's life is my life.'"
"Another is you feel like you're constantly arguing with the adults in your kid's life -- principals, teachers, coaches -- if you feel the need to argue on every point, every decision, every rationale, that may be a sign," she added.
Feeling the need to do their child's homework, whether in part or entirely, is also a sign that the parent needs help, Lythcott-Haims said. "I joke, 'get therapy', but it's not a joke; it's an encouragement to figure out what's going on in you that says, 'I'm not OK and constantly up in my kid's business."
The fourth annual Parenting Forum takes place Feb. 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Amador Valley High School, 1155 Santa Rita Road. The course is free and open to parents, youths and community members. Visit www.pleasantonfun.com to sign up, using course number 17621.
To learn more, contact Andrea McGovern at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cityofpleasantonca.gov.