This post is a recap of a recent presentation I gave on the topic of promoting healthier parent-child dynamics around academic coursework and the college planning process. Below you’ll find a revised transcript of the presentation, which occurred at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon, on January 13, 2016. Thanks to Amy Romm of the counseling department at SMA for the invitation, and to all the parents of SMA students for their participation!
It’s really never too early to begin parenting for autonomy and self-determination, but I’ve observed that the transition between middle school and high school poses unique opportunities – and challenges – for a commitment to this practice.
Let’s start by exploring the ways we currently engage our high schoolers – how might the social pressures around success and achievement be informing our parenting choices in a way that hampers teens’ development into responsible, mature adults? In other words, what does the dominant parenting narrative have to say about how to interact with your teenage daughter?
What is “Overparenting”?
Some of you may have read the book How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lychcott-Haims, and many more of you have probably heard of it. Lythcott-Haims was the dean of freshman at Stanford University for 14 years, in which time she had a lot of experience observing the mores of college aged adults – and the habits of parenting that produced these adults.
In her book, Lythcott-Haims does an excellent job assembling a host of scientific and journalistic literature around the vicissitudes of parenting in the 21st century. Think of it as an updated manifesto against “helicopter parenting,” which Lythcott-Haims prefers to call simply “overparenting” because she’s most interested in the more subtle ways middle- and high-income families take the reins on their kids’ lives, thereby overshadowing the kids’ autonomy and ultimately keeping them in early adolescence, developmentally speaking – even as the outside world expects them to act the part of an adult.
It can be healthy to take an honest look at whether or not you’ve fallen into the “overparenting trap.” For instance, have you ever?
- Driven your daughter somewhere within walking distance of your home?
- Proofread (or outright written) her school assignments?
- Made and packed her lunch?
- Driven her backpack/binder to school if she accidentally forgot it?
- Clean her room?
- Do her dishes?
- Answered for her when speaking to another adult?
Chances are, you said “yes” to at least one of these. That’s because they’re all fairly normal behaviors for a parent in our culture. But Lythcott-Haims claims it wasn’t always like this – there are some pretty formative cultural moments that have created today’s unique overparenting landscape.
How Did We Get Here? The Historical Context
Lythcott-Haims explains what historical events led to the culture of “overparenting”:
1. Increased awareness of child abductions (if you’re like me, you were likely raised with shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted on TV in the background during family dinners)
2. The impression that our children weren’t competing well against their peers globally in important, career-related academic subjects (STEM, etc.). This is owing partly to the publication by a governmental agency in 1983 of a report called A Nation at Risk. (Can’t you just feel the anxiety in that title??)
3. The self-esteem movement of the 1980s promoted the idea that kids’ personhood, not their behavior or outcomes, was the ideal locus for praise.
4. The playdate, which L-H says encouraged parents to involve themselves in play (previously a kids-only arena) which in turn led to the idea that parents needed to be involved in all aspects of childhood – and teenagehood, and so on and so forth.
These factors have coincided to produce a style of parenting that emphasizes safety to prevent even minor accidents, curates activities to provide the most opportunity (Lythcott-Haims calls this “the checklisted childhood”), nearly suffocates kids with constant parental presence (either physical or digital), and interprets everything through the lens of potential college admissions.
Here’s an insightful observation from Lythcott-Haims about the parental impulse to “be there” for your kids:
“Where parents used to say good-bye when a child left the house for the day and trust in the capacity of the adults the child would encounter along the way – that teachers would teach well, that principals would run schools effectively, that referees would make good calls – today we don’t put much stock in the systems and authority figures governing the lives of kids. So we’ve created a role for ourselves, a position that’s partly personal assistant and partly like the role high-end publicists play in the lives of some Hollywood stars: observer, handler, and, often, go-between. We are a highly involved and sometimes formidable third party in all interactions that involve our children and other adults, always there, present physically or by cell phone, hovering, acting as our kids’ eyes and ears, poised to anticipate problems, provide paperwork or materials, and intervene when questions need to be asked or answered. We don’t trust systems or authorities. We don’t trust our kids to be able to work out their own problems.” (p. 44)
Parents often feel the need to take the reins to manage a situation, but they end up inadvertently crowding out their children’s voices, their children’s experiences. You can imagine the sorts of skills – comfort with speaking openly to a professional adult about your academic goals and challenges, for instance – those skills deteriorate over time, or maybe they simply never fully form.
The Collateral of “Overparenting”
What parents might not realize is that this trend tends to manifest some long-term consequences in kids’ lives. For instance, the data say that kids who have been “overparented” incur important collateral damage:
- “Overparented” kids lack Self-Efficacy: Psychologist Albert Bandura defines this trait as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the course of action required to manage prospective situations.” When we manage kids’ schedules, set boundaries for them, coach them to do it like this or like that, their assessment of their own preparedness for future challenges is significantly undermined. They begin to believe that they can’t accomplish anything on their own – and they melt down when they finally reach true independence.
- “Overparented” kids lack Resilience:Lythcott-Haims observes that parents have laid out their entire path for them and have avoided all pitfalls or prevented all stumbles for them; thus, kids don’t develop the wise understanding that success comes only after trying and failing and trying again
Consider two scenarios where the ability to cope is key: (1) when you’re away from home and you get sick, or (2) when your car breaks down. When your daughter leaves for college, esp. if you’d like to see her go out of state, you need to trust that she has the skills required to deal with these incidents when they occur. I’m not saying your 15-year-old needs to know how to change a tire by the time she gets her license – but she does need to know who to call and how to keep her cool when she gets a flat.
- “Overparented” kids can be Psychologically Harmed: The Atlantic published a heartbreaking article in December 2015 called “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” about a recent cluster of suicides in Palo Alto, California. All the kids were of excellent means and bright prospects. The author, Hannah Rosin, focused on the stress that kids from high-achieving households experience, from a variety of sources – their parents, their peers, their coaches, their teachers and tutors and counselors. These kids frequently describe feeling trapped by their schedules and by their parents’ priorities, and having their minor and infrequent complaints of stress or exhaustion fall on deaf ears.
Here’s what one teen who survived a suicide attempt says about the climate:
“I could never classify my mom as overly pushy or strict,” but she had some rules that were so obvious, they didn’t have to be articulated: You did your homework before playing; you always turned in your assignments.”
“I was exhausted to the bone,” she said. “I remember just not being happy about anything, and I just couldn’t make it slow down. And I thought there would never be any escape.”
Her first semester, Chiu got an F on a geometry test, which “totally traumatized me.” Her relationship with her parents started to fray, “because it just took too much energy to speak in a polite tone of voice.” She began to dread swim practice and even Girl Scouts and band, “but I didn’t want to be a quitter.”
“I also felt like I was already saying that I was too stressed, and nobody—neither my parents nor my teachers—seemed to care or take me seriously.”
Let me pull back a bit – I don’t think the culture in Portland is as intense as it is in Palo Alto. But in my years of working with PDX area teens, the stress is often palpable. We owe it to our kids to be sensitive to the very real pressures they experience – and to combat feelings of loneliness with assurances that they are loved and supported.
How you engage the world and other humans is often the product of a story you tell yourself – about your role in the world, about other people’s roles in your life, about the purpose of your work, about your legacy, etc. This is what sociologists often refer to as the “moral imagination”; it’s the overarching narrative – the metanarrative – that provides context and meaning for our actions, and when it shifts or evolves, so does our behavior.
What I propose is that we shift our narratives from the current, societal one that promotes parenting as our kids’ concierge (or, to keep up the business world metaphor, the parent-as-middle manager) to a more healthier, peer-driven one: the parent-as-colleague.
Collegiality is the relationship between colleagues. Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other’s abilities to work toward that purpose. A colleague is an associate in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office.
Let me be clear: I’m NOT saying you should remain emotionally distant from your kids, or you should discuss their lives with the professionalism and etiquette that you would discuss an acquaintance’s work history. By all means, embrace your kids as family.
The aim of healthy parenting, Avi Assor says (Ben-Gurion University in Israel), should not be to shower children only with praise and trophies, or to encourage self-esteem based on no real achievements. It should be to disentangle love from the project of parental or pedagogical guidance.
So conceiving of our kids as coworkers is helpful not as the primary emotional apparatus for your relationship with them, but as the guiding narrative to all that other stuff – the activity planning, the homework policing, the chores taskmastering. In other words, practice seeing your daughter not as the precious (and precocious) little munchkin she was a few years ago, but as an up-and-coming junior partner at the law firm of your household. She haven’t exactly proven herself yet – she hasn’t had the experience to do so – but she’s got promise, and you’re invested in supporting her career. That said, it’s her career, not yours.
Now that we’ve established a powerful vision for reshaping your relationship with your daughter, let’s explore some practical techniques for cultivating the maturity that distinguishes healthy adulthood.
1. Promote Intrinsic Motivation
The power of self-motivation, as opposed to external or extrinsic motivation, has been recently lauded by business leaders around the world. Intrinsic motivation drives me to do things just for the fun of it, or because I believe it is a good or right thing to do.
For instance, work psychologists often cite something called the “motivation paradox” or “overjustification effect.” The principle boils down to this: intrinsic motivation is actually stronger than extrinsic motivation, but extrinsic motivation can easily decrease – or subvert – intrinsic motivation and thwart performance.
To illustrate this effect, researches at MIT performed a study wherein students played games with one of three tiers of rewards for performance – low, middle, and high. The games tested creativity, motor skills, and concentration. When the student performed a task correctly, they got a prize commensurate with the difficulty of the task (again, low, middle, or high). The researchers found that when the game involved ONLY mechanical skills, everything correlated. In other words, the higher the price, the better the performance, as one might expect. But when the game involved even rudimentary cognitive skills, larger offered rewards led to poorer performance. In eight out of nine tasks, higher incentive lead to lower performance.
How does one harnessing intrinsic motivation? Motivation researcher Dan Pink says it has to be internal, “around a desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, they’re interesting, or part of something important.” (See Pink’s TED talk for more info.,)
Pink uses an example from the business world: the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). ROWE is a work model created by two American consultants that doesn’t include set work schedules. Employees can work when, how, and where they want, as long as they get their work done. How productive is ROWE? Almost across the board, there is an increase or high level of productivity, engagement, satisfaction and turnover.
What if we experimented a bit more with unstructured time? What if instead of asking our teens to sign up for the debate club, we said “You have to do one thing per year that involves public speaking. You get to choose what that is – and when it happens.” Would our kids engage with that kind of requirement more exuberantly?
2. Establish Boundaries
Another issue overparenting creates is the appropriation of success. “Enmeshment” is a maladaptive symbiosis between parents and children associated with overparenting. Parents often inadvertently promote dependence in their children by appropriating the success of the child as evidence of good parenting.
“Every time I pack my child’s lunch for him or drive his forgotten homework to school, I am rewarded with tangible proof of my conscientious mothering. I love, therefore I provide. I provide, therefore I love.” (Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure)
So how can parents combat this tendency? Parent for autonomy! Appreciate the positive aspects of hardship and allow children to benefit from failure.
For instance, learn to step back. It’s vital that parents give children experience being successfully (and unsuccessfully) autonomous. Their competency and resiliency comes from that experience.
Also, be available, but away. Be nearby, not on top of. Again, Jessica Lahey: “Show you kids that your life is not all about them; that you have your own interests, obligations, and responsibilities. And, more than that… Let them struggle, but make sure they know that if they are genuinely stuck, you will be there to help.”
Finally, set aside a time every week to talk about important (but potentially divisive) topics. Perhaps your daughter is growing weary of hearing you ask about her math course, because ever since she got that one C in Geometry, you’d been trying to anticipate every quiz, test, and homework assignment. Try this: schedule a weekly check-in (5pm on Sundays, for instance) when asking about Geometry is fair game. Then give your daughter the freedom to monitor her own Geometry commitments (studying for tests and quizzes, daily completion of homework, remembering to bring her book to class, etc.) throughout the week – for all 167 of the remaining hours in the week. We have a family who’s been implementing this strategy since 8th grade, to monumental success. AND… imagine how much free time you’ve just gained with your daughter to read, play, shop, or do anything BUT argue about Geometry!
3. Implement Socratic Dialogue
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was known for his interrogative style of instruction. Instead of attempting to tell others what to believe, he’d sit and ask question after question, until his hearers arrived at their own conclusions – directed conclusions, of course, by Socrates’ proddings.
But the point is that in the process of engaging in dialogue, the teen is learning how to think critically.
The technique works like this: Ask “why?” five times before you speak. This enables the teenager to get to the heart of their own issue, in their words, before you propose a solution. Then, if you can manage it, lead them into a solution on their own by soliciting their ideas first.
Lythcott-Haims describes a successful Socratic dialogue with a teen like this:
“We can get past a teen’s typical one-word response by repeatedly (but thoughtfully and creatively) asking ‘why’ or ‘how’ in response to their statements until they reveal the nugget of their experience or learning. When we engage in these critical thinking dialogues, we have as active listeners, an added benefit of which is that we demonstrate to them that we’re actually interested in them beyond the transactional issues of life such as whether they got their homework done, what grade they got, or whether their team won or lost. These conversations become quality time.”
4. Build Competence
As we saw earlier, competence is a key factor in intrinsic motivation. Lythcott-Haims mentions a set of criteria for building competence in life skills:
- first we do it for you
- then we do it with you
- then we watch you do it
- then you do it completely independently
The key here comes from child psychologist Madeline Levine: Don’t do for your kid what your kid can already do, or can almost do.
For instance, here are some advanced life skills your 14-18-year-olds should be able to master:
- perform sophisticated cleaning and maintenance chores, such as changing the vacuum cleaner bag, cleaning the stove, and unclogging drains
- fill a car with gas, add air to and change a tire
- read and understand medicine labels and dosages
- interview for a get a job
- prepare and cook meals
5. Allow For Failure
This is the really hard one. Out of love and an instinct to protect, we remove obstacles in the lives of our children. But parenting that is extra protective and avoids failure undermines the necessary development of competence, independence, and cognitive potential.
However, the result is that this tendency removes a significant life lesson from our high schooler’s experience – failure. In fact, setbacks, mistakes, and failure are the very experiences needed to learn resourcefulness, persistence, innovation, and resiliency.
Jessica Lahey relates this experience about her son’s forgotten homework: Jessica Lahey relates wanting to intervene with her son’s forgotten homework:
“As her younger son, Finn, climbed onto the school bus one morning, Lahey noticed that he’d left his completed homework sitting on a coffee table. She wanted desperately to deliver it — her son faced losing recess without it. Lahey was scheduled to stop by the school later that day anyway, and she soon found that holding back from delivering it was “killing me.”
But she resisted, firm in her believe that the experience of failure would benefit him. What happened?
His teacher told him to bring it the following day, assigned extra math practice, and made him promise to write a note to himself. My son owned up to his mistake and got to talk to the teacher about solutions. He was encouraged to think about how to keep from making the same mistake again — and he devised a system that worked for him. If I had taken the homework in, he would have missed out on that.” (Article in The Guardian.)
On practical tip here is to praise the process, not the student’s abilities. What’s important is to emphasize praise that makes kids feel resilient. The problem with telling kids that they are smart or talented is that kids become frightened of failure. They’ve been labeled and they don’t want to do anything to lose that label. Carol Dweck has performed a lot of research on this topic. (Read more in this NY Times article about Dweck here.)
- Praise your child for her strategies (e.g., “You found a really good way to do it”)
- Praise your child for specific work (e.g., “You did a great job factoring on those math problems”)
- Praise your child for her persistence or effort (e.g., “I can see you’ve been practicing” and “Your hard work has really paid off”)
The takeaway here is to point out specific previous circumstances in which the student responded well under pressure – keep a log of these success stories if you must, in order to craft a narrative of success for your child built not on vague pronouncements of their abilities but on concrete evidence of their efforts.
In addition, be forthright about your own interests – and your own struggles. Modeling independent behavior and self-directed learning/decision-making is key. But perhaps equally so is endowing your children with a perception of you that you are fallible, and that recognizing as much (taking failures as feedback) is part of what makes you successful.
6. Model a Balanced Work Life
Our teens look to us – the adults in their lives – to tell them how to pursue their dreams and enact their passions. That means we need to be reflective about how our ability to manage our schedules and our stress transfers over to them.
Thus, be willing to take a look at your own work-life balance. Does it promote a healthy engagement with your career? Does it leave time for leisure, family?
Work to ease the academic pressures of attaining excellence in all subjects and instead channel that into a promotion of specific academic or artistic passions. Let the student take the lead here – and be willing to let your preferences take a back seat.
Students that correlate the love and acceptance of their parents to their academic success will intensify their inner pressures to succeed.
In an Arizona State University study led by Suniya Luthar, students were asked to choose and rank their parents’ top five values, from a list of ten. Half of the values were related to achievement (“attend a good college,” “make a lot of money,” “excel academically”), and the other half to well-being and personal character (“are honest,” “are kind to others,” “are generally happy with yourself and your life”). When the kids chose a greater number of achievement-related goals, that usually correlated with personal troubles, Luthar said. The kids were also asked how much they identified with sentences such as “The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me” and “If someone does a task at work/school better than I, then I feel like I failed the whole task.”
Let’s allow our personal and professional lives to model healthy balance for the high schoolers who look up to us. As they gain independence, it’s important for them to be able to look to the adults around them for how to live the good life – as well as what life is worth living for. If they’ve been trained to care exclusively about success, achievement, and avoiding risk, their adulthoods will pan out to be major disappointments.