Some Thoughts on Overparenting

Julie Lythcott-Haims spent over a decade serving as Dean of Freshman and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University. She is the mother of two teenagers and the author of the excellent book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

Her advice to so-called “helicopter parents” is simple: Park the helicopter.

In 2015, Lythcott-Haims gave a fabulous TED Talk titled “How to raise successful kids without overparenting.” If you’re in a position right now to watch this 14-minute talk, please stop reading this and click here to do so. If not, read on and watch the talk later. What follows is a transcript of the majority of her talk, interrupted occasionally with my comments. (It’s so good, trimming it down proved quite challenging.)

“We spend a lot of time being very concerned about parents who aren’t involved enough in the lives of their kids … and rightly so. But at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of harm going on there as well, where parents feel a kid can’t be successful unless the parent is protecting and preventing at every turn and hovering over every happening, and micromanaging every moment, and steering their kid towards some small subset of colleges and careers.”

She describes a spectrum of parenting behaviors with two extremes: underparenting and overparenting. Since you’re reading this, you probably fall closer to the overparenting end of the spectrum.

“When we raise kids this way, and I’ll say we, because Lord knows, in raising my two teenagers, I’ve had these tendencies myself, our kids end up leading a kind of checklisted childhood.”

Here she admits that, despite knowing better, she’s overparenting too. So don’t beat yourself up if her description of overparenting sounds familiar. She’s not judging you, we’re not judging you, and there’s no need to judge yourself. Resisting the tendency to micromanage is hard.

“And here’s what the checklisted childhood looks like: We keep them safe and sound and fed and watered, and then we want to be sure they go to the right schools, that they’re in the right classes at the right schools, and that they get the right grades in the right classes in the right schools. But not just the … grades and scores, but the accolades and the awards and the sports, the activities, the leadership. We tell our kids, don’t just join a club, start a club, because colleges want to see that. And check the box for community service.”

The increasingly intense competition over college entrance and scholarships has many parents and students running around with a mental checklist of all the things colleges want to see, frantically trying to get them all done. The amount of things that it seems you have to do to gain acceptance to a top school is overwhelming, leaving many kids overscheduled and many parents inclined to overparent.

“And all of this is done to some hoped-for degree of perfection. We expect our kids to perform at a level of perfection we were never asked to perform at ourselves, … ”

All this competition over college entrance is also breeding perfectionism. Parents often have unrealistic expectations for their children, and children often have unrealistic expectations for themselves. There’s no such thing as perfect, and striving to achieve this false ideal creates a great deal of needless anxiety.

“ … and … because so much is required, we think, ‘Well then, of course we parents have to argue with every teacher and principal and coach and referee and act like our kid’s concierge and personal handler and secretary.’”

This aspect of overparenting is particularly problematic because it undermines the child’s developing sense of agency. Kids need to practice self-advocacy. If parents always do it for them, they don’t learn how to speak up for themselves. And kids need to practice deciding how to spend their time: planning, scheduling, and above all choosing. If parents always decide for them, the kids don’t get to practice these key executive function skills. Should you provide guidance and support? Of course, and young children need plenty of it. But the older kids get, the more responsibility they should have over their own schedules.

“And then with our kids, our precious kids, we spend so much time nudging, cajoling, hinting, helping, haggling, [and] nagging … to be sure they’re not screwing up, not closing doors, not ruining their future.”

Here she gets to the heart of the issue: fear. Overparenting is caused by the fear that your kids are “ruining their future.” And where does this fear come from? Love. You are biologically programmed to fiercely protect what you love, your “precious kids.” So again, don’t beat yourself up for having engaged in helicopter parenting; you’re doing it out of love.

And that’s why doing what is best for your child is so profoundly difficult. All that well-meaning “nudging, cajoling, hinting, helping, haggling, [and] nagging” is probably having the opposite of your intended effect. When you do those things, you are, of course, doing them because the child seems to need external motivation, but, by the very act of nudging and nagging, you’re undermining the child’s developing sense of personal motivation. Thus the child will seem to require more poking and prodding in the future. For teenagers, this is so much the case that we advise thinking of a teenager as a Chinese finger-trap.

Often, when the fear of failure is looming, the instinct is to rescue. Parents often intervene to prevent their children from failing – failing to remember an assignment, failing a test, failing a class – forgetting that failures are the most powerful learning experiences we can have. In fact, it might be the case that experiencing failure is precisely what would motivate the child. If the child has never experienced the consequences of failure, he might feel that he has no reason to try. You can’t force someone to use organizational tools or effective study methods. All you can do is offer them and wait until the student is ready, and he might not be ready until the day he experiences a truly painful failure from which you did not rescue him.

“And here’s what it feels like to be a kid in this checklisted childhood. First of all, there’s no time for free play. There’s no room in the afternoons, because everything has to be enriching, we think. It’s as if every piece of homework, every quiz, every activity is a make-or-break moment for this future we have in mind for them, and we absolve them of helping out around the house, and we even absolve them of getting enough sleep as long as they’re checking off the items on their checklist.” 

For kids living the checklisted childhood, there are serious costs. They feel a great deal of pressure and stress. They’re not given enough time for sleep, boredom, exercise, curiosity, and play. And when they’re so busy that we don’t give them the responsibility of doing chores, they miss out on all the benefits conferred by doing chores. All this is harmful to their learning and their emotional development, as well as their physical health and brain health.

“And in the checklisted childhood, we say we just want them to be happy, but when they come home from school, what we ask about all too often first is their homework and their grades. And they see in our faces that our approval, that our love, that their very worth, comes from A’s.”

This behavior, which sounds quite bad, is driven by your deep, unconditional love for your children. The trouble is that this type of behavior seems to reflect not unconditional love but dependent love – a love that hinges on awards and accomplishments, academic or athletic success. We live in a culture that glorifies achievement and makes failure shameful. Kids are surrounded by messages of dependent approval everywhere they go. Home ought to be a place where this trend is regularly combatted with messages of unconditional love.

“And our kids, regardless of where they end up at the end of high school, they’re breathless. They’re brittle. They’re a little burned out. They’re a little old before their time, wishing the grown-ups in their lives had said, ‘What you’ve done is enough, this effort you’ve put forth in childhood is enough.’ And they’re withering now under high rates of anxiety and depression.”

Too many children are made to enter a corporate-style rat race before they finish elementary school. And we keep them running until they’re qualified to enter the real rat race of adulthood. And just as the adults whose whole lives revolve around climbing corporate ladders are unbalanced and unhappy, the children made to live this way are suffering. Should students strive for “success?” Sure. But they should also balance that striving by devoting time and energy toward health, happiness, connection, and contribution.

“Well, we parents, we parents are pretty sure it’s all worth it. We seem to … literally think they will have no future if they don’t get into one of these tiny set of colleges or careers we have in mind for them. Or maybe, maybe, we’re just afraid they won’t have a future we can brag about to our friends and with stickers on the backs of our cars.”

Here she offers an alternative explanation for all the fear-driven overparenting: the desire to brag about your children. Again, this is totally understandable. Who wouldn’t want to be able to say, “My son is going to Harvard,” or “My daughter is an engineer at NASA?” It certainly makes it easier to navigate those dinner party conversations where people ask you what your kids are doing. But while this desire is understandable, it’s quite harmful.

First, your kids see right through you. If you’re motivated by the desire to brag about your kids or to live vicariously through them, they know. It’s hurting your relationship and probably undercutting their intrinsic motivation. Second, this desire reflects an unhealthy type of self-esteem that is overly dependent on external approval and comparison. Your kids need you to be a role model of healthy, independent self-esteem.

“But if you look at what we’ve done, if you have the courage to really look at it, you’ll see that not only do our kids think their worth comes from grades and scores, but that when we live right up inside their precious developing minds all the time … we send our children the message: ‘Hey kid, I don’t think you can actually achieve any of this without me.’ And so with our overhelp, our overprotection and overdirection and hand-holding, we deprive our kids of the chance to build self-efficacy. … Self-efficacy is built when one sees that one’s own actions lead to outcomes. … If our children are to develop self-efficacy, … then they have to do a whole lot more of the thinking, planning, deciding, doing, hoping, coping, trial and error, dreaming, and experiencing of life for themselves.”

What we want is for students to be in charge of their own learning, to be in charge of their own success. And if a parent micromanages the student’s schoolwork or the student’s time, then that parent is taking charge and placing the student in the passenger seat. And what to passengers do? They become passive. We want students to be in the driver’s seat. We want them to be active agents.

For example, when a mother micromanages the sessions we have with her son, that parent is communicating to her son that she doesn’t trust him. She’s telling him that she doesn’t believe he will make good choices on his own. And the insidious effect here is that it undermines his trust in himself.

Lythcott-Haims is right to highlight the importance of self-efficacy. This is an essential component of mental health and strong predictor of long-term success. And we only develop self-efficacy by gaining experiences in which we’re in the driver’s seat.

“Now, am I saying every kid is hard-working and motivated and doesn’t need a parent’s involvement or interest in their lives, and we should just back off and let go? Hell no.”

She’s asking parents to park the helicopter, but she’s not telling them to completely check out. There is a healthy middle ground between overparenting and underparenting, which parallels the authoritative parenting style that lies in the middle of the spectrum between authoritarian and permissive parenting styles. You can let go of the need to control everything while still maintaining reasonable boundaries. You can offer support without micromanaging. You can give your children the freedom to explore while still teaching them your core values.

“What I’m saying is, when we treat grades and scores and accolades and awards as the purpose of childhood, all in furtherance of some hoped-for admission to a tiny number of colleges or entrance to a small number of careers, that that’s too narrow a definition of success for our kids. And even though we might help them achieve some short-term wins by overhelping – like they get a better grade if we help them do their homework, they might end up with a longer childhood résumé when we help – what I’m saying is that all of this comes at a long-term cost to their sense of self. What I’m saying is, we should be less concerned with the specific set of colleges they might be able to apply to or might get into and far more concerned that they have the habits, the mindset, the skill set, the wellness, to be successful wherever they go.”

Once again, we’ve run into the conflict between short-term goals and long-term goals. Finding the right balance is hard, and there’s no perfect answer, but she makes a strong case that many parents – those prone to overparenting – are too focused on the short-term goal of checking off items on the college-entrance checklist. Ironically, they’re doing this because of the long-term goals they have for their children – college and career – but, in doing so, they’re losing sight of other, more important long-term goals – the development of helpful mindsets, self-efficacy, executive function, intrinsic motivation, and mental health.

“And so, instead of being obsessed with grades and scores when our precious offspring come home from school, or we come home from work, we need to close our technology, put away our phones, and look them in the eye and let them see the joy that fills our faces when we see our child for the first time in a few hours. And then we have to say, ‘How was your day? What did you like about today?’ And when your teenage daughter says, ‘Lunch,’ like mine did, and I want to hear about the math test, not lunch, you have to still take an interest in lunch. You gotta say, ‘What was great about lunch today?’ They need to know they matter to us as humans, not because of their GPA.”

If you are to have any hope of having a meaningful conversation about school, you must first connect as people. Click here for more thoughts on talking with your kids about school.

“Contrary to what the college rankings racket would have us believe – you don’t have to go to one of the biggest brand name schools to be happy and successful in life. Happy and successful people went to state school, went to a small college no one has heard of, went to community college.”

The “best” colleges aren’t the only acceptable options.

“The evidence is in this room, is in our communities, that this is the truth. And if we could widen our blinders and be willing to look at a few more colleges, maybe remove our own egos from the equation, we could accept and embrace this truth and then realize, it is hardly the end of the world if our kids don’t go to one of those big brand-name schools. And more importantly, if their childhood has not been lived according to a tyrannical checklist then when they get to college, whichever one it is, well, they’ll have gone there on their own volition, fueled by their own desire, capable and ready to thrive there.”

And here’s the biggest reason why overparenting is a poor long-term strategy: The moment your child arrives at college, you can’t micromanage anymore. By the time your child gets to college, she needs to be capable of thriving on her own. If you’ve never given her the chance to practice being independent, she won’t be ready.

“I have to admit something to you. I’ve got two kids I mentioned, Sawyer and Avery. They’re teenagers. And once upon a time, I think I was treating my Sawyer and Avery like little bonsai trees – that I was going to carefully clip and prune and shape into some perfect form of a human that might just be perfect enough to warrant them admission to one of the most highly selective colleges. But I’ve come to realize, after working with thousands of other people’s kids, … my kids aren’t bonsai trees. They’re wildflowers of an unknown genus and species – and it’s my job to provide a nourishing environment, to strengthen them through chores and to love them so they can love others and receive love. And the college, the major, the career, that’s up to them. My job is not to make them become what I would have them become, but to support them in becoming their glorious selves.”

Once again, please don’t think that tempering the instinct to overparent is supposed to be easy. It’s hard. And every family situation is unique. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Greg for parent coaching, and please join us next summer for our 5-part series on parenting for academic success (and parental sanity).

All Quotes From:

Haims, Julie Lythcott. “How to raise successful kids without overparenting.” TED Talks Live. November 2015.

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