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Parents, beware the cost of over-helping your kids

December 14, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult,” shares her essay on why she believes it is important for parents to get over overparenting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to another one of our NewsHour essays.

Tonight, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford University undergraduate dean and author of the book “How to Raise an Adult,” shares ideas on her belief that the job of parents is to put themselves out of work.

Here’s her perspective on why it is important to get out of the overparenting trap.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS, Author, How to Raise an Adult: We parents seem to have forgotten a simple, unassailable fact: We’re mammals.

Sure, we may be mammals with clothing and cell phones, but, like our counterparts in the wild, our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job, and raise our kids to be independent adults who can raise their own offspring one day. If you think about it, it’s how we evolved to this point as humans.

But, these days, too many of us feel our child simply will not be successful in life unless we constantly protect and prevent at every turn, hover over every happening, micromanage every moment, take care of every little thing.

Yes, we can help our kids get a short-term win when we overhelp, such as the better grades that come when we remind them to put their homework in their backpack, or bring it to school when they have forgotten it, or outright do some of the work for them.

And our overinvolvement certainly makes life more pleasant for our kids. Often, we let them off the hook for doing the mundane tasks of life, such as chores, and instead we prioritize their homework and enrichment activities over all else.

But this leads to young adults who can’t do the basic tasks associated with living life on their own. A fellow college dean on another campus told me of a kid whose parents installed a webcam in the dorm room in order to wake their kid up each morning in college. A student told me of a friend whose parents always filled her car with gas, so she never learned.

And then while driving one day in her 20s, she noticed her tank was low on fuel, and she ended up filling the car with diesel, instead of unleaded. And some parents are so accustomed to arguing over grades in high school and college, that they expect to do the same in the workplace.

A manager at a prestigious company told me of hearing from parents of an employee who were dissatisfied with their — quote, unquote – “child’s” performance review.

Do parents do that? Yes, parents do.

Look, we love our kids with a driving force we can barely comprehend. I think of it as an aching, fierce, terror joy. Of course, we want the very best for them. And we love to be needed, and we feel a great deal of satisfaction when we ensure that their needs are met.

But overhelping can come at a significant long-term cost to our kids. It deprives them of the chance to build self-efficacy, a critical aspect of psychological wellness that comes from seeing that one’s own actions lead to outcomes, one’s own actions, not one’s parents’ actions on one’s behalf.

We end up raising kids who fail to launch, who don’t have their the wherewithal to do for themselves, and who still need us to act as the adult in their lives.

No matter how impressive our kid’s childhood GPA or resume may be, we have simply not done right by our kids, our society, our species, if they have reached the age of chronological adulthood, but don’t have the skills, habits, mind-sets, and confidence to do for themselves.

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