GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — “If parents were concerned about grades, parents were calling professors,” Lychott-Haims says. “If there was a roommate dispute, parents would get involved in the roommate dispute. Students would send work home to be reviewed by parents before turning it in.”
Every year, she says, parental intervention got worse, and not just at Stanford. According to her colleagues around the country, it was happening at colleges everywhere.
The trend so disturbed Lythcott-Haims she decided to investigate. What she found led her to write the best-selling book, “How to Raise An Adult.”
In her research, she found the seeds of parental overinvolvement were planted in the 1980s, with the invention of the playdate, the birth of the self-esteem movement and the concept of stranger danger. Add to that concern that, globally, American students were falling behind and a culture of fear was created. This fear created a culture of overparenting.
How do you know if you are overparenting?
Lythcott-Haims says, says it manifests itself in three ways, the overprotective parent, the over-directive parent and the concierge.
The overprotective parent feels “they have to prepare the road for their child, rather than prepare their child for the road,” she says.
The over-directive parent, or “tiger mom or dad,” makes their love for feel conditional, based on how well their child executes the plans the parent has for their lives.
And the concierge wants to be their child’s best friend. This parent handles everything for their child, tracking deadlines, bringing forgotten items to school, making phone calls on their child’s behalf. This parent makes sure everything goes smoothly in their child’s life at all times.
In the short term, overparenting can seem like it's working, with higher grades and test scores, but long term, Lythcott-Haims says, we are doing serious damage.
“When we overhelp we're actually telling their developing brain, ‘Hey you're not capable so I have to nag you. I have to remind you. I have to handle things for you. You're not capable so I'll be here to attend your every move.’
Lythcott-Haims says that message deals a huge psychological blow to our kids.
“No surprise then,” she says, “this manner of parenting is correlated to higher rates of anxiety and depression, which of course are on the rise.”
So why do we do it? We obviously love our kids and want the best for them. We want to keep them safe, but there is another big motivator at play, our own ego.
“We feel judged as parents we feel better about ourselves when we can say look at my child, look at my masterpiece, look what I’ve created. This is our own insecurity our own fragile sense of self that needs to prove through the achievements of our child our own worthiness and this is unhealthy.”
The good news is, we can stop this harmful behavior right now. Lythcott-Haims says start with small steps, like not saying “we” when you actually mean, your child.
“Say my son, my daughter has a midterm or is on the soccer team,” she advises. “Create that linguistic difference. It will start to remind your brain that there is supposed to be that bit of space between you and your offspring. It's their life. You have your own life.”
Second, she says, stop arguing with the adults in your child's life.
“What you want to be doing is teaching your child if you have a concern about the grade or the content or the playing time or about your position on the team. Teach your child to talk to authority figures with respect but also to advocate for themselves.”
And third, stop doing their homework.
“It’s unethical. Teachers don't know what kids actually know and worst of all we are damaging our kids mental health. By telling the kid, ‘hey you won't be successful in algebra or social studies on your own I have to actually fix your homework and make it better.’ That is incredibly damaging.”
It's important we remember, Lythcott-Haims says, that our job as a parent is to work ourselves out of a job.
“A little bit of struggle, a little bit of hardship actually makes humans stronger. Why would we not offer that experience to our kids?”