A human unfolding into adulthood is an ugly, beautiful thing. I should know. As Stanford’s freshman dean for ten years I had a front row seat as thousands of teenagers emerged into their adult selves through the alchemy of trial, error, and dreams. They made me laugh. They made me cry. I rooted for them either way.
I also have two kids of my own making their way through the rigors of public school in Palo Alto so, between my own parenting experience and my decade with undergraduates, I know a thing or two about parents. Nowadays, in well-to-do communities like mine and throughout our country, we parents over-direct, over-protect, and over-involve ourselves in childhood. Of course we don’t want to see our kids struggle, let alone suffer, and we act with the best of intentions. Yet bestselling author and psychologist Madeline Levine (Teach Your Children Well; The Price of Privilege) tells us that when we do what our kids can already do for themselves or can almost do for themselves, we’re robbing them of the very experiences that build their psychological sense of self. We all want what’s best for our kids, but given Levine’s concerns it’s worth asking whether we’ve lost sight of that goal, whether we parents do in fact know what’s best anymore, whether all of this hovering is “worth it,” and whether we know what “worth it” even means.
We seem so afraid on our kids’ behalf – of strangers, of missed opportunities, of failing to keep up with the Joneses – and our fears impel us to always be there, present, hovering, poised to prevent, protect, intervene, advocate, and defend. We speak up for our little Jane when little Johnny snatches her toy. Or rush to apologize for or defend little Johnny when he’s met with the scornful eyes of the parents of Jane. We get in fights with refs, coaches and other parents on the sidelines of our kids’ games when we’re advocating for our exceptional children. We supervise recess in elementary school to make sure everyone is getting along and no one is excluded. We attend back to school nights with a vengeance, paying attention to what “we” need to do in order to be successful in the sixth grade. We argue with the teacher about our kids’ less than perfect grades in middle and high school, as if the teacher has made a mistake instead of our perfect kid. It’s as if we are the ones heartbroken over the snatched the toy, as if we are donning the jersey for the big game, or waiting for a turn on the tire swing, or sitting in a desk in a classroom endlessly raising our hand. As if we are the ones trying to get into college.
But “we’re” not going to college. Really, folks, college is not for us. Remember back to your own college years and try to place your parents’ involvement in the picture – you’ll recall they were hardly there at all. That’s the way it should be.
Of the tens of thousands of college students I worked with, many were well-equipped to handle the challenges. They came to college fairly self-motivated, and could take the initiative, pick themselves up after disappointment, find supports, and move on. They could set out to try new things based on their authentic sense of their own interests, curiosities, and talents, and they could cope or advocate for themselves when things didn’t go their way. These students made good grades, but more importantly they felt good about themselves. Their sense of self was well-developed. They might have spoken with Mom and Dad regularly, even daily, as is the norm for teenagers and young adults today, but these students weren’t scanning the sidelines for Mom and Dad to come and rescue them. Or to be told what to do.
In contrast to these well-adjusted students were the growing number of students on my campus whose parents had done too much of the work of life for them, such that the student was rather bewildered when confronted with choices, problems, or questions they were accustomed to Mom or Dad handling. (Stanford was in no way unique in this regard – colleagues on campuses nationwide reported the exact same thing.) These parents would do some subset of the following: call to wake their kid up, remind them about assignments and deadlines, provide small and not so small edits on papers, tell them what they could and could not study, condition family acceptance on academic achievement, tell them which extra-curricular opportunities to pursue, argue with the university when outcomes weren’t as desired, meet with the academic advisor to discuss what they claim to be the student’s interests, contest a student’s grade, travel with them to an overseas campus, write a cover letter for a job application. These kids often also made good grades – which tells us that good grades can belie a whole host of problems – but the human being earning those grades was often fragile, weak, lost, and in my view is likely to one day be resentful of the very parents who were “helping” in the name of love.
It is easy to point to examples of over-involved behavior, but far less so to stop its progression. After all, if we hovered throughout our kids’ childhood it feels cruel to stop hovering as our kids head off to college because the stakes are so high. The thing is, our sense of the height of the stakes is misplaced – college is inherently more flexible than the real world and so is actually a very safe space in which to flounder, flail, and even fail. And even if the stakes are high and the consequences of struggle profound, we are shortsighted to think that doing everything for our kids actually prepares them to succeed in that cold, cruel world. After all, we’re supposed to raise our kids to be adults one day, to prepare them for what’s hard about life not to protect themfrom it.
What’s the harm of a little over-involvement in college, you may be thinking. Well, in my experience, it just means you don’t know where to stop, and in fact you may never. Parents who were over-involved in high school turn into parents who receive late night electronic transfers of essays between them and their college-aged children, which leads to parents writing job cover letters, which leads to parents doing assignments in the workplace. I’m not making this up. People tell me these stories. I’ve become a mecca for people with the latest examples of over-parenting. The ethical implications alone are staggering, but even more grotesque is the impact on the psychological health of the young adult we are so keen on “helping.” My hunch is that our omnipresence delivers the soul-crushing news: Kid, you can’t actually do any of this without me. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies tells me my hunches are right: “Undergraduates with excessively involved parents are more likely than others to be depressed or dissatisfied with life, and a high degree of parental involvement appeared to interfere with the ability of offspring to feel autonomous and competent.” Hardly the advice found in any of the countless parenting books, magazines and blogs we’ve consulted over the years, is it? These same “kids” go out into the workplace lacking the very skills valued there – things like problem solving, creativity, resilience, and perseverance, not to mention good mental health. Managers in industries large and small nationwide are starting to report the presence of parents in the workplace wanting to sit alongside or in place of their “kid” at interviews and benefits sessions and it’s the parents who take on the role of asking the important questions because their “child” doesn’t want to, is too busy, can’t understand, or – let’s face it – simply never has.
Parents showing up everywhere in the life of a child is a classic example of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Of not being able to take the long view. Would any of us prefer to have our otherwise healthy adult children completely dependent upon us for decision-making, problem-solving, and negotiating the rough patches of life? Would any of us feel comfortable with the idea of such an adult child caring for us in our old age? The answer, of course, is no. Hell no. But we’re losing our sense of how to prevent these very things from happening. We’re discarding our instinctual sense of how to grow a human to adulthood.
With colleges now opening for the fall term there’s no better time for parents and college-bound children to talk about the role the parent currently plays in the life of the child, and how that role will evolve so the child can build the skills she’ll need to thrive out in the world of adult life, relationships and work. Millions of parents will march off to college this fall just as they marched off to soccer practice over the years, fearful that if they hang back but every other parent leans forward their kids will miss the important details or the chance at an important opportunity. We have a natural instinct to teach our children to succeed, but when we show up to do the intense listening, ask the hard questions, and make the choices, instead of expecting our kids to do these things for themselves, it teaches them precisely nothing – except that we’ll always be there to live their lives for them. Which of course we won’t.
Type A parents can get a jump-start on providing these benefits of independence to their child by having such conversations with their high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Yes there was more than a little cheek in that sentence, but the truth is, independence is most lovingly fostered when it’s done over time, not imposed cold turkey. We forget sometimes that we only got to this point of evolution as humans because generations of forefathers and foremothers let their kids go.
As parents we want to impart all we know and lead our kids by the hand, forever. But there is more to our precious children than we can possibly know. Things only they can discover. The world and our kids’ pursuits in it will give them cause for great laughter and great pain. It may even give them the chance to raise a child of their own to adulthood one day, and oh, when they become parents themselves, how much they will hope to know! Our role as parents changes as our kids become adults, but it will always be our job to love them. As our children – our pride and joy – go off to college this fall and their generation prepares to take the mantle of leadership from ours, we owe it to them to brace through our fierce tears of fear and longing and remind them to trust in themselves. The universe is vast and wild, ugly and beautiful; we may have to remind ourselves, too, to trust they can make their way in it as we commit the most loving act of letting go.