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Overparented, Underprepared

How to avoid the traps of overparenting, and help children become self-reliant adults.
Overparented, Underprepared

College students are struggling with the transition to college and into adulthood. This phenomenon first caught the attention of Julie Lythcott-Haims many years ago, during the decade she spent as the dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Students were coming to campus woefully unprepared for the transition to college and to living on their own, and they continued to rely on their parents for pretty much everything. Many children seemed to arrive at college bewildered, because they hadn't actually "walked the path themselves to get there,” she says.

Our culture of “overparenting” leaves kids unable to stand on their own, says Lythcott-Haims, author of the 2015 book How to Raise an Adult author. “The 24/7, 365 surveillance of children is astonishingly intrusive into the freedom and independence of that child,” she says.

No parent is immune, Lythcott-Haims says. In fact, as she was working to overcome the effects of overparenting with her college students by day, she began to recognize overparenting tendencies in herself while at home with her own children. “We love them dearly, and we want to be helpful, and we do have to do everything for them at the outset, when they're infants. But the minute they learn to walk, they are starting to walk away,” she says. Parents should bring the same joy they feel when a child learns to walk to all the other tasks children have to learn, she says, resisting that urge to do everything or fix everything for their children.

In this episode of the EdCast, Lythcott-Haims discusses the "overparenting" traps that many parents fall into, and suggests ways in which parents can help their children become self-reliant adults — in preparation for college and beyond.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Students seem to be struggling more and more with the transition to college and becoming adults. It's something that caught Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University's attention many years ago. She noticed students were woefully unprepared and relied too much on their parents for everything. But as much as Julie was working with over parented college students by day, she also saw these over parenting tendencies in herself at home. 

Our culture of over parenting is just leaving kids unable to stand on their own she says. But there is a lot of things we can do as parents to raise a more self-sufficient child. I set out to talk to Julie about how much students are struggling when they get to college and what are some of the things that we can do to push back against this culture. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims: In the past, I'm told, one sent one's children to boarding school and they were there and you stayed home, and that was part of the deal. Lately, many parents are sending kids to boarding school but choosing to buy or rent a home nearby just in case. 

Jill Anderson: No. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. And it's that just in case mentality or the you never know what can happen or I just want to be on top of things that is a very physical manifestation of the over parenting. Parents are literally coming closer to the boarding school environments. So as to have a child in boarding school, but to be there nevertheless. And, of course, only very privileged parents can even take that kind of endeavor. 

Jill Anderson: You wrote your book a few years back, so I was wondering if you think we've moved at all away from that helicopter parenting, over parenting, model, if we're getting away from it, if you're seeing any shifts. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: So I'm seeing both an acceleration in the absurdity of the behaviors if you will. Maybe not an acceleration, but an increase. Things just keep getting more and more hovery on the one hand, and I'm also seeing more and more parents recognizing that my goodness my having done everything for my child means they don't know how to do for themselves and now I've got a young twenty something who's failing to launch. And they see the connection. Maybe they've even had a mental health situation in the home that has made everybody realize this child has been so over held and over managed, they don't have a sense of confidence that they can do anything for themselves. 

And so the crazier examples are I think frankly that 24/7, 365 surveillance of children is astonishingly intrusive into the freedom and independence of that child. Many people just think, we have the technology, why wouldn't you use it? And as with those classroom portals, some schools have a portal that allows a parent to see the grade book every hour of every day. Just because some software genius invented that technology, doesn't mean it's healthy for humans for that technology to be used. 

Jill Anderson: So you used a term there 24/7 surveillance. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. 

Jill Anderson: Is that how you would describe modern parenting today? 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. I mean, in fact, it's more than surveillance. By surveillance I was referring literally to the apps that make it possible for you to track or have a webcam set up in your house when you're traveling. You can still monitor what your family is doing which I find incredibly creepy. 

I think it's in fact more than that because surveillance implies some distance. There's also the tremendous on top of it at all times aspect, which is let me quote the researcher Jean Twenge who wrote iGen, who says, "Gen Z, the generation behind millennials, are less likely to be out of the house without a parent and less likely to be in the house without a parent." Which means they basically are constantly with a parent like a dog on a leash. 

Jill Anderson: That's crazy. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: It is. And Jean Twenge would also say, they are drinking later, they are driving later, they are having sex later. And all of these things make them quote unquote safer, and we can applaud that. And they are hitting these markers of adulthood later. And I think it's an open question for society, for America, to ask, well, when will they hashtag adult? Because we're going to pretty much need them at some point to stand on their own two feet, and be able to earn a living, and be able to pay their taxes, and frankly be able to support us in our old age. So come on little ones, come on, come on. 

Jill Anderson: I think I just was reading about that there is some book out there called adulting or something. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Oh, yeah. There are a lot of books on adult, in fact, I'm writing one. So I've read them all. 

Jill Anderson: One of the things I would imagine is that a lot of parents would not identify themselves as helicopter parents until there's some kind of crisis with mental health or something. So is there a way you can kind of check yourself for that as a parent? 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Sure. I try to get away from the label helicopter parent, or snowplow parent, or drone parent, or curling parent, lawnmower parent, and focus on the types of behaviors. And I've identified three. Over protection, so this is the parent who's just constantly worried that something terrible is going to happen and the need to bubble wrap their child's every moment, hover over every play date, be there at the park to catch them from falling off the rock wall into the plastic wood chips. The parent who has that sort of never know mentality, and is constantly aflutter with their own worries about what could happen. 

The second type is the over directive type, AKA the tiger parent, whose approach to parenting is I know best what leads to success kid and you will do as I say. Oh, and by the way, my love for you might be conditioned upon how well you execute my plans for your life. 

And the third type is the concierge. The parent holding their kid's hand too long, acting like a handler, waking them up way too late in life, tracking their deadlines, bringing them their forgotten things, handling the bureaucratic administrative details of life, like filling out forms, and making inquiries over the phone or by email to other people. 

So parents can be one, two, or all three of these types. I'm not so overprotective but I'm definitely a concierge and a little bit of over directive type. I have a clear sense of what I think will lead to success when I drag my kid down the path toward that. I've come to terms with my own over parenting as I've researched the issue for this book and as I've toured this book. I tell my own stories about how I came to discover my own complicitness in this problem. 

And so to your question of how do you know, I came home for dinner one night and leaned over my 10 year old's plate and began cutting his meat. And here I was a dean by day working with over parented college students, and then by night I'm over parenting my own children. And that believe it or not as mundane as it sounds, was my aha moment. I realized if I'm cutting the meat of a 10-year-old how in the heck do I expect him to be a freestanding 18-year-old because there's a whole lot of skills between cut your meat and go to college. But there are people listening to this I guarantee you who are cutting their kid's meat at 10 and 11. And right now they're thinking OK, maybe tomorrow night I'll have my kid cut their own food. 

Jill Anderson: Right. It's almost like it just becomes such a habit and you just keep doing this stuff. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well, of course, because we love them dearly. And we want to be helpful. And we do have to do everything for them at the outset when they're infants. We must do everything. But let me put it this way, the minute they learn to walk they're starting to walk away. And that may make us gasp with fear, but we actually ought to delight in the fact that our child is gaining strength in their legs, and learning to stand, and learning to walk, and we ought to bring the same delight we have around them learning to walk to every single task they must learn between that and leaving us to go out into the world at 18 or whenever. So we're supposed to want them to become more skilled and more independent. 

However, these days because our own egos as parents is so unhealthily inextricably intertwined with our kids existence, we need to keep doing for them so that we can say, look what I've done for my kid. I've gotten my kid into this place or I handled this for my kid. I argued with the coach. Even if we're not outwardly saying that to others, we're saying that to ourselves. Well all that others see is oh, our kid got a spot on the right soccer team. Oh, our kid has the right GPA. Well, we know behind the scenes we are orchestrating those things to happen. It makes us feel better about ourselves and in the short term, it helps our child advance. But in the long term, we are undercutting their emotional wellness because we're essentially supplanting ourselves into the role in life they are supposed to play for themselves. 

Jill Anderson: Right. Which is how they figure anything out if they're not able to do anything themselves. I think even just the New York Times had an article a month or so ago about the relentlessness of modern parenting. And one of the things you've written and said time and time again, is parenting doesn't have to be so hard. And we're putting so much pressure on ourselves. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. Let me quote the psychologist and researcher Madeline Levine who's written a couple of great parenting books, Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege. And Madeline says, "don't do what your kid can already do for themselves, and don't do what they can almost do for themselves, and don't do what's just in your own ego. Your own ego needs you to do it." 

OK. The almost do is I think the really important learning point here. What a kid can almost do is a signal of their learning edge. Remember, our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job. One day our offspring is supposed to be able to fend without us. That is the obligation of a mammal parent. That's how we evolved to this point. OK? 

That's still our job in the 21st century even though we have so many luxuries and ways of handling things. Bottom line, our offspring must be able to survive without us or else we've failed as parents. OK? So we have to constantly be interested in our children learning new skills. And by the time a young person is in high school, when they're saying, oh my gosh, I left my backpack at school, or oh no, I don't know what the assignment is, or some childlike disaster, or whatever it is. What we should do instead of handling it, which is our impulse, drop everything and handle it. Drop everything and go to the school. Drop everything and call the teacher. 

We should empathize. Oh no, honey. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry that happened. Are you all right? How'd that must feel? Whatever it is, empathize. And then you say, how do you think you're going to handle it? And you say it cheerfully and with confidence, and it tells that child it's not the parent's problem, it's a kid's problem. And oh by the way, the parent thinks the kid can handle it. 

That kind of dialogue over and over builds in the child the clear sense that this is on me. These are my responsibilities. And I'm believed in. Not to say you should not prevent a child from falling off a cliff, that's what people are making right now listening to me. Julie's telling us to just turn our backs on our kids. No, I am not. I'm saying stop treating everything like it's a cliff. Most things are not cliffs. Most scenarios are not the equivalent of your child drowning. In everything short of those things are opportunities for your child to learn and grow. And ultimately become that human who will be strong and capable and successful out there. 

Jill Anderson: We're hearing a lot about kids getting a college and they're just not able to do basic things like get up in the morning and go to their classes. Or they're not able to do their laundry. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: This is the natural extension of an overly managed helicopter parenting childhood. If someone has always attended your every move, woken you up if you were late, or just never even allowed you to be late, never even expected you to wake yourself up. And told you exactly what to do, monitored your homework, taken you to every activity, checking in with teachers for you, all of that. How do you expect that person to actually perform any of those tasks on their own in a brand new environment called college? Well, I don't know why we expect it. It's irrational to expect it. 

We delude ourselves that if we just do everything it takes to get our kids into the quote unquote right college, we will have arrived them at this future. And I use that language arrived them at very deliberately, very passively, because they get there. And then they're bewildered because they haven't actually walked the path themselves to get there. We've sort of brought them to a future we wanted them to have, the right college. And then they can't figure out how to make their way through the first year or the first month or the first week. 

Jill Anderson: And then on the other hand, we're hearing these extremes something that we talk a lot about in our office at Harvard about why are so many kids getting into college and they're just not able to transition in that first year. We have kids coming who aren't able to get up in time for their class all the way to a lot of rise in mental health issues and suicide and anxiety. We're seeing and hearing a lot about that. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: So let me tell you what I've learned Jill. These problems are not limited to the Harvard's and Stanford's of the world. Administrators and faculty at campuses around the nation, we're seeing what your campus and my campus was seeing. Here's what I was able to piece together by looking at research from the field of psychology. Increasingly, studies are showing a link, a correlation, between this over involved parenting style and higher rates of anxiety and depression in young people. 

And here's why. The human psyche needs to know of its own existence. It sounds sort of very tautological, right? How do you know you exist? Well, Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." There's this notion in psychology called self-efficacy as I understand it, which is essentially I do, therefore I am. When I act, there is an outcome. And that's how I know of my own existence. 

The trouble with over parenting is whether it's the overprotective, over directive, or the concierge, we are effectively doing too much to make the outcome happen or to attend to the child in the outcome happening, and we are interrupting the natural development of self-efficacy. Therefore, the child's self, sense of self, this is not self-esteem, how they feel about themselves, but the actual knowledge of their own existence internally is hampered, or brittle, or thin, or I'm not sure what the right term is, and this fragility leads to a likelihood of anxiety and/or depression. 

I'm not saying helicopter parenting is the only reason the child might be anxious or depressed, but I am saying research shows there's a correlation between that type of parenting and those outcomes in kids. And so let me add this. The students on my campus, I don't know about yours, who impress the heck out of me with their self-reliance, their degree of responsibility taking, their accountability, were kids from poor and working class backgrounds or the first in their families to go to college. 

As freshmen dean I made it my business to know what was going on in the lives of my students and what their particular backgrounds and circumstances were. I was delighted to see a set of kids who had their act together, which is not to say their life was easy at all, but which was to say when something came up, cropped up, some problem, they would speak with a great degree of responsibility about it. I've done this and I've got to figure this out. And here are my thoughts about my options, dean Julie, can you help me think this through? Instead of their more affluent counterpart who would have the same problem and then text their parent and expect their parent to handle it. 

And I thought, oh my goodness, I'm raising my kids in a quite affluent town, Palo Alto. I'm doing way too much for them. Yet I would want my son and my daughter when they're in college to behave the way these kids from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are behaving. How do I and how do any of us raising kids amid such privilege instill in our children the expectation that you will do for yourself, you will handle it, you'll be responsible, you'll be accountable, you will first seek out your own internal resources before asking some other human to help you. 

I'm not trying to romanticize poverty or struggle, but I am here to say that a child who's emerged from that environment to college because they've had a good education and a mentor to, they have an extra tray in their toolkit when they get there that their more affluent counterparts don't have. It's a beautiful irony. 

Jill Anderson: Did you ever find yourself asking, did you do chores growing up? 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I didn't know quite how important chores were until I was probably a year or two away from leaving the university. So no, I never folded that chores inquiry into my conversations with students. But isn't that a beautiful unexpected truth? As I was learning about the Harvard grant study, which of course you must well know it's kicked off thousands of findings. 

There were an article or two suggesting that somebody who was professionally successful in life turned out to have done chores as a child or held a part time job in high school. And so I joke with parents, it's not Kumon, it's the vacuum. We think it's all of this intense enrichment that will lead them to the right future, when, in fact, it's work ethic built from part time job or chores that roll up your sleeve pitch in mentality. How can I be useful? How can I contribute my effort to the betterment of the whole? Instilling that sense in a child, into an adolescent, will yield a young adult who can go into the workplace and not sit around waiting for their boss to ask them to do something, but who'll be alert and paying attention to what can I do to make this situation better? And that gets you ahead in the workplace. 

Jill Anderson: Right. So what advice do you have what can a parent do? Aside from add some chores. Maybe have them do work at home or find a part time-- I mean, I do think we've moved away from part time jobs and that kind of thing. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. And as a very utilitarian matter when it comes to a college admissions, college admissions deans tell me they don't get essays written about part time work anymore. But they'd like to. Now that doesn't mean you all should run out and make your kid get a part time job just so they can write a college admission essay. Right? The point is the skills the child gets, the experiences they have, the humility they develop, the competency, the world view they develop by working a job where a boss is not mom or dad really can lead to incredible growth and perspective. And that can make a good essay. 

So what can parents do? I'm staring at my laptop on this table that has a little sticker on it where I've got my four steps for raising adults. So I'll start there. There's a four step method for teaching any kid any skill. Remember what I've said, our job is to put ourselves out of a job, raise our kids to be able to fend for themselves, which means teach them everything they need to know. And you do that in four steps. 

First, you do it for them. Then you do it with them. Then you flip the tables and watch them do it. And finally, step four they can do it independently. And that applies to learning to use the stove, and learning to cross the street, and learning to be responsible for putting your own stuff in your backpack and getting it to school. OK. We should bring this approach to everything. Delighting in our kids learning more and more everyday, every week. 

Another thing we can do, stop doing these three things. Stop saying we when you mean your kid. We're on the travel soccer team. No, you're not. We're applying early. No, you're not. Your kid is or at least they're supposed to be the ones doing the work. OK. Stop saying we. Say my child, my son, my daughter. All right? Let them have their own experiences and go get your own. OK. It's another way to say get a life and maybe your kid can have one too. 

Stop saying we, stop arguing with all the authority figures in their lives, teachers, heads of school, coaches, principals, referees are exhausted under the weight of parents who want to argue every single point. And number three, stop doing their homework. Nobody listening I'm sure, but parents nearby are doing their kid's homework these days. Well beyond the science projects, they're fixing the math, cleaning it up, they're rewriting paragraphs and essays. And then they're astonished when they only get a B on the essay and they want to argue with the teacher. OK. It's unethical to do your kid's homework. 

Teachers K through 12 have no idea what children actually know anymore because parents are so overly involved. And worst of all back to the fragile psyche of young kids these days, you're actually teaching your kid, hey kid, you're not capable of succeeding in the fourth grade or the eighth grade or the 12th grade without me actually doing your homework for you. And imagine what that must feel like to a child. 

OK. So those are some examples of things we can do and stop doing. I have something I call the one week cleanse for those of us who have to know everyday how our child has performed in school as if they're a stock we're managing in the stock market. Are we up are we down? So we assault them at the front door. What happened on the science test today? What happened in math? Maybe we've checked the portal, and we know they got a grade lower than we expected. What happened? The kid doesn't even know yet the grade. OK. 

Or we say how much homework do you have? When are you going to do your homework? When are we going to do your homework? Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag. Always need to know. We act as if all we're interested in when it comes to our precious offspring is their academic performance and that teaches them that lesson, that my worth to my parents is basically a function of my GPA. OK. 

The one week cleanses to stop doing that for one week. So you say to your kid, hey kid, I know I'm always obsessed with how you didn't school today and how much homework you have, and I know that can make you feel that I think you don't care like I have to ride you and ask you because the presumption is I don't think you care. But I know you do care. It's essential to say that. I know you do care. So for one week I'm going to practice, I'm going to try really hard not to ask. OK. 

Parents report to me that there's more laughter in their homes when they do the one week cleanse. Why? Not because their kid is flunking out and everybody's exasperated, but because parents and children are now talking about things that aren't the academic transactional aspects of life. It's more, how was your day? What's good about today? What's going on in your life? You take an interest in your child as a human being and watch how they blossom in front of you. They simply want to be loved unconditionally. Oh hey, so do we. This is what we have in common. It's a way to restore a healthy interaction between parent and child. 

Lately I've begun thinking of it this way. If you're trying to create a little bit more of a healthy distance, see if you can't regard your child as if they are your best friend's child. OK. If it's your best friend's child, you're going to show up at your best friend's house and see their child and say, hey, how's it going? How's life? What's going on? What are you happy about? But you're not caught in the outcomes. When that child says, well, I had a bad day the other day. You're empathetic and say, Oh, I'm so sorry. Tell me more about it. But you don't try to fix it. You just take an interest and you're empathetic, and you reassure them that you're an adult who cares about them. 

If we could bring that same loving distance to our own children, we could actually back off enough so that they could show up more in their own lives, and know that they're not ponies being bet on or investments in the stock market, but humans making their way in this one precious life. 

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Always good to be at Harvard. [LAUGHTER] 

Jill Anderson: Julie Lythcott Haims is the author of How to Raise an Adult and the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 


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