Are too many people over-parenting their kids?

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 28 January 2016

We usually talk about raising children, but what about raising adults? Are we protecting our children from life, rather than preparing them for it? 

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Over-involved, over-cautious and results-focused parenting may be depriving our children of independence, and making them over-reliant on their parents as adults, says one author.

American educator and mother Julie Lythcott-Haims has written a book How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

Listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims on Nine To Noon:

Julie Lythcott-Haims says that she prefers to use the term over-parenting rather than the label 'helicopter parent' because she thinks it's over-used, especially in the US.

"I break it down to the behaviours. It's over-protective... thinking the world is scary, unsafe and unpredictable and therefore we parents must protect and prevent at every turn rather than prepare," Ms Lythcott-Haims said.

Another type of parent is the over-directive parent.

"This is the parent that says, 'you will study this or that', 'you will become a this or that', and 'you'll do these activities, you'll get these grades'."

The third type of parent she writes about is the concierge.

"The parent that wants to just help, from waking you up at the beginning of the day to reminding you of your due dates and deadlines, to making sure your homework is in your backpack, to having the difficult conversation with a teacher or with a coach - it's the parent that wants to be basically the kid's handler, as if the kid is a celebrity who needs all the details of life handled for them."

It's all motivated by love and fear, Ms Lythcott-Haims said, and there are often short-term wins - the child may get better marks at school, for example.

"But the long-term cost is you get a young adult who feels they're not capable of doing for themselves - and often, they aren't capable."

Her argument isn't that children should be left alone, however, rather that it's a gradual process of letting them grow up and learn for themselves.

"Childhood is meant to prepare them, every year they should have more skills and a greater degree of independence from us," Ms Lythcott-Haims said.

"Some of us treat our kids as if they're on a leash - well, we need to be lengthening that leash because at some point we want them to be able to thrive on their own, to fend for themselves..."

Part of the problem may be that families are generally smaller now, and infant mortality rates are generally lower, she said.

"Children have become much more precious, they're not likely to die in infancy or in childhood".

"In an earlier age parents had to have a number of children, knowing that some subset of them wouldn't survive. That's no longer the case... and in addition, there were a lot of factors - at least in my country, in the US - in the 1980s that really conspired against childhood in ways we can now really see quite clearly."

Top of her list was the 'playdate', which wasn't really free play for the children at all, as the parents wanted to make sure everyone was taking turns and getting along.

"So parents began encroaching upon a domain previously that was the domain of children. Playdate 1984"

Another restrictive factor was the self-esteem movement, developed in the early 1980s in California.

"We began to really believe that kids needed to be applauded and given certificates and ribbons just for participating in an activity or in a sport, instead of for actually achieving anything."

'Stranger danger' was the third factor, with American parents becoming fearful for the safety of their offspring.

"We had a couple of well-publicised, tragic cases of child abduction and murder that came to our nation's consciousness and we became very fearful that that sort of thing could play out on any street corner, in any community, at any time."

This confluence of the 'playdate', self-esteem and 'stranger danger' has affected the first of the so-called Millennials. 

"They were the first to really come to college with parents who expected to play a day-to-day role in managing things and making sure everything was okay."

Ms Lythcott-Haims witnessed this first-hand as the dean at Stanford University from 2002-2012, with high-achieving students who would turn to their parents for help.

"I noticed each year, I had more and more students who turned to a parent pretty frequently throughout each day to ask questions like, 'how should I do this?', 'which opportunity should I choose?', 'this minor problem arose, how should I handle it?' 

"And I found myself thinking, wait a minute! As a cohort, 18 to 22-year-olds used to have the sort of brash self confidence, trying to brush their parents off, like 'folks, I've got this!' My students were docile (and) grateful, with respect to the role of parents. They weren't mortified that their parents wanted to talk to the professor about a bad grade.

And that 'bad grade' might have been a B or a C, Ms Lythcott-Haims said. "They were expecting themselves to be perfect, they were accustomed to parents intervening on their behalf, and they were grateful for it."

"And I wrote this book because I thought, 'what's to become of us if the largest generation in American history doesn't have this hunger to do for themselves?'"