How to Raise an Adult is a new book, taking America by storm. It’s author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, accuses modern parents of damaging their children with excessive hand-holding. So, how did it all come to this?
As a child growing up in the 1970s, I took it in my stride to be self sufficient and knew my place. Children in that decade tended to ‘fit in’ around parents and adults. As latchkey kids, we invented our own amusement and generally came second to our parents’ work and social lives. Anyone remember passing the time sitting in the back of a car eating crisps while mum and dad lived it up in the pub? We ran off to play in all sorts of off limits places, with no means of communication, often returning after dark. ‘Oh you’re back. You’ve missed supper, I’m afraid.’ We did our homework unaided, we earned money doing Saturday jobs and had to fight our own battles, or keep quiet about things that troubled us during that troubling decade..
As parents today, we take a completely different view to raising our children. Most of us want them to have the very best opportunities whether this is in education, sport, entertainment or socially. We live vicariously through our children, putting them first and helping them exploit all the possibilities that living here, and at this particular time, present. But are we overdoing it? As our kids’ servants and guardians, are we not guilty of overparenting and raising children who will find it difficult adapt to the responsibilities of adulthood when it arrives?
What makes How to Raise an Adult interesting is that many modern parents instantly relate to what’s covered within its pages. We immediately feel guilty. There are three kinds of overparenting: over protecting (putting buffers and safety rails in place), over directing (managing activities, studies and grade As) and hand-holding (acting as a concierge to help fill in paperwork and talking to authority figures on our children’s behalf). Many parents are guilty of doing all three.
Parents are living in the service of their children and as a result, they’re frazzled, worried and disillusioned. They know they need to reclaim their own lives, and make time for work and hobbies and relationships so they can model a healthy, vibrant, adult life for their sons and daughters. They just don’t know how to switch off, because they have been in this state of overdrive from when their children were born. So it’s really no wonder ‘kids’ don’t want to be adults because parents don’t make adulthood look terribly enticing.
Our kids have to be there for themselves. That’s a harder truth to swallow when your child is in the midst of a problem, but taking the long view is the best medicine. If we do too much for them, we make them feel like failures when things don’t work out. The author believes that young people should be given free time and space to think. They should have chores to help build their work ethic but, if they fail at a task, parents should not rush in to help.
We have to teach our kids that authority figures are people trying to do a good job who are worthy of respect. If there is a problem, parents must teach their sons and daughters that they are the ones to have the conversation with that adult: we can coach them but they shouldn’t depend on mum and dad to act as their advocate. They should also do their own work.
This very much a middle class conundrum. The author points out that overparenting doesn’t happen among poorer people because they’ve got bigger things to focus on. It happens in communities where parents have disposable time and income.
Signs and symptoms of overparenting
Do you catch yourself saying ‘We’ when talking about your child’s achievements?
When you hear your child being questioned by another adult, such as a teacher, do you have to fight the urge to answer on your child’s behalf – and often fail?
Have you ever made a special journey to school to deliver a forgotten bag, sports shoes, swim kit or packed lunch?
Do you spend so much time and effort getting your children’s stuff together, that you frequently forget your own important items?
Do you find yourself doing things for your children that they are old enough to do for themselves such as cutting up their food, doing their washing or changing their sheets? Do you avoid asking them because you assume they are too ‘busy’– or because you don’t want a row?
Have you queried you child’s marks at school or university – or repeatedly questioned referees’ decisions in sports matches?
Do you behave like your child’s concierge even when they are teenagers, arranging their diaries and morning wake-up calls, booking flights for them and organising their financial affairs?
If you left your kitchen in a state and your children in charge when you went away for the weekend, would they leave it as it was, or make it worse?
Do you hold yourself to blame if your child does badly in a subject?
Has your child ever rung you to ask you to look something up for them, when with a little investigation, they could have found out where they needed to go for themselves?
Have you already considered which A-levels your child should take and which universities they should aim for, even before they reach secondary school?
How to stop overparenting your child
If you’re too focused on your child, you’re likely to be ignoring your own needs. Julie Lythcott-Haims says: ‘Despite what you think, your kid is not your passion. If you’re treating them as if they are, you’re placing them in the very untenable and healthy role of trying to bring fulfillment to your life.’ Find something else to do.
Mistakes are your child’s greatest teacher, so welcome them when they happen, whether it’s coming last in something, being dropped from a team or flunking an exam. Instead of dreading failures, see them as a chance to get ready for adulthood.
Hold your child to account. At each stage of life, check your child is on track to accomplish basic skills. If they aren’t, put in the time to train them. For example, by the age of seven, children should be able to help cook meals and make their beds. By nine, they should know simple sewing, how to take out the rubbish and fold and put away their clothes. By the age of 13, check that they can iron, use basic hand tools and mow the lawn.
Ask your child questions to help them work out their own solutions. Instead of constantly directing them, ask what they think they should do to solve a problem. More often than not, they will come up with a more practical, age-appropriate solution.
Why not see if there are activities, adventures or pastimes your child can do without your involvement? Look for inspiration at GoMunkee.
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How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims is published by Henry Holt & Co Inc