A few weeks ago I heard a former Stanford University dean discuss the perils of overparenting. Julie Lythcott focused on college students, but her message also applies to younger children.
The problem she sees is that parents, trying to help and protect their children in a competitive world, can easily slip into doing too much, depriving their kids of the resilience they will need as they move into adulthood. Of course parents are afraid for their children and want to protect them; and it’s natural for parents to be ambitious for their children and want to help them achieve – but, along with knowledge and skills, Lythcott pointed out that children need to learn self-efficacy, which she defined as “the sense that ones’ own actions and behaviors lead to consequences and outcomes.”
Developing self-efficacy demands that children be allowed to fail: they need to see and feel the consequences of their actions – even when the actions and the consequences are undesirable. Otherwise, they’ll never learn to deal with setbacks and failures without their parents there to intervene and save them. Lythcott observed that the parents’ job is to put themselves out of a job as their children take on the responsibilities of adulthood.
Lythcott cited four responsibilities that adults need to handle, and that overparented children often can’t manage. These are talking to strangers, managing a workload, managing money, and managing interpersonal relationships.
Parents don’t try to walk for their toddlers, but we all know parents who – with the best of intentions – try to maintain control of one or more aspects of their children’s lives well into adolescence, when the children should be taking charge – and learning to take the consequences.
Lythcott has three good pieces of advice for parents. First: not to say “we” when talking with a child. “We’re” not applying to college - the child is. Second: model and teach respect for other adults. While coaches, teachers, professors are professionals, they’re not perfect, and they can be unfair, but learning to deal respectfully with powerful people in our lives is an important part of growing up. And finally, homework is the child’s job. Managing homework helps children learn to manage time, assess their own achievement and ask for the help they need – from another adult.
Parents who want their children to stand on their own two feet must first let go of their hands.