Overparenting: 5 Recovery Steps From a Former Stanford Dean

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Doing too much for one’s children is mainly a middle-to-upper-middle-class affliction; children growing up in less privileged communities tend not to suffer from parental overinvolvement. Nevertheless, says former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, who has written a book on the ills of overparenting, the impact on children is serious and long-lasting.

“There’s tremendous psychological harm that comes from overparenting,” said Lythcott-Haims. Most damaging to kids is the implied message that they’re not equipped to handle life’s bumps on their own. When parents jump in, remove obstacles, orchestrate play and direct the future, they extinguish a child’s ability to think and act for herself.

At Stanford, Lythcott-Haims counseled countless undergraduates who suffered from what she calls “existential impotence” and a lack of self-efficacy. It’s true that some kids will gain a short-term advantage from parental homework help and handholding, she said. However, parents need to realize that over the long term, such interference undermines children’s self-reliance and sense of self.

But she insists that recovery from overparenting is possible.

Indeed, Lythcott-Haims is something of a recovering overparenter herself. She vividly recalls the time she recognized her own tendency to hover over her offspring. During a dinner with her husband and two kids, she leaned over and began cutting her 10-year-old son’s meat.

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Mortified, Lythcott-Haims stopped in her tracks, handed over the knife and resolved to let her son use his own cutlery, among other duties. She and her husband also began assigning their children more chores at home, which provoked resistance. Though an expert on the impact of too-involved parents on children’s well-being and fitness for adulthood — her book "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success" tackles the very issue — even Lythcott-Haims had to muster up the courage to address her own overprotective instincts.

And she has advice for the many well-intended mothers and fathers, or “concierge parents,” as she calls them, who seek to rein in their overinvolvement: strive for an authoritative style that blends emotional warmth with a firm set of boundaries. Be involved, but let them make their own mistakes. And be strict, but treat children like rational beings who deserve reasonable explanations rather than orders.

Lythcott-Haims offers parents a menu of methods to help them scale back, some of which are summarized here:

Give teachers a break, and remember that school is for kids. Treat teachers as partners in your child’s education rather than adversaries. “We’re doing too much questioning and not enough trusting,” Lythcott-Haims said. Most teachers, coaches and administrators are professionals who are trying to work with children to help them grow. When parents interfere to lobby and protest grades or playing time, they are denying their children an opportunity to fail and learn. The same is true for “helping” with homework. If you construct your 9-year-old’s diorama, “you’re telling them they’re not capable of being a fourth-grader,” she added.

Stop obsessively monitoring grades. Lythcott-Haims encourages parents to limit how often they peruse online portals that post children’s grades. Better for parents and children to talk about what’s happening in the classroom than rely on third-party software to report on a child’s scholastic progress, she explained. Daily monitoring of quizzes and tests gives kids the impression that parents are checking up on them rather than behaving as allies in learning. “We’ve decided that every quiz, test and homework assignment is a make-or-break moment for their future,” she said. “I believe that the arc of learning is longer than day to day or week to week,” she said.

Quit fixating on the “best” colleges. Let go of your ego and widen your mind to consider the scores of colleges beyond the Ivies and the like; pay more than lip service to the idea that fit is what matters. Look beyond the U.S. News & World Report rankings toward other, more subtle measures of success: the "Fiske Guide to Colleges," "Colleges that Change Lives" and "The Alumni Factor," to name three. And don’t let the warped college admissions process set the terms for how you rear your children. Over time, that process has come to demand far too much of 17-year-olds, rewarding behavior that can be emotionally destructive and intellectually crippling. “Character is as important as academic achievement, if not more so,” Lythcott-Haims said.

Author Julie Lythcott-Haims
Author Julie Lythcott-Haims (Kristina Vetter)

Impose chores, even when it’s easier to do them yourself. Studies suggest that childhood chores correlate to adult success. For that reason alone, insist that your children contribute to the running of the household, including doing the dirty work. Start by modeling the behavior you’re looking to inspire: Pick up after yourself and look out for everyone. Ask children to help, and make it an expectation. If -- and when — they resist, don’t apologize for asking or suffocate them with explanations. Be clear about what needs to be done, show them how to do it and let them try. As tempting as it may be to celebrate the completed chore, emptying the dishwasher doesn’t call for effusive praise; a simple thank you is enough. And as much as possible, institutionalize the chores, so they become habits rather than one-off exercises. Tolerate the guff you initially get in return.

Get a life. “Instead of showing kids that a parent’s primary purpose and function is to hover over a kid and facilitate all of their interactions and activities,” Lythcott-Haims writes, “we need to show them — through the choices we make, the activities we undertake, and the principles we value — what it actually means to lead a fulfilling adult life.” To that end, rediscover and nurture your own interests; resist the urge to say yes to every request; and tend to your personal relationships.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re walking your own life path — not only for your own sake, but for your kids’ sake, too,” Lythcott-Haims adds.

Not that any of this is easy. Ordinary mothers and fathers trying to combat the urge to overparent can attest to how hard it is. “Up until this fall, I wouldn’t have seen myself as one who was overparenting, but indeed, that is what happened,” Jennifer H. told me. Without realizing it, she had begun to take an outsized interest in her high school daughter’s running performances, checking in with her after practice, inquiring about her workouts and offering to arrange sports massages. When her daughter erupted in anger one night after practice, Jennifer recognized she’d gone too far.

“You don’t see it happening but then it just smacks you in the face,” she said.

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The two talked about the pressure all the parental attention had whipped up, and Jennifer apologized for contributing to it. She also vowed to butt out. “After we had our chat, I felt like a weight had been lifted,” she said, though she still battles the urge to intervene. She added, “So maybe our story isn’t a success story yet, but merely a work-in-progress story.”

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