How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

Brett Ashley Kaplan is the Director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society and a Professor and Conrad Humanities Scholar in Comparative Literature. She works on Holocaust art and literature and contemporary Jewish American Literature. Her newest book is entitled Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth. Brett lives with her partner, Philip Phillips (a theoretical physicist) and their (combined) three kids.

Anya Kaplan-Hartnett is a subbie (8th grader) at Uni high. Anya plays flute and piano and sings. She recently performed as a fairy in the Lyric@ Illinois production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream at Krannert. Anya lives with her mom and step-dad and her sister, Melia, and her step-brother, Orestes (who lives half the time with his mother), and two dogs, Argos and Charlie.

Adult_LythcottHaimsBrett (mother):

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims caught our attention through Uni high where our eldest daughter is a subbie. The counselors sent a note to the whole school recommending the book. It was a serendipitous dovetailing of the general direction we were going with our three kids—we were just then working on increasing autonomy and self-reliance. We are a blended family—the adults are both divorced and have biological children from our first marriages; the kids are 13, 11, 11 with a 6 month gap between the eleven year olds so their grades are 5,6, 8 (all at three different schools!). Blending families is, as I am sure many of you know first-hand, not always the smoothest. But we’ve been doing lots of talking, strategizing, thinking and feeling and the overall mood of the family has improved dramatically as the kids have become more and more accustomed to each other. A crucial part of blending, then, has been fostering autonomy and indeed, raising adults. So I had a rare quiet weekend when—unusually—my partner and all the kids were away and I finally had a few minutes to read most of How to Raise an Adult. I have to say that I did find myself doing a fair amount of self-patting on the back because my kids have learned to be fairly self-reliant; in part they had to because my first husband and I divorced when they were 2 and 4 and there was no way I could take care of everything in the year that I was a (dating) single mom. So it is perhaps adversity that has taught some useful life skills and self-reliance. Nonetheless there are probably more things we could delegate to them to prepare them for the world beyond the home.

The author of How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims is a Dean of Students at Stanford and a parent and has thus had an excellent vantage point from which to chart the increasing reliance of college age students on their parents. She offers an excellent contextualization as to why our generation of parents (i.e. those of us born in the 60s) tend to over parent and over involve ourselves in our kids’ lives. Among the reasons she gives are that our parents tended to be involved in changing the world, launching careers, key-partying or whatever else so that we were largely left to raise ourselves. Thus, when we became parents we had a tendency to overcompensate. Another reason she lists is that whereas it used to be totally normal for a 12 year old to get him or self from A to B the spate of child abductions that began to be widely publicized in the early 1980s set off a panic to such an extent that parents who let 12 year olds go places on their own can sometimes be arrested! So there are not only personal and emotional reasons for over parenting but also societally enforced institutions that demand it. Her overall argument is that all of this over parenting means that by the time kids get to college they are still kids and neither self reliant nor responsible. A memorable example she gives is of a 21 year old texting his father to say he was lost in New York when he had all the wonders of his iPhone at his disposal!

Sometimes Lythcott-Haims goes on a little too long and offers too many examples but overall I absolutely agree that we all need to be fostering autonomy! I left How to Raise an Adult on the coffee table and sure enough, Anya, our eldest, picked it up and read it very quickly. Here is what she says about the book:

Anya (daughter, 13):

When my best friend and I were in fourth grade, we were obsessed with baking. I loved going over to her house and making cookies and cupcakes with fancy frosting and paper umbrellas. I anxiously awaited my tenth birthday, when I would be allowed to use the oven on my own. The first thing I made were scones that had the consistency of rocks since I was so proud to have completed a solo baking mission without burning down the house. I don’t think I even noticed that most people politely refused my scones. My point is that kids just love having autonomy.

I see that many parents nowadays try to do everything for their kids. For example, a lot of my classmates have their lunches packed by their parents. I can see why- it’s faster, and you can make sure that your kid gets just the right amount of protein. But those kids often complain that they don’t like what’s packed, and they don’t eat it. They often say that they wish their parents would let them pack by themselves. You see, parents need to get that when they refuse autonomy to their kids it sends the message: “No, I don’t trust you to do this by yourself. Let me do it- I know how”

Last year, when I went to Edison middle school, one of my favorite things to do was go to the library with my friends. Walking over there by myself felt good—it was an accomplishment. Now that I am going to Uni, I walk to piano lessons, and I meet my mom on campus after school. I love that feeling of freedom, and I can see how it translates to school and the rest of my life: “You might be a kid, but you can do this!” I feel confidence and pride in my very own accomplishments, like learning a song or doing a new kind of math problem, because I know that I did it myself.

Parents sometimes assume that a new experience is frightening for their kids, and they are likely right. The first time that I walked to the library myself, I was afraid that something bad might happen on the way, but it didn’t. I learned not to be afraid of walking around without an adult, and I wouldn’t have learned that if my parents didn’t let me go. Parents, have you ever been afraid when you were growing up? Did it help you develop as a person? Let your kids be scared sometimes, because they’ll learn from it and then, next time, they can know what to expect.

In Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book How to Raise an Adult, she mentions her friend’s four step system to build life skills: “First we do it for you, then we do it with you, then we watch you do it, then you do it completely independently”. As a kid, I love this because it captures exactly the way that kids want to grow up. We want help at first, but at the end of the road our greatest hope is to do it ourselves. By then, we’ll know that we can do anything.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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