Acclaimed expert warns against dangers of overparenting in McAfee talk

April 2, 2019 — by Kaitlyn Wang

On March 12, news about perhaps the largest college admissions scandal in history broke. Subsequent stories revealed wealthy parents who were allegedly willing to cheat and bribe so their privileged children could enter elite schools like Yale and USC.

News of the scandal made Julie Lythcott-Haims's message delivered the night before at the McAfee Center all the more relevant.

Hosted by the PTSO, the event featured Lythcott-Haims, the author of the New York Times bestseller "How to Raise an Adult." She urged the audience of mostly wealthy and concerned parents to let their teens make more of their own choices in life, even if those choices sometimes lead to heartache and failure.

Parents from Saratoga and Los Gatos High attended the event, followed by a Q&A session and book signing. According to assistant principal Brian Safine, nearly 400 people attended the talk.

“There was a very positive buzz in the conversations I had with parents after Julie Lythcott-Haims’s visit,” Safine said. “Parents were saying things like, ‘This is such a good reminder about when and how to intervene in my child's life and when to let them figure things out for themselves.’ The response was universally positive with the people that I heard from.”

When Safine introduced Lythcott-Haims during the event, he said that “How to Raise an Adult” is the most notated, most dog-eared book he has: The book that resulted in Lythcott-Haims’ TED talk, which has been viewed more than 4 million times on the TED website. Safine also described the positive response Lythcott-Haims received when she presented to teachers during a staff development day two and a half years ago, organized by the administrative team. The staff gave her a long standing ovation at the end of her talk.

While Lythcott-Haims’s message about the importance of self-efficacy has remained the same, her second visit to Saratoga brought a more personal perspective on college admissions from her own experiences as a parent.

Lythcott-Haims, who has a 19-year-old son at Reed College and a 17-year-old daughter at Gunn High School, shared relatable anecdotes about herself and her family. Her sense of humor evoked laughter in the audience.

Lythcott-Haims spoke about the times she has overparented, from which she learned to give her children more independence, and recognizes how much she continues to learn from her children even now.

Science teacher Jennifer Lee, who attended the event and has listened to several of Lythcott-Haims’s talks, appreciated the power of her honesty.

“I think everything she says is from the heart; there's an element of truth to it,” Lee said. “What stands out to me the most is that she's not trying to talk at teachers, parents and students. She's very real about, ‘Yeah, from my professional life, I can tell you what to do. But I'm also a parent. Even though I know what I'm supposed to do, I know how hard it is to do things the right way. I make the same mistakes that everyone else makes.’”

Lee’s first year as an undergraduate at Stanford corresponded to Lythcott-Haims’s first year as the dean of freshmen. Working as “Dean Julie” for a decade, Lythcott-Haims was concerned for a set of children she saw who were overparented and trained like dogs in Westminster dog shows, she said.

At Stanford, Lythcott-Haims saw three trends among students, which apply to different types of schools across the nation. Students grew more and more accomplished on paper, or had strong “childhood resumes.” Their parents were more involved in their lives — increasing numbers of parents were even going to college with their kids and staying. And children were less aware of their own selves and what they wanted.

When students talk about what interests them, Lythcott-Haims said, “I’m looking for their eyes to dance.” And “even if you can’t understand [what the kid is passionate about], it’s captivating.”

Lythcott-Haims has seen how the word “passion” is overused when talking about college applications.

“Find your passion by January 1 of senior year,” Lythcott-Haims joked. “Actually November 1, thanks.”

Too often, finding your passion sounds like searching for a book in the library, according to Lythcott-Haims.

She also described three types of parents who are common these days: Overprotective parents, over-directive parents and concierge parents. Overprotective parents feel the need to wrap their kids in bubble wrap. Over-directive parents, often called tiger parents, are determined for their child to walk a certain path, and concierge parents do everything for their kids.

Lythcott-Haims talked about one of the students she remembers from her time as freshmen dean. The student was in pre-med, and her parents chose all her classes and planned her summer activities because they wanted her to build a strong application for medical school. Although she was allowed to propose electives, her parents held “veto power.”

Lythcott-Haims remembers asking the student, “How are you doing?” referring to the student’s well-being.

“I have a 4.0 GPA,” the student responded.

When Lythcott-Haims asked the student why she followed what her parents wanted with little resistance, the student replied, in tears: “As long as I do as they say, maybe they’ll go easier on my siblings.”

This sentiment isn’t uncommon among “overparented” kids.

While overparenting may result in short-term benefits, there are long-term losses. Children lose the development of self-efficacy: They do not know how to handle, to hope, to dream. Their sense of worth and value becomes tied to their GPA, leading to higher levels of anxiety and depression. They do not know how to handle mistakes because there had been done, Lythcott-Haims said.

Lythcott-Haims also discussed the importance of teens doing chores. The greatest predictor of success in someone’s lifetime is if he or she did chores as a kid or had a part-time job, she said. Both activities build a strong work ethic and foster the mindset that an individual can take action and pitch in to contribute to a community.

Lee said that Lythcott-Haims’s talk made her reflect on students’ stated motivations and whether they’re coming from themselves or their parents.

For Safine, Lythcott-Haims’s talks are a reminder that it is crucial to listen to students, whether the school is planning an event or discussing offered courses.

“I always want to keep in my mind student voice and student perspective,” Safine said. “I think we always want to empower our students whenever possible to steer their own ship. Don't decide something for a student that they can do or decide on their own is something that I try to keep in my mind both as I work with teenagers here and as I raise my own child.”

Instead of striving to “fix something or save someone,” sometimes the best course of action is to simply listen to students and strategize how they could problem solve by themselves, according to Safine.

In a month when college acceptances come out, Lythcott-Haims said these decisions also do not determine a student’s future — students themselves determine their own future.

As Lythcott-Haims said during her talk, there are 2,900 four-year colleges in the United States, and at least 10 percent of those are institutions of learning where students would receive a comparably great education.

Lee said she found it interesting that the day after Lythcott-Haims’s talk, news about college admissions scandals broke, presenting a “neat side by side comparison of messages” regarding how parents decide to support their kids.

According to Lee, a main message from Lythcott-Haims’s talk is the importance of self-understanding and self-efficacy in and beyond the classroom setting.

“It's important that you know who you are and that you speak up for what you believe in,” Lee said. “Maybe right now, it's mostly school based because as students, you’re in school eight, 10, 12 hours a day. But once you're past the school phase and you're an adult doing other things, I think that message is still true. Know what you care about, be OK with what you care about. And be OK speaking up for what you believe in.”

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