Avoiding the Overparenting Trap

January 2016
Parent and child in garden

An Interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims

Former lawyer and dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims is an educator, motivational speaker, and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

In her own words: I'm a human making my way in the world along with everyone else. I root for the underdog and I'm interested in helping those who struggle. I didn't expect that middle and upper-middle class kids would need an advocate, but because of the pernicious harm of overparenting prevalent in such communities, it turns out that they do.

Please explain the premise of your book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

We parents are motivated by love and fear. We want the very best for our kids, and we've decided that protecting and preventing at every turn, hovering over every happening, and micromanaging every moment is the way to ensure their success. But by doing too much for them, and shielding them from the very experiences that teach skills and build resilience, we deprive them of knowing how to do anything for themselves. They're in danger of becoming chronologically adult humans who can't act as the adult in their own lives.

Why do kids seem to be so anxious today?

Studies are beginning to show that kids who are overparented experience higher rates of anxiety (and also depression). For example:

  • A 2006 study out of UCLA found that parents who tend to take over tasks that their children either are or could be performing independently limit the child's ability to experience "mastery," leading to greater rates of separation anxiety in their children.
  • A 2010 study at Keene State College in New Hampshire found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and actions and more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious.
  • A 2011 study at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that a student with "hovering" or "helicopter" parents is more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.

I think what it boils down to is that when we are constantly involved with or concerned about every little thing, we deprive our kids of the chance to build self-efficacy, which is a fundamental aspect of the human psyche built by seeing that one's own actions lead to outcomes (not one's parents actions on one's behalf, but one's own actions). Although we help, hover, and haggle on their behalf with the best of intentions, we are depriving them of the chance to build a self.

Do the reasons for this anxiety vary widely across gender, socioeconomic status, and different cultures?

I am not an expert in these fields so have not conducted my own studies — just want to make that clear. From my observations, though, I can tell you I've seen it across gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Where you tend not to see it is in poor and working-class kids. I presume that's because parents in such families don't have the disposable time and income to invest in cultivating their kid's childhood, nor, I imagine, do they feel empowered to question authority and try to exert influence over teachers, coaches, and the system more broadly. For kids in such families life may have entailed a good deal of struggle, and they've developed life skills and resilience because, well, they've had to. They may be anxious for other reasons — e.g. uncertainty about basic needs such as food, shelter, safety being met — but not because they lack the ability to do for themselves.

Is child anxiety a direct result of the anxiety level of the parents? If so, why do our nation's parents seem more anxious today than in past decades?

I don't know why parents seem more anxious today. These are uncertain times, we say, but this isn't the first time that's been true. There's rapid technological change making us feel like we're constantly behind the times — and a big world out there of humans eager to compete for jobs and opportunity. I think we parents have also become quite invested in our kids' lives because we see their achievements as our achievements and their failures as our failures. When that happens, our ego is intertwined with their existence, which is unhealthy for them and for us. As Jessica Lahey wrote about in The Gift of Failure (2015), when our kid accomplishes something in any given day we can breathe a sigh of relief and tell ourselves, "Yes, I was a good parent today."

Most of us have heard horror stories about overbearing parents. Can you talk a little bit about some of the signs of helicopter/bulldozer parenting? (This will be helpful for camp professionals as a reminder of what to look for so they better understand the environment from which their campers may come.)

We use all kinds of labels — helicopter (hovering), bulldozer, or lawnmower (removing obstacles in the path), tiger (overbearing academically), concierge (handling everything for them) — but I think it's best to focus on the behaviors:

  • Overprotecting: the parent who feels the world is scary, unsafe, and uncertain, and wants to protect and prevent at every turn rather than prepare the kid for what's out there by letting him or her take age-appropriate risks that build skills and competence. This parent will be very worried about what the kid might experience at camp — from physical injury to mean kids.
  • Overdirecting: the parent who feels "I know best what will lead to your success and you will do as I say, preferably at a high level of accomplishment." This parent wants to choose his or her kid's activities and often has the child overinvolved in enrichment, tutoring, practice, etc., so as to squeeze the most opportunity out of every day. This parent will want to be sure the kid is accomplishing things at camp — not just "having fun."
  • Hand-holding: the parent who wants to handle everything. This parent will wake his or her kid up, repeatedly remind him or her of deadlines, make sure he or she has everything he or she needs all the time, pack his or her bag, fill out forms, and argue with teachers/principals/ coaches/referees when something hasn't gone perfectly. This parent will be on the phone with camp staff wanting to know why you ran out of a certain meal at lunch the other day (his or her kid's favorite) or why such-and-such bunk decisions were made, or why certain equipment is or isn't being used for the overnight. This parent is constantly questioning authority.

What is the impact of all this anxiety on children and young adults?

Big question. I guess it leads them to be anxious and fearful all the time. They can't just relax and let things be because their parents always seem worried or anxious about something.

What does this prevalent high-anxiety mean for camps?

It means everyone is on edge and worried about what might happen instead of enjoying life unfolding in the moment, experiencing the joys, and learning the lessons that come. Camp can be a wonderful, immersive experience, but the kid is deprived of that experience if he or she is tethered via cell phone to the folks back home.

Fortunately, most camps don't allow cell phones. Why is camp such a great environment for overparented/overly anxious kids?

If structured well, it can offer experiences that are a bit out of their comfort zone and they see that things turned out okay, which builds competence and confidence.

What must society do to turn the tide on overparenting? And what role do you see camp playing in bringing about this change?

We parents need to remember that our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job by raising kids to self-actualized adulthood. Once they hit high school we need to have increasing confidence that our kids have the wherewithal to figure stuff out and fend for themselves (and fend doesn't mean text your parents and have them fend for you). This isn't neglectful, it's the most loving thing we can do for them. We won't always be around to be their go-to solution; we need to know they've got it.

Camp can be a nice antidote to the overparenting phenomenon if camp staff can stand up to over-involved parents. Camps based on a strong philosophy can then craft policies aligned with that philosophy. Say a camp wants kids to be able to be part of a community and develop self-reliance and interpersonal skills. They can then say they're prohibiting use of cell phones or social media so that kids are interacting only with the people around them, and so they learn how to speak up for themselves, cope with difficulty, and resolve things on their own. They can also create an expectation that a kid packs his or her own suitcase or trunk! They can set a goal that at the end of camp the kids will be able to identify three skills they've developed which a parent previously handled for them. Be upfront about your philosophy, policies, and practices. Let parents choose your camp because they want that autonomy and independence for their kid, and if a parent starts to cross a line, remind him or her that this is what he or she signed up for.

With the fear of failure and lack of autonomy factors for so many children and young adults from all walks of life — many of whom will end up at camp — what other advice can you offer camp staff that will help to ensure those campers have a positive, life-changing experience at summer camp?

We need to return childhood to children, and allow summer camp to once again be a vital part of childhood unencumbered by parental overinvolvement. I encourage camp leadership to offer the kind of enriching camp experience you know in your hearts and minds, and based on your professional expertise, is best for kids, and to have the courage to stand up to parents — respectfully, and with kindness — who though well-intentioned are getting in the way of that happening.

Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. New York, NY: HarperCollins.