Keeping Kids on a Short Leash: The Price of Overparenting

If you love them, you have to let them go.  Or do you?  Does this folksy wisdom hold up in a world where every kid has a cellphone with their parents on speed dial?  A world where helicopter dads and tiger moms are lurking around every corner?  According to a new book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford,  the answer is a resounding yes.

While every person has a different definition of helicopter-parenting, ranging from “Parents who need daily check-ins with their kids over Skype,” to “Parents who literally hover over their kids’ colleges in unmarked helicopters, watching them with binoculars,” Lythcott-Haims, borrowing from the psychologist, Dr. Madeline Levine, says that we are overparenting when we do the following three things.

  1. When we do for our kids what they can alreadydo for themselves;
  2. When we do for our kids what they can almostdo for themselves; and
  3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.

Overparenting in these ways does more than just create kids who don’t like to tie their own shoes or make their own lunch.  Research suggests that college students with helicopter parents are less likely to be open-minded, more likely to be depressed or anxious, and may even have deficits in executive functioning – the ability to make decisions.   And according to a massive survey, by the American College Health Association, more stress and less executive function are the last things that today’s college students need.   According to the ACHA survey, which polled over 100,000 students at over 150 colleges, college students are more stressed out than ever, with more than 50% reporting that they’ve felt overwhelmed by anxiety in the past twelve months.

According to Lythcott-Haims, these rising rates of anxiety may be due to the increased involvement of parents in the academic lives of their children.  In the words of one anonymous Staff Psychologist at a Midwestern college, “Overinvolved parenting is taking a serious toll on the psychological well-being of college students who can’t negotiate a balance between consulting with parents and independent decision-making.”

She continues “When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem solve very well. They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem.  [The problem with] never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others.”  Kids need a chance to go out and learn to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes.  They need to learn that it’s not the end of the world when you’re five minutes late for class or disagree with your roommate, but also learn how to set up their own schedules for studying and meals so that they don’t fall behind.

Of course, Haines isn’t suggesting that you throw your children to the wolves the second they’re old enough to walk; what she wants is the tone of the conversation to change.  For example, she says, “If they call with a problem or a decision to be made, do we [as parents] tell them what to do? Or do we listen thoughtfully, ask some questions based on our own sense of the situation, then say, “OK. So how do you think you’re going to handle that?”  The difference is more than a semantic choice, it’s a matter of empowering a kid to make their own choices – right or wrong- or confining them to be a yes-man (or yes-woman) for their parents.

It’s a tough tightrope, between the extremes of expecting hourly phone calls from your son and literally not knowing where your preteen daughter is at 10 PM,  but it’s a tightrope we must all learn to walk if we want to raise our children to be the best they can be. With many parenting styles currently advocated in various books and research studies, it can be overwhelming to find the right balance that works for you. Click here to learn more about the different parenting styles.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, in addition to being a mother of two kids, is the former Dean of Freshman and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford.  She is currently pursuing an  MFA in Creative Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. You can buy her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.