Former Stanford dean offers guidance during talk at St. Anne’s

What happens to children when parents “overparent?” 

That was the subject of a talk by Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” at St. Anne’s-Belfield School on Tuesday. 

Lythcott-Haims first noticed overparenting as the dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Around 1998, she saw that parents were dropping their children off at college and not wanting to leave. 

Over time, Lythcott-Haims and her fellow educators watched the number of these overly involved parents grow. In one case, at the University of Miami, “Some freshman parents … installed a webcam in the freshman dorm room. No, it was not for any untoward reason,” Lythcott-Haims said, as the audience in the St. Anne’s auditorium gasped. “They just wanted to make sure their child was awake every morning.”

Lythcott-Haims sees such stories as clues to a darker trend: rising rates of anxiety and depression among college students. 

According to an American College Health Association survey, 62 percent of undergraduates felt overwhelming anxiety between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2017. Almost 12 percent of undergrads had seriously considered suicide at some point within the same time frame.

“They end up lacking resilience, which comes from trying it themselves and failing and trying again,” Lythcott-Haims said. “So, when the bad thing comes in the form of a B or a rejection from a club, they’ve not had to contend with that and they wonder, ‘Am I still me? Am I still loved?’”

Although Lythcott-Haims draws from her experience as a parent and former dean, she has suggestions for how high schools can reduce both student and parent stress. One policy example is to prevent parents from bringing forgotten homework and sports equipment to school. 

“We parents are doing a lot of rescuing, because we’re so worried about the consequences our kid will suffer if they forgot their homework,” Lythcott-Haims said in an interview. “[This] teaches our kid only one thing, which is that they will always be rescued by their parent. Schools can help out by drawing some clear lines.”

Another potential policy change involves limiting student workload. Lythcott-Haims has a personal stake in workload worries, stemming from her son’s experience in 10th grade.

“He was doing five hours of homework a night,” Lythcott-Haims recalled. “Sawyer, who wants to read at breakfast and we let him, who wants to read at dinner and we don’t let him — unless we decide it’s a family reading dinner — he’s stopped bringing a book to breakfast. Instead, he’s sitting there in our little breakfast counter, [just] holding his head up.”

Lythcott-Haims and her husband wondered whether Sawyer needed to take fewer classes, but they also worried that dropping a class would limit his college possibilities. Finally, Lythcott-Haims asked her son what he wanted to do.

“And his eyes brightened, just in having this conversation, just in being seen for the fact that he’s barely keeping his head afloat. And he said, ‘Mom, I’ll think about it,’” Lythcott-Haims told the audience. “The next day at breakfast, Sawyer came down with a book under his arm.”

Lythcott-Haims made it clear who her target audience is. 

Become the parent … [who says], ‘You know what, I would love it if she’d apply to St. Olaf.’ And your friends will be like, ‘What? Saint what?’

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult”

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult”

“The problem that I have written about, helicopter parenting, is a problem squarely situated in middle, upper-middle class and wealthy families. It’s hard to overparent when you are struggling to make ends meet.”

Homework loads reflect this divide, particularly in Advanced Placement and other college-level classes.

“For kids who are in an under-resourced environment, having access to an AP test gives them an opportunity to demonstrate what they know that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Lythcott-Haims said. “The problem is that at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, kids are expected to take all of the APs that a school offers, or many, many, many of them.”

Lythcott-Haims said she would like to see colleges cap the number of AP classes they will consider during the admissions process. 

But her most passionate point of advocacy is against the race to get into the top 20 schools — as defined by the U.S. News &World Report. 

“They rank colleges based on factors that have virtually nothing to do with the quality of the undergraduate experience,” Lythcott-Haims said. “Students’ SAT scores are a huge fraction of a school’s score in U.S. News.”

SAT scores can be perfected through repeated testing, Lythcott-Haims argues, so U.S. News rankings reflect parents’ ability to pay for the testing. Instead of weighting rankings so highly, she would like to see parents focus on fit.

“If your ego needs your kid to attend some school so you can feel better about yourself, well, that’s what therapy is for,” Lythcott-Haims told the audience. “Become the parent … [who says], ‘You know what, I would love it if she’d apply to St. Olaf.’ And your friends will be like, ‘What? Saint what?’”

St. Olaf College in Minnesota is one of 44 institutions on the Colleges That Change Lives list, which focuses on the amount of individual attention students receive. Lythcott-Haims also suggests looking at data from the Alumni Factor, which focuses on alumni job search experiences and career satisfaction. 

“You will become the parent where other parents are like, ‘If it’s good enough for him, maybe it’s good enough for me — I mean, my kid.’”

A portrait of a woman smiling at camera

Emily Hays

Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.