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

Practical strategies of allowing teens to make their own mistakes and prepare for future success.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Written by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

In this New York Times bestseller, the author draws on research and conversations with educators, employers, and her own insights as a student dean to highlight the ways in which overparenting harms children, their stressed-out parents, and society at large.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, naturally parents want to do everything in their power to help their children make sure they get what they need, but can parents go overboard in a way that’s harmful?

Vincent: Yes, that’s what Julie Lythcott-Haims argues in this book. She says that overparenting is actually harmful and does not prepare children for their lives as adults.

Karsen: It sounds like there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to parenting. Overeager parents are often called helicopter parents, right?

Vincent: That’s right. In the 1990s, parents who constantly hover over their children rather than raising them to be independent people were called helicopter parents. And it’s not something you want to be known for as a parent… and yet, the author actually says that today this is standard parenting, and this is not a good thing.

Part of this was because of the kidnapping and murder of a six-year-old named Adam Walsh in 1981. It contributed to an atmosphere of fear among parents in the United States. And naturally, parents wanted to protect their children.

Karsen: There’s a lot to be afraid of as a parent. Accidents, illnesses, strangers, there a lot of potentially dangerous things that parents can get nervous about.

Vincent: Yes, the question is how far should the fear go. And to some extent, is the fear irrational? One of the interesting points in the book is that it’s actually more likely for a child to die in an equestrian accident than to be kidnapped, for example.

So this is one side of it, which is focused on fear, but parents also want to give the kids the best opportunities later in life, and so they want to manage their children’s extracurricular activities and time as well.

Karsen: So what’s the long-term impact of helicopter parenting?

Vincent: The author is a student dean, and shares that they often make it into a good school or a big business, but that they aren’t necessarily prepared for life. She also says that sometimes motivated by mistrust in the system. So if parents don’t view their school as effective, they might intervene and then become too involved.

That can lead to some extreme behaviors to get their kids into the best colleges.

Karsen: We definitely saw examples of that in the headlines recently.

Vincent: Exactly. So anyway, the author says that it’s not wrong to look out for your kid’s wellbeing, but helicopter parents take it too far and that can have major consequences.

Karsen: What’s an example of a consequence when overparenting?

Vincent: The most concerning one is that they aren’t ready for real life, and they’re more likely to develop certain psychological problems.

A 2013 American College Health Association study found that 83.4 percent of college freshmen felt overwhelmed by college obligations. An astounding 8 percent had even considered suicide.

That’s not to say this is only caused by overparenting, but it can play a role in making young adults feel like they’re unable to handle or cope with life’s hurdles. When overeager parents take care of everything for their kids, their kids don’t develop confidence in their abilities.

Karsen: So what’s a way that parents can overcome this?

Vincent: One of the suggestions the author had was parents often don’t share stories of their own struggles with their children. They only focus on success stories, so the children mistakenly believe that they have to meet unrealistic expectations. This can make them feel stressed when they can’t live up to those expectations.

The author actually claims that we overdiagnose and overmedicate our children to enhance their performance, citing a stat that 11 percent of American children have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and about 6.1 percent have been prescribed medication for it.

Karsen: How would kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD benefit from this?

Vincent: The author argues that because kids diagnosed with ADHD are allowed more time on tests and given medication that can boost their performance, many parents seek the diagnosis as a way to help their children perform better.

And with many college students, the drugs are used illicitly without a prescription to improve their performance. So for some, the drugs offer the only chance to cope with unreasonable expectations.

Karsen: What about after college? How can overparenting be harmful then?

Vincent: So the effects of overparenting can stretch far into adulthood. Adults who suffered from overparenting as children have worse job prospects. When employers are looking for maturity, they want someone who can judge risks and get things done. Essentially a good amount of independence is a characteristic that may be missing for young adults due to overparenting.

Some overeager parents even get involved by doing things like calling their boss for them when there’s a problem.

Karsen: Oh -- wow, that could definitely be bad. What makes the parents do that?

Vincent: Helicopter parents are so obsessed with making sure everything goes perfectly for their child that they’re often exhausted and depressed, concerned that they aren’t doing enough for their kids. So everything the children do, even how they dress and perform, they see as a reflection of the parents.

So when the parents see the kids as surrogates for their parent’s own ego, the parents tend to be more involved.

The over-involvement really is just the parents aiming for success in what they see as a deeply flawed higher-education system.

That’s why they obsess over grades, standardized test scores being perfect. It’s the difference between those who get into the best colleges and those who don’t.

Karsen: Are SAT or ACT scores really a good predictor of college readiness?

Vincent: The research would say no. And sadly, SAT scores correlate more with socioeconomic status than cognitive ability. The students who can afford the most prep and testing get the best scores.

Karsen: Okay, so what should parents strive to do instead?

Vincent: In terms of parenting styles, the author says you should strive to be an authoritative parent, but not an authoritarian.  Parenting methods can be grouped into four different categories.

The first is authoritarian parenting. So those parents are strict, expect obedience, and respect without explaining the reasoning behind their actions or orders. This style of parenting is considered demanding and unresponsive.

The second type of parenting is permissive or indulgent parenting. This is when you attend to a child’s every need and comply with their every request. These parents often don’t set up rules or set expectations. So they’re undemanding and responsive.

Karsen: And the third style?

Vincent: The third style is even worse than the first two. It’s neglectful parenting. These are parents that are uninvolved in their child’s school and home life. They’re emotionally distant and often even physically absent. They are undemanding and unresponsive.

Karsen: So it sounds like the fourth style of parenting is what every parent should strive for.

Vincent: Yes, the fourth style of parenting is authoritative parenting. These parents are demanding, but also responsive. They have high standards, set expectations and boundaries while backing them up with consequences.

At the same time, they stay emotionally available and responsive to their children’s needs. And above all, they reason with their kids, giving them the freedom to explore, making it safe to fail, and ultimately they allow their children to make their own choices.

Karsen: That sounds similar to authoritarian and permissive parenting styles.

Vincent: Yea, authoritative parenting is actually a combination of authoritarian and permissive parenting styles.

Authoritative parents enforce rules, but at the same time, they also explain the reasons behind the rules so that the children understand them.

When they treat their children as independent beings, the parents remain involved, but they also accept imperfection and independence.

Karsen: and that results in these children being more ready to become young adults?

Vincent: Yes, the author says that being an authoritative parent will allow you to raise independent young adults.

Karsen: So how do you implement this? For example, how would an authoritative parent approach something like playtime?

Vincent: So playtime should be unstructured, spontaneous, and based on the child’s decision. So the playtime should not be the parent’s decision. That gives the children a chance to develop, try new things, test hypotheses, and observe the world around them.

Karsen: And that takes a little bit of freedom.

Vincent: Correct. Play is important later in childhood as well because it’s a way to build skills and develop competencies. Some schools—like Montessori—even incorporate this into their curriculum.

The goal is to let kids learn to think for themselves and learn the value of hard work.

Karsen: A lot of schools today though are focused on children learning facts and doing well on tests.

Vincent: This is what Lythcott-Haims says is part of the problem. The schools don’t focus enough on independent, critical thought.

Karsen: So instead of just imparting wisdom and giving the answers to your children, you should help them get to the answer themselves?

Vincent: Right, the author says you should engage them in a dialogue. When you let them speak for themselves, let them adopt perspectives, and use their own reasoning, this will help them reflect critically while learning.

Karsen: What about telling kids that they can do anything or be anything they want when they grow up?

Vincent: While it’s definitely possible for them to achieve anything, the best parenting strategy is to teach them that putting in hard work makes it possible to achieve their dreams.

Having simple responsibilities like chores will help them learn this. They’ll see that autonomy, perseverance, and accountability will lead to their success.

Karsen: It sounds like you have to let children find their own path in life.

Vincent: Yes, as hard as it may be, children need a sense of purpose while having the freedom to find their path.

Something interesting from the book is that parents who are highly educated are more likely to see their child’s intellectual capabilities over their actual interests. The outcome is that even if the child has the intelligence and skills needed to become a doctor, but they’d rather do something else, then they’ll never be happy as a doctor.

Karsen: That makes sense, so how do you help children find their passions?

Vincent: The author says you should teach them to listen to their intuition. That would require that the parents step back, see their kids for who they are, and let them follow their interests. And that means even letting them pick where to apply to for college.

Karsen: Hey, if they don’t make it into Harvard, that’s okay.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s important for the child to not consider that a failure. The author argues that there are many great colleges out there. Each college has its unique strengths in different fields, and it’s more about finding the best fit for a college that’s suitable for their interests and needs.

Karsen: Does being an authoritative parent have benefits for their parents as well?

Vincent: It definitely allows parents to be a happier, more relaxed parent. The research shows that kids look up to their parents and think of them as heroes. Yet, many parents are stressed, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

Adults take care of their own basic needs while also taking time to relax. Helicopter parents are obsessed with every aspect of their children’s lives, so they often can’t unplug.

Karsen: So being an authoritative parent lets you also live your own life as an adult?

Vincent: That’s what the author says too. It allows you to follow your own passions and purpose as well. It lets you prioritize your own health and wellness too. And when you are happier and healthier, it allows you to do a better job as a parent too.

Karsen: I could see this being a difficult transition for some parents to make.

Vincent: Yes, it definitely can be. It’s natural to struggle with any type of change, and especially one in parenting style. When you’re the only parent that doesn’t show up for every soccer game, you may even get some pushback from other parents.

It’s important to find a like-minded community where your partner and your family can get support from other like-minded parents. You can also find this type of community online that cares more about independence than hyper-active parenting.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that the especially common overparenting style is really detrimental to children. It can stress them out, take away opportunities to develop essential skills, and ultimately can even be a barrier to success. Authoritative parents can teach their children to be independent while letting them decide for themselves and follow their own path.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims draws on research, on conversations with admissions officers, educators, and employers, and on her own insights as a mother and as a student dean to highlight the ways in which overparenting harms children, their stressed-out parents, and society at large.

While empathizing with the parental hopes and, especially, fears that lead to overhelping, Lythcott-Haims offers practical alternative strategies that underline the importance of allowing children to make their own mistakes and develop the resilience, resourcefulness, and inner determination necessary for success.

Relevant to parents of toddlers as well as of twentysomethings-and of special value to parents of teens-this book is a rallying cry for those who wish to ensure that the next generation can take charge of their own lives with competence and confidence.

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