Are parents trying too hard to make life perfect for their kids? Former Stanford University Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims thinks so. Her inspirational 2015 TED Talk echoed the sentiments found in her book How to Raise an Adult, which on the surface seems to support the thesis of the free-range parenting movement in a nutshell: Back off and let your kids figure life out.
“We expect our kids to perform at a level of perfection we were never asked to perform at ourselves,” Lythcott-Haims explains to an audience chuckle. Her impassioned plea focuses mainly on helicopter parents obsessed with getting their kids into the right colleges, presumably because the right college leads to the right life. I get it the same way I get the free-range parenting movement. What I question is the thought process that underlies both. The picture Lythcott-Haims paints is one of children who essentially worship their parents and parents who believe themselves to be gods of their child’s life. No wonder everyone is so stressed out.
Lythcott-Haims advocates for “self-efficacy” over self-esteem. Self-efficacy, she explains, is a “fundamental tenant of the human psyche,” the realization that one’s own actions lead to outcomes. In other words, kids need a sense of personal autonomy over their own lives. Unlike most free rangers, her view targets the “narrow vision of success” parents lay out in terms of good grades, good scores, and college admissions with the pursuit of select majors. This sounds a whole lot more like Common Core and federal mandates than any parenting style I know. She argues that parents need to be “less obsessed with grades and scores.” Parents? What about teachers and school administrators?
In fact, what Lythcott-Haims is telling me is that the government is getting in the way of my child’s healthy sense of self. The reality is that parents are receiving their directives from a higher power known as the federal government. Whether it’s government-funded studies, speeches from presidents about our inability to compete with Chinese kids, or school teachers sending kindergarteners home with homework to prepare them for 3rd-grade federal assessments, parents are being told in no uncertain terms how to raise their children to succeed. And who doesn’t want their child to succeed?
It’s easy for a former Ivy League dean to tell a receptive audience that happy kids went to state schools or community colleges. But, already over-stressed parents still paying off their student loans right after they fork over the monthly daycare fee aren’t going to believe her. They’re going to believe in the person who tells them that their child won’t have to suffer their same economic burdens if they follow the prescribed plan of good grades, good college, solid career. Factor in things like affirmative action and you’ll have parents pushing their kids to fit into an even narrower view of how their life should be lived.
Lythcott-Haims is right in many ways, one in particular. Children do look up to their parents as gods. Parents know this instinctively and it overwhelms us because we know we’re only human. So, we look to a higher power for guidance and direction. The key is to make sure we don’t forget to question authoritative sources by asking things like: What is the motivation behind what Lythcott-Haims calls “the tyrannical checklist” of should-achieve accomplishments? And what exactly defines success?