One of the books I’ve read this month was How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford.
It wasn’t one of my favourite books for the year. In general I felt there were too many quotes from authors of other parenting books (or anecdotes from the author’s own experience), too little hard data, and (above all) an extremely restricted demographic for the expected audience (even with her disclaimer that what she’s discussing largely applies to children growing up in upper/upper middle class households).
I am curious about how to raise independent children, who will be ready and able to go out into the world, to have adventures and make mistakes.
I want P. and E. to be resilient.
I want them to have growth mindsets, rather than a fixed mindset like their mother.
I want them to be able to explore, even though I’m not sure how to give them the same freedoms I had when I was a child. It’s a lot harder to send your children outside to play “until the streetlights come on” when no one else’s kids are out unsupervised. One of the things I love about our area is that I do see kids walking to school without a parent. They’re older than E. is, of course, and they’re usually walking with a friend, but they’re still doing it free of adult supervision.
There were useful nuggets of information in the book I tucked away, and I will freely admit that the common parental problem of equating your child’s success or failure with your own is one that I still struggle with at times (especially when it comes to school since I was an extreme overachiever and rule follower). A large section of the book is devoted to the problems with the current college admissions process and the overscheduling of children that results, and I don’t think the system is nearly as cut-throat in Canada (although E. is only six- maybe I’ll feel differently about this in ten years’ time). That section was an interesting read, especially since I’m in academia, but I didn’t feel it was particularly relevant to my parenting (although it did align with what my instincts have always been- it’s more important to find a good fit for your undergraduate degree than to attend the most prestigious school, and there can be advantages to being a big fish in a little pond if you later apply for a very competitive graduate program).
Honestly, I thought she was laying it on a bit thick. Students who get to college and don’t know how to ask someone to help them move their boxes into their dorm room? Young adults who get momentarily disoriented in a new city and have to call their parents (who are in business meetings in a DIFFERENT city) to get directions? Parents who stick around to watch or, worse, join in the welcoming rituals of frosh week? Kids who text or call their parents multiple times a day and ask them what they should do for any situation, and parents who tell them what they should do rather than asking the kids how they plan on handling it?
When I was almost finished the book, I was reading it during one of my office hours. A couple of my students happened to come by, and one of them asked me what I was reading. This sparked a long, intense discussion for the rest of the office hour. My three students are all in their first year at university. Two of them are living in residence and the third lives with a cousin “near my Mom, but I’m not actually living with my Mom.” (his phone rang as soon as he finished that sentence- he looked at it and said sheepishly, “Actually, that’s my Mom now” and disappeared to talk to her for a few minutes).
The two who live in residence both had childhoods that very much resembled my own, with plenty of freedom to roam and explore, and high expectations about developing independence and the necessary life skills to function in society as an adult. This is exactly the kind of childhood that Lythcott-Haims says has been eroded for the Millennials (according to her the rot set in during the 1980s, which is when I was a child, which I found quite puzzling since I’ve always felt like I had one of those “good ol’ days” childhoods that people these days are always bemoaning the loss of). Even if I can’t classify myself (or my childhood) as a Millennial (I’m apparently right on the border between Gen X and the Millennials), my students, who are now a full twenty (!) years younger than I am, certainly are.
I gave them some examples of the over-parenting and the failure to grow up that Lythcott-Haims argues results from it and asked them whether they thought this was a fair assessment of their generation.
And the floodgates opened.
They have friends who don’t know how to make a phone call to book a doctor’s appointment; friends who don’t feel comfortable ordering for themselves in a restaurant; friends who don’t know how to organize or manage their time because their parents always told them where they had to go and when they had to be there.
They were unanimous in their assessment that most of the students they lived with in residence were lacking some of the basic skills they needed to be able to function as adults. And what’s more, both of my students said that their friends repeatedly came to them and asked them to help them do these things, because their friends had recognized that these two did come to university prepared to be independent from their parents.
They had lots of advice for me: Make sure my kids order for themselves at restaurants. Let my kids make mistakes with money. Teach them how to cook. Encourage them to work a service job, like a cashier at a grocery store or a barista at a coffee shop, so that they have to make small talk, engage with other people, and learn to let other people’s bad moods not affect their own.
I’m still not convinced we’re in a full-scale parenting crisis, but it was an eye-opening conversation, that’s for sure.