Under the house lights of the Alan Harvey theater, Piedmont’s parents were already in full discussion of their parenting methods and ideas, what they will and will not let their kids do, before the speaker set foot on the stage. Even the anticipation of her presentation invoked conversation. It was because Julie Lythcott-Haims, the most requested speaker ever according to superintendent Randall Booker, was there for the Piedmont Speaker Series to tell these parents about the dangers of watching their kids too closely.
When she came onto the stage, she received a thunderous applause. Many of these parents have already read her book, titled “How to Raise an Adult”. It was a New York Times bestseller.
“I didn’t set out to be a parenting expert,” Lythcott-Haims started. “I’m not that interested in parenting.”.
She said that she is interested in humans, their connections with each other and with her, and the obstacles that they face and how to overcome them. She only got interested in the trials of parenting when she was the Dean of Freshman at Stanford University and was suddenly confounded by the obstacles of overparenting.
“More and more parents felt the need to come to college with [their kids] and to stay,” Lythcott-Haims said. “Parents love being needed.”
She explained the three types of overparenting: overprotection, over-direction, and excessive hand-holding. Her presentation was filled with anecdotes about the iterations of these three types of overparenting that she and her colleagues had seen parents do during her time at Stanford, each one met with more and more laughter. One particularly humorous story was about a freshman parent at the University of Miami who had installed a web camera in their adult offspring’s bedroom for one sole purpose: to wake them up in the morning. As caring and as sweet as that sounds, Lythcott-Haims warned parents that this kind of parenting was dangerous, punctuating every story with a sense of seriousness that left the theater in silence.
“Kids are less and less familiar with their own selves. Too many of my students seemed existentially omnipotent,” Lythcott-Haims said.
She explained that with all of the AP classes, good grades, good test scores, community service, leadership, sports, and other activities that kids do with their parents pulling the strings, adolescents these days don’t know how to do anything for themselves and don’t really know their passions in addition to having much higher rates of anxiety and depression. In a high-achieving high school like Piedmont, this information is especially applicable.
Lythcott-Haims told the story of one freshman in her office asking for advice whom she said looked like was physically trying to hold herself together.
“I asked her, ‘How are you doing?’” Lythcott-Haims said. “She answered, ‘I have a 4.0.’ She didn’t realize that I was trying to ask her how she was feeling or how she was faring because she was taught that having a 4.0 means that she’s doing well.”
Lythcott-Haims described the dangers of overparenting to the point of overachieving, but she also prescribed a remedy. She said that children must be taught how to advocate for themselves, they must be taught how to do things themselves, like chores, and they must be trusted and loved unconditionally — no matter what their grades or extracurricular interests might look like.
“I think [Lythcott-Haims’ presentation] is pretty pertinent for this community, but I think the school district is really aware of this type of research and these types of authors,” said Pear Michaels, mother of a Piedmont Middle School sixth-grader. “In keeping with this philosophy, I’d like to see more children encouraged to see [the Piedmont Speaker Series]… if we’re talking about engaging our children and giving them this respect, then they need to be given these resources as well.”