How to Raise an Adult


Schools work with children and adolescents — but our ultimate goal is cultivating adults. How do we do that?

For the next few days, I'll be going over some of the major prescriptions of Julie Lythocott-Haims book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

The book is excellent. For me, reading it was a gratifying experience — seeing many of the parenting and educational principles I've collected over the years put into one whole. As Orwell's protagonist reflected in 1984:

The best books... are those that tell you what you know already.

Reading it didn't give me so much the electric buzz of new ideas, but the growing excitement of one question:

How can our schools use this?

The problem: Many parents of a certain socio-economic culture (cough cough upper-middle class cough) have veered toward overparenting — aka helicopter parenting. This is bad for children and other living things. It's connected to a lack of life skills, of anxiety and depression, to addiction, to lessened job outcomes, parent stress, and a pathological obsession about college admissions.

Can a new kind of school fix this? Or, more reasonably, can a new kind of school help to mend this, both by what it does when kids are in school, and in the parental and community outreach it does after school hours?

Frankly: I'm not sure. But I'm interested in exploring how we might. 

My plan is to take a day each to unpack each of Lythocott-Haims' "do this" chapters, and to imagine how her ideas could help form the basis of our new kind of school. These'll include the following pieces of advice:

  • Give kids unstructured time
  • Teach life skills
  • Teach them how to think
  • Prepare them for hard work
  • Let them chart their own path
  • Normalize struggle
  • Have a wider mindset about colleges
  • Listen to them

Lythocott-Haims, it should be said, is a parent, and a professor. She served for a decade as Stanford's dean of freshmen, where she saw helicopter parenting swell. She criticized it — but then, as her own kids matured, began to see it in herself:

As a dean I was getting quite good at telling other parents not to overdirect their kids' lives, but as a parent, I was having a hard time following my own advice.

Here's what I take from this book: it's hard not to over-parent, or at least it is if the parents around you are doing the same thing. If there's going to be widespread change, it will come from people who directly address these problems — who point out how over-parenting limits kids — and who imagine other ways of parenting, and who work with small communities of parents to live out these ideals.