Slowly get out of the way! (How to raise an adult, task #3)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step three: slowly get out of the way.

(Today's the third installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult; the most recent post was about providing unstructured time. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

Two fundamental choices are at the root of most parenting dilemmas:

Should we demand more of our kids, or give them more help? 

A few decades of developmental psychology has come up with a definitive answer: both. Psychologists have even come up with titles for each of the four possible styles of parenting:

Parents who help a lot, but who don't demand much: indulgent. Parents who demand a lot, but who don't help: authoritarian. Parents who neither demand nor help: neglectful. Parents who both demand much, and help their kids do it: authoritative.

The best style, developmental psychologists tell us, is the final one — authoritative.

Two small notes:

  1. These are dumb names — "authoritative" and "authoritarian" sound alike. This seems a comprehension error on par with J. R. R. Tolkien's decision to call one of his villains Sauron, and the other Sauruman. C'mon, developmental psychologists!
  2. I'm really, really suspicious of any claims about "this is what good parenting is, end of story". And, also, I love dishing out vitriol against developmental psychologists. The trouble is, I strongly agree with this idea — that the best sort of parenting both demands a lot, and helps kids achieve it. If anyone knows any evidence that challenges this conclusion, please share it!

But don't "demand much" and "help much" cancel each other out? How can we do both?

The answer: slowly get out of the way. The same answer, put shorter: scaffolding. 

A scaffold (here's the Wikipedia link) is a short-term structure that's built first, to aid in constructing something grander and longer-term.

As parents, our job is to put ourselves out of work. We teach kids what we know, help them do what we can do, and then send them on their way! This is incredibly joyous, and incredibly bittersweet. This is scaffolding. This is good parenting.

In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims draws upon a framework that a friend of hers created for building skills in her own kids:

  1. We do it for you.
  2. We do it with you.
  3. We watch you do it.
  4. You do it completely independently.

I think I have two questions from this.

First, how can we bring this process into every part of our schools? Do we want to structure student evaluations (previously known as "grades") on this framework? Are there any aspects of our curricula in which this scaffolding would be inappropriate? 

Second, to what extent should we work with parents to help this happen at home? How much do we see "schooling" as separate from home life? In order to cultivate adults who can help mend the world, do we need to help parents shape their kids' lives at home, too? To what extent is starting a school like starting a tribe? 

If you've any thoughts on this, please do share 'em in the comments section!

(The beautiful image above courtesy of — thanks, lawyers!)