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!)

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.