And in spite of her title’s emphasis on success, Lythcott-Haims takes pains to demonstrate that overparenting doesn’t merely threaten a child’s future income; it also does enormous psychological harm. She cites a 2011 study by sociologists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga that found a correlation, in college-student questionnaires, between helicopter parenting and medication for anxiety or depression. One researcher at a treatment center for addicts in Los Angeles found that “rates of depression and anxiety among affluent teens and young adults . . . correspond to the rates of depression and anxiety suffered by incarcerated juveniles.” Other studies suggest that overparented kids are “less open to new ideas” and take “less satisfaction in life.” For Lythcott-Haims, the message behind this research is the same: Kids need to sally forth independently without constant supervision. They need to try and even fail. And when they fail and look around for a parent to bail them out, they need to hear the words, “You must figure this out for yourself.”
The irony, of course, is that after years of lamenting the benign neglect suffered at the hands of 1970s parents who told kids to “go outside and play until dinnertime,” today’s parents are starting to second-guess the ways they’ve overcorrected such hands-off child-rearing. Indeed, Lythcott-Haims’s explicit instructions for parents read like a page straight out of a ’70s-era parenting playbook: “Value free play.” “Work on creating space between you and your kid.” “Don’t apologize or overexplain.” Oh, and give your kids chores — lots of chores. Halfway through the book, one almost expects to discover instructions like, “When it comes to spanking, wooden spoons are far more effective than your bare hands!” And: “Push those kids out the door and lock it. Now, crack open that pack of Virginia Slims, fix yourself a nice Tom Collins, and dig into the latest Doris Lessing novel.”
But even as “How to Raise an Adult” joins others in the same vein — from “The Overparenting Epidemic” to “You Are Not Special” to “All Joy and No Fun” — this emphasis on giving kids a little more space hasn’t seemed to have had much effect on the premature apprehension of the schoolyard: the endless, nervous chatter about the Common Core, the uneasy comparing of report cards and standardized test scores, the tireless griping about the never-ending hassles of homework, soccer season, piano lessons, art classes, dance classes and Kumon tutoring. If everyone agrees that overscheduling and multiple hours of homework a night are the enemy, shouldn’t more parents be stepping back and relaxing a little, thereby showing, by example, how to live in a nonsensically competitive world and still be happy?
Lythcott-Haims sees this inability to disengage as a side effect of the prevailing fantasy among parents that the “right” college education will secure a child’s comfy seat in the upper-middle-class tax bracket. Parents are so laser-focused on how to ensure success against a backdrop of an increasingly insecure global economy that they’re willing to trade in the joys and self-guided discoveries of a rich childhood for some promise of security in the far-off future. But it’s absurd for parents to allow this illusion that success in life depends on admission to one of a handful of elite colleges to guide their behavior from the time their kids are in preschool forward, Lythcott-Haims asserts. A 1999 study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger suggests that graduates of a hundred or so “moderately selective” schools “had on average the same income 20 years later as graduates of the elite colleges.”
While schools may be more competitive than they were 36 years ago, when the subjects of the study were in college, this statistic (which applied to graduates of “moderately selective” schools who had also gained admission to elite schools) should at least cast a shadow of doubt on parents’ extreme fixation on top-tier colleges. There are also several alternatives to the U.S. News and World Report rankings that could shift common thinking about what constitutes an “elite” education. The “Fiske Guide to Colleges” evaluates schools based on “the quality of the experience and their price tag,” while The Alumni Factor ranks schools based on intellectual development, average income of graduates and whether alumni would choose the college again, among other factors.