When did the central aim of parenting become preparing children for success? This reigning paradigm, which dictates that every act of nurturing be judged on the basis of whether it will usher a child toward a life of accomplishment or failure, embodies the fundamental insecurity of global capitalist culture, with its unbending fixation on prosperity and the future. It’s no surprise that parenting incites such heated debates, considering how paradoxical these principles can be when they’re applied to children. When each nurturing act is administered with the distant future in mind, what becomes of the present? A child who soaks in the ambient anxiety that surrounds each trivial choice or activity is an anxious child, formed in the hand-wringing, future-focused image of her anxious parents.
“How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” seems to lie at the precise crossroads of this inherently conflicted approach. Like so many others in the jittery child-rearing mob, Julie Lythcott-Haims has identified overparenting as a trap. But once you escape the trap, the goal remains the same: to mold your offspring into thriving adults. Whether a child is learning to ride a bike or doing his own laundry, he is still viewed through the limited binary lens of either triumphant or fumbling adulthood. The looming question is not “Is my child happy?” but “Is my child a future president poised to save the environment, or a future stoner poised to watch his fifth episode of ‘House of Cards’ in a row?”
Even as tales of meddling parents reach a fever pitch, Lythcott-Haims’s bleak portrait may just be the “Black Hawk Down” of helicopter parenting. Lythcott-Haims, who brings some authority to the subject as Stanford’s former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, has seen varieties of extreme parental interference suggesting not just a lack of common sense, but a lack of wisdom and healthy boundaries (if not personal dignity) as well. Instead of allowing kids to experiment and learn from their mistakes, parents hover where they’re not wanted or welcome, accompanying children on school trips or shadowing them on campus. Caught up in what the author calls the “college admissions arms race,” parents treat securing their children a spot at one of 20 top schools (as decreed by U.S. News and World Report’s popular but somewhat dubious rankings) as an all-or-nothing proposition.
Concerned about the effects of a flawed high school transcript, parents do their children’s homework, write or heavily edit their papers, fire questions at teachers, dispute grades and hire expensive subject tutors, SAT coaches and “private admissions consultants” (26 percent of college applicants reported hiring these in 2013). Even after kids graduate, the madness continues. Lythcott-Haims offers anecdotes of parents touring graduate schools, serving as mouthpieces for their shy, passive children, and submitting résumés to potential employers, sometimes without their children’s knowledge. These behaviors do more than mold kids into dependent beings, she argues; they corral and constrict their possibilities and their imaginations. “We speak of dreams as boundless, limitless realms,” Lythcott-Haims writes. “But in reality often we create parameters, conditions and limits within which our kids are permitted to dream — with a checklisted childhood as the path to achievement.”