How to Raise an Adult

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who recently brought her message of “how to raise an adult” to a speaker event co-sponsored by Millennium School and Lick Wilmerding High School, says that she never meant to become an expert on parenting.  “I’m not interested in parenting,” she explained during her talk, though she is a parent of two children at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School. “I’m interested in human beings.”

After ten years as the Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University, seeing each incoming freshman class improbably more accomplished than the class before, Lythcott-Haims recognized a disturbing reality. The new generation of university students could easily rattle off the many things they had done, but few could explain why they had done them. She laments that students are often more interesting on paper than in real life, referring to this phenomenon as the “checklisted childhood,” the careful and often soulless cultivation of the perfect university applicant, as if the child is a bonsai tree.

A correlated problem Lythcott-Haims observes is that parents are increasingly involved in their college-aged child’s daily experience. In a dramatic delivery more akin to a Spalding Gray monologue than a pep talk to parents, Lythcott-Haims  shocked us (but not really) with examples of parents clearing away any struggle for their child, whether to set up an internship for them, contact a professor about a missed deadline, or negotiate a problem with a roommate. Astonishingly, Lythcott-Haims revealed that it’s not uncommon for parents to provide a wake-up call to their child each morning. All this, she bemoans, is leading to “existential impotence.”

To her credit, despite all her experience observing the best and worst of parenting (all well-meaning, of course), Lythcott-Haims never presents herself as being above the fray of modern parenting. She tells the story of her personal “A-ha” moment when she noticed she was cutting the dinner meat for her 10-year-old child.  She suddenly realized that independence cannot simply be granted all at once at age 18; it must be embraced and practiced over many years for children to build competence and self-efficacy, the belief that one’s actions lead to outcomes in the real world. Lythcott-Haims calls the current generation of college students “failure-deprived.”

Lythcott-Haims’s message resonates deeply with us at Millennium School. We even featured “child independence” as the theme for our first pop-up school session, where kid participants used empathy and design thinking to tackle the problem of raising a self-reliant child in today’s society. We believe as students begin to seek autonomy from their parents during middle school, children should have a safe container in which they can bond with attuned adult mentors, be themselves with their peers, and explore their authentic interests, with all the trials and messiness that implies. At her TEDx talk delivered at Gunn High School, Lythcott-Haims stresses the importance of walking one’s own path: “Have the courage to be you. It’s what colleges want, and it makes for an awesome life too.”