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Julie Lythcott-Haims: How to raise successful kids -- without over-parenting

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By loading kids with high expectations and micromanaging their lives at every turn, parents aren't actually helping. At least, that's how Julie Lythcott-Haims sees it. With passion and wry humor, the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford makes the case for parents to stop defining their children's success via grades and test scores. Instead, she says, they should focus on providing the oldest idea of all: unconditional love.

- Academic, author
Julie Lythcott-Haims speaks and writes on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting and the dangers of a checklisted childhood -- the subject of her book, "How to Raise an Adult." Full bio

You know, I didn't set out
to be a parenting expert.
00:12
In fact, I'm not very interested
in parenting, per Se.
00:16
It's just that there's a certain style
of parenting these days
00:21
that is kind of messing up kids,
00:25
impeding their chances
to develop into theirselves.
00:28
There's a certain style
of parenting these days
00:33
that's getting in the way.
00:35
I guess what I'm saying is,
00:36
we spend a lot of time
being very concerned
00:38
about parents who aren't involved enough
in the lives of their kids
00:40
and their education or their upbringing,
00:44
and rightly so.
00:46
But at the other end of the spectrum,
00:48
there's a lot of harm
going on there as well,
00:50
where parents feel
a kid can't be successful
00:53
unless the parent is protecting
and preventing at every turn
00:56
and hovering over every happening,
and micromanaging every moment,
01:00
and steering their kid towards
some small subset of colleges and careers.
01:03
When we raise kids this way,
01:10
and I'll say we,
01:13
because Lord knows,
in raising my two teenagers,
01:15
I've had these tendencies myself,
01:17
our kids end up leading
a kind of checklisted childhood.
01:20
And here's what the checklisted
childhood looks like.
01:25
We keep them safe and sound
01:27
and fed and watered,
01:30
and then we want to be sure
they go to the right schools,
01:33
that they're in the right classes
at the right schools,
01:36
and that they get the right grades
in the right classes in the right schools.
01:38
But not just the grades, the scores,
01:42
and not just the grades and scores,
but the accolades and the awards
01:44
and the sports,
the activities, the leadership.
01:47
We tell our kids, don't just join a club,
01:49
start a club, because colleges
want to see that.
01:51
And check the box for community service.
01:53
I mean, show the colleges
you care about others.
01:55
(Laughter)
01:58
And all of this is done to some
hoped-for degree of perfection.
02:00
We expect our kids
to perform at a level of perfection
02:05
we were never asked
to perform at ourselves,
02:07
and so because so much is required,
02:11
we think,
02:13
well then, of course we parents
have to argue with every teacher
02:14
and principal and coach and referee
02:17
and act like our kid's concierge
02:20
and personal handler
02:23
and secretary.
02:25
And then with our kids, our precious kids,
02:27
we spend so much time nudging,
02:29
cajoling, hinting, helping, haggling,
nagging as the case may be,
02:32
to be sure they're not screwing up,
02:36
not closing doors,
02:39
not ruining their future,
02:41
some hoped-for admission
02:44
to a tiny handful of colleges
02:46
that deny almost every applicant.
02:49
And here's what it feels like
to be a kid in this checklisted childhood.
02:54
First of all, there's
no time for free play.
03:00
There's no room in the afternoons,
03:02
because everything
has to be enriching, we think.
03:04
It's as if every piece of homework,
every quiz, every activity
03:07
is a make-or-break moment
for this future we have in mind for them,
03:10
and we absolve them
of helping out around the house,
03:15
and we even absolve them
of getting enough sleep
03:18
as long as they're checking off
the items on their checklist.
03:21
And in the checklisted childhood,
we say we just want them to be happy,
03:26
but when they come home from school,
03:30
what we ask about all too often first
03:32
is their homework and their grades.
03:35
And they see in our faces
03:38
that our approval, that our love,
03:40
that their very worth,
03:43
comes from A's.
03:45
And then we walk alongside them
03:46
and offer clucking praise like a trainer
at the Westminster Dog Show --
03:49
(Laughter)
03:54
coaxing them to just jump a little higher
and soar a little farther,
03:55
day after day after day.
04:00
And when they get to high school,
04:03
they don't say, "Well, what might I
be interested in studying
04:05
or doing as an activity?"
04:08
They go to counselors and they say,
04:09
"What do I need to do
to get into the right college?"
04:11
And then, when the grades
start to roll in in high school,
04:15
and they're getting some B's,
04:18
or God forbid some C's,
04:19
they frantically text their friends
04:22
and say, "Has anyone ever gotten
into the right college with these grades?"
04:24
And our kids,
04:29
regardless of where they end up
at the end of high school,
04:31
they're breathless.
04:35
They're brittle.
04:37
They're a little burned out.
04:38
They're a little old before their time,
04:40
wishing the grown-ups in their lives
had said, "What you've done is enough,
04:42
this effort you've put forth
in childhood is enough."
04:46
And they're withering now
under high rates of anxiety and depression
04:49
and some of them are wondering,
04:53
will this life ever turn out
to have been worth it?
04:55
Well, we parents,
05:01
we parents are pretty sure
it's all worth it.
05:03
We seem to behave --
05:06
it's like we literally think
they will have no future
05:08
if they don't get into one of these
tiny set of colleges or careers
05:10
we have in mind for them.
05:15
Or maybe, maybe, we're just afraid
05:17
they won't have a future we can brag about
05:21
to our friends and with stickers
on the backs of our cars.
05:23
Yeah.
05:29
(Applause)
05:30
But if you look at what we've done,
05:36
if you have the courage
to really look at it,
05:39
you'll see that not only do our kids
think their worth comes
05:43
from grades and scores,
05:46
but that when we live right up inside
their precious developing minds
05:47
all the time, like our very own version
of the movie "Being John Malkovich,"
05:51
we send our children the message:
05:56
"Hey kid, I don't think you can actually
achieve any of this without me."
05:58
And so with our overhelp,
06:03
our overprotection
and overdirection and hand-holding,
06:06
we deprive our kids
of the chance to build self-efficacy,
06:08
which is a really fundamental tenet
of the human psyche,
06:12
far more important
than that self-esteem they get
06:16
every time we applaud.
06:19
Self-efficacy is built when one sees
that one's own actions lead to outcomes,
06:21
not --
06:27
There you go.
06:28
(Applause)
06:29
Not one's parents'
actions on one's behalf,
06:33
but when one's own actions
lead to outcomes.
06:37
So simply put,
06:40
if our children are to develop
self-efficacy, and they must,
06:41
then they have to do a whole lot more
of the thinking, planning, deciding,
06:47
doing, hoping, coping, trial and error,
06:51
dreaming and experiencing of life
06:55
for themselves.
06:58
Now, am I saying
07:01
every kid is hard-working and motivated
07:03
and doesn't need a parent's involvement
or interest in their lives,
07:06
and we should just back off and let go?
07:09
Hell no.
07:12
(Laughter)
07:13
That is not what I'm saying.
07:14
What I'm saying is, when we treat
grades and scores and accolades and awards
07:16
as the purpose of childhood,
07:19
all in furtherance of some hoped-for
admission to a tiny number of colleges
07:22
or entrance to a small number of careers,
07:25
that that's too narrow a definition
of success for our kids.
07:28
And even though we might help them
achieve some short-term wins
07:33
by overhelping --
07:36
like they get a better grade
if we help them do their homework,
07:38
they might end up with a longer
childhood résumé when we help --
07:42
what I'm saying is that all of this
comes at a long-term cost
07:47
to their sense of self.
07:50
What I'm saying is,
we should be less concerned
07:52
with the specific set of colleges
07:55
they might be able
to apply to or might get into
07:56
and far more concerned that they have
the habits, the mindset, the skill set,
08:00
the wellness, to be successful
wherever they go.
08:05
What I'm saying is,
08:10
our kids need us to be a little
less obsessed with grades and scores
08:11
and a whole lot more interested
08:15
in childhood providing
a foundation for their success
08:18
built on things like love
08:23
and chores.
08:27
(Laughter)
08:28
(Applause)
08:30
Did I just say chores?
Did I just say chores? I really did.
08:35
But really, here's why.
08:39
The longest longitudinal study
of humans ever conducted
08:43
is called the Harvard Grant Study.
08:46
It found that professional
success in life,
08:49
which is what we want for our kids,
08:51
that professional success in life
comes from having done chores as a kid,
08:54
and the earlier you started, the better,
08:57
that a roll-up-your-sleeves-
and-pitch-in mindset,
08:59
a mindset that says,
there's some unpleasant work,
09:02
someone's got to do it,
it might as well be me,
09:04
a mindset that says,
09:07
I will contribute my effort
to the betterment of the whole,
09:08
that that's what gets you ahead
in the workplace.
09:11
Now, we all know this. You know this.
09:14
(Applause)
09:17
We all know this, and yet,
in the checklisted childhood,
09:20
we absolve our kids of doing
the work of chores around the house,
09:23
and then they end up
as young adults in the workplace
09:27
still waiting for a checklist,
09:30
but it doesn't exist,
09:32
and more importantly,
lacking the impulse, the instinct
09:33
to roll up their sleeves and pitch in
09:37
and look around and wonder,
how can I be useful to my colleagues?
09:39
How can I anticipate a few steps ahead
to what my boss might need?
09:43
A second very important finding
from the Harvard Grant Study
09:48
said that happiness in life
09:52
comes from love,
09:55
not love of work,
09:57
love of humans:
09:59
our spouse, our partner,
our friends, our family.
10:02
So childhood needs to teach
our kids how to love,
10:06
and they can't love others
if they don't first love themselves,
10:10
and they won't love themselves
if we can't offer them unconditional love.
10:13
(Applause)
10:17
Right.
10:21
And so,
10:24
instead of being obsessed
with grades and scores
10:26
when our precious offspring
come home from school,
10:28
or we come home from work,
10:31
we need to close our technology,
put away our phones,
10:32
and look them in the eye
10:35
and let them see
the joy that fills our faces
10:36
when we see our child
for the first time in a few hours.
10:40
And then we have to say,
10:43
"How was your day?
10:45
What did you like about today?"
10:47
And when your teenage daughter
says, "Lunch," like mine did,
10:50
and I want to hear about the math test,
10:54
not lunch,
10:56
you have to still
take an interest in lunch.
10:57
You gotta say, "What was great
about lunch today?"
11:01
They need to know
they matter to us as humans,
11:04
not because of their GPA.
11:07
All right, so you're thinking,
chores and love,
11:11
that sounds all well and good,
but give me a break.
11:13
The colleges want to see
top scores and grades
11:16
and accolades and awards,
and I'm going to tell you, sort of.
11:19
The very biggest brand-name schools
are asking that of our young adults,
11:25
but here's the good news.
11:31
Contrary to what the college
rankings racket would have us believe --
11:33
(Applause)
11:38
you don't have to go to one
of the biggest brand name schools
11:44
to be happy and successful in life.
11:46
Happy and successful people
went to state school,
11:48
went to a small college
no one has heard of,
11:51
went to community college,
11:53
went to a college over here
and flunked out.
11:55
(Applause)
11:58
The evidence is in this room,
is in our communities,
12:05
that this is the truth.
12:08
And if we could widen our blinders
12:09
and be willing to look
at a few more colleges,
12:11
maybe remove our own egos
from the equation,
12:13
we could accept and embrace
this truth and then realize,
12:17
it is hardly the end of the world
12:21
if our kids don't go to one
of those big brand-name schools.
12:23
And more importantly,
12:27
if their childhood has not been lived
according to a tyrannical checklist
12:29
then when they get to college,
12:34
whichever one it is,
12:36
well, they'll have gone there
on their own volition,
12:38
fueled by their own desire,
12:41
capable and ready to thrive there.
12:44
I have to admit something to you.
12:49
I've got two kids I mentioned,
Sawyer and Avery.
12:51
They're teenagers.
12:54
And once upon a time,
12:56
I think I was treating my Sawyer and Avery
12:58
like little bonsai trees --
13:01
(Laughter)
13:02
that I was going
to carefully clip and prune
13:05
and shape into some perfect
form of a human
13:08
that might just be perfect enough
to warrant them admission
13:12
to one of the most
highly selective colleges.
13:15
But I've come to realize, after working
with thousands of other people's kids --
13:19
(Laughter)
13:23
and raising two kids of my own,
13:26
my kids aren't bonsai trees.
13:30
They're wildflowers
13:33
of an unknown genus and species --
13:36
(Laughter)
13:39
and it's my job to provide
a nourishing environment,
13:41
to strengthen them through chores
13:44
and to love them so they can
love others and receive love
13:47
and the college, the major, the career,
13:51
that's up to them.
13:54
My job is not to make them become
what I would have them become,
13:56
but to support them
in becoming their glorious selves.
14:01
Thank you.
14:07
(Applause)
14:08

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About the Speaker:

Julie Lythcott-Haims - Academic, author
Julie Lythcott-Haims speaks and writes on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting and the dangers of a checklisted childhood -- the subject of her book, "How to Raise an Adult."

Why you should listen

Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of the New York Times best-selling book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. The book emerged from her decade as Stanford University's Dean of Freshmen, where she was known for her fierce advocacy for young adults and received the university's Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for creating "the" atmosphere that defines the undergraduate experience. She was also known for her fierce critique of the growing trend of parental involvement in the day-to-day lives of college students. Toward the end of her tenure as dean, she began speaking and writing widely on the harm of helicopter parenting. How to Raise an Adult is being published in over two dozen countries and gave rise to her TED Talk and a sequel which will be out in 2018. In the meantime, Lythcott-Haims's memoir on race, Real American, will be out in Fall 2017.

Lythcott-Haims is a graduate of Stanford University, Harvard Law School, and California College of the Arts. She lives in Silicon Valley with her partner of over twenty-five years, their two teenagers and her mother. 

More profile about the speaker
Julie Lythcott-Haims | Speaker | TED.com