How Helicopter Parenting Can Cause Binge Drinking

The Atlantic
The way some white professionals raise their children is exacerbating an alcohol problem on U.S. college campuses.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN SEPTEMBER 2016

I was a teenager in the 1970s. It was a different time. We did not drink—or do drugs or have sex—in captivity. We did those things in the wild, away from our parents, in the danger and thrill of the dark, sacred night. Our parents understood that it was the beginning of the end: We were leaving them. Some of us had curfews, others did not—but either way, you could get a lot done by midnight. Beyond us, on the other side of high school, was some sort of future, probably more or less in line with our parents’ larger plans for us, but maybe not. The average middle-class kid (as we were called back then, meaning: a white kid whose parents owned a house and whose father was steadily employed) was not burnishing dreams of Princeton. Go to class, show up for the SAT, fill out the applications, and then enroll in the best, or the most interesting, or the farthest from home, or the cheapest college that lets you in. We didn’t need much help from our parents to do those things. Which meant that at night, we were free. And we did many dangerous things. Mothers were not yet against drunk driving; cheerful ladies did not give you condoms at school. It wasn’t an arcadia, and many times things went terribly wrong. But most of us survived.

Today, of course, all of that is different: Professional-class parents and their children are tightly bound to each other in the relentless pursuit of admission to a fancy college. A kid on that track can’t really separate from her parents, as their close involvement in this shared goal is essential. Replicating the social class across a generation is a joint project. That’s why it’s so hard to break into the professional stratum of society: The few available spots are being handed down within families. From this has flowed a benefit that parents love—deep emotional closeness throughout adolescence, with no shadow of a future parting. Kids don’t rebel against their parents anymore; why would they? Would you rebel against the concierge at the Hyatt?

Which leaves only the problem of the dark, sacred night. What to do about it? It’s full of everything parents fear the most: physical danger, unknown companions, illegal substances, and the development of a separate and secret life. And so, to keep their children close, to keep them safe, and to ensure that they do not escape into the wild freedom of an adolescence unfettered by constant monitoring, drinking in captivity has become a popular alternative. Drinking isn’t like doing drugs—it’s not something parents recoil from in horror. It’s something they can make an accommodation for, and so they practice “social hosting,” as the law refers to the custom: allowing teens to get hammered in the comfort and safety of the rec room. Let Charlotte and her pals suck down flavored vodka and giggle while watching Netflix; indulge Jack’s desire to have a party in the backyard. Collect the car keys, make sure no one gets into trouble, peek out from an upstairs window, bustle into the TV room with a tray of alcohol-absorbent pizza bites, and then relax in the knowledge that the kids are all right. They have the freedom to experiment that they crave and the physical protection that your peace of mind requires.

Of course, not all parents are down with this approach, and so at high-school gatherings that include parents—sports events, back-to-school nights, college fairs—you can overhear the adults gingerly sounding out one another. They speak in a kind of code, but this is what they want to know: Are you a Good Parent or a Get-Real Parent?
Good Parents think that alcohol is dangerous for young people and that riotous drunkenness and its various consequences have nothing to recommend them. These parents enforce the law and create a family culture that supports their beliefs.

Get-Real Parents think that high-school kids have been drinking since Jesus left Chicago, and that it’s folly to pretend the new generation won’t as well. The horror stories (awful accidents, alcohol poisoning, lawsuits) tend to involve parents who didn’t do it right—who neglected to provide some level of adult supervision, or who forgot to forbid anyone to get in a car after drinking.

Get-Real Parents understand that learning to drink takes a while and often starts with a baptism of fire. Better for Charlotte to barf her guts out on the new sectional than in the shadowy basement of a distant fraternity house. On the nights of big high-school events, Get-Real Parents pay for limos, party buses, Ubers—whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are safe. What is an Uber except a new kind of bike helmet?

In the beginning, everyone is a Good Parent. Bring up teen drinking among parents of elementary-school students and it will elicit the same shiver of horror as the word adolescence itself. But slowly people start defecting. At first, it’s easy to demonize the ones who chuckle fondly about their kids’ boozy misadventures. But by junior year, it feels as though everyone is telling these funny stories. The Good Parents comprise a smaller and smaller cohort, one that tends to stay quiet about its beliefs. Get-Real Parents can be bullies—they love to roll their eyes at the Good Parents, so it’s best not to expose yourself.

The top colleges reward intensity, and binge drinking is a perfected form of that quality.
Ridicule is not the only disappointment in store for the Good Parents. For one thing, high schools turn out to be more in the Get-Real business than they were a generation ago. Go to a parent meeting on some topic like “Teens and Drinking” and you’re likely to get an earful about how to keep your teen drinker safe. Teach her to recognize signs of alcohol poisoning in her friends; tell her it’s always okay to call 911; advise her to check in on conked-out partygoers every 15 minutes or so to make sure they’re just sleeping it off and not unconscious. The message doesn’t involve any moral or emotional imperatives; it has to do only with not ending up dead or in jail.

Furthermore, the Good Parent who naively assumes that preventing a teenager from drinking will help him or her in the college-admissions stakes is dead wrong. A teenager growing up in one of the success factories—the exceptional public high school in the fancy zip code, the prestigious private school—will oftentimes be a person whose life is composed of extremes: extreme studying, extreme athletics, extreme extracurricular pursuits, and extreme drinking. Binge drinking slots in neatly with the other, more obviously enhancing endeavors. Perhaps it is even, for some students, necessary. What 80-hour-a-week executive doesn’t drop her handbag on the console table and head to the wine fridge the second she gets home? Her teenager can’t loosen the pressure valve that way—he has hours of work ahead. A bump of Ritalin is what he needs, not a mellowing half bottle of Shiraz. But come Saturday night? He’ll get his release.

The top colleges reward intensity, and binge drinking is a perfected form of that quality. Moreover, it’s highly correlated with some of the activities admissions officers prize most, such as varsity sports: High-school athletes are less likely to use drugs and more likely to drink alcohol than their fellow students. Colleges complain like hell about binge drinking, but their admissions policies favor the kind of kids most likely to take part in it.

By 12th grade, parents have made their decisions, and made peace (more or less) with the decisions of their peers. The year grinds on, seeming to last forever, until, abruptly, it’s over. After an oddly moving blast of “Pomp and Circumstance” on a hot morning, there it is: childhood’s end. The summer is a strange, liminal time, and then the cars are loaded up, the airplanes boarded, and the parents stand on green lawns in college towns and say goodbye. Now the teenagers are far from home, with only the remembered counsel of the people who love them most to help them negotiate what lies ahead.

College drinking, including extreme heavy drinking, has been a tradition since the 19th century. Because of this, it can be hard to convince middle-aged people that something has changed. But the consistent—at times urgent, at times resigned—report from college officials is that something has gone terribly awry and that huge numbers of students regularly transform the American campus into a college-themed spin-off of The Walking Dead. They vomit endlessly, destroy property, become the victims or perpetrators of sexual events ranging from the unpleasant to the criminal, get rushed off in ambulances, and join the ever-growing waiting lists for counseling. Depression and anxiety go hand in hand with heavy drinking, and both are at epidemic proportions on campus.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act—the “21 law”—is often blamed for the college drinking problem, on the theory that it pitted students against campus authorities and drove drinking underground, where it became an extreme, ritualized behavior. But the truth is more complex. Overall drinking rates on campus have gone down since the law’s passage in 1984, as they have among 18-to-21-year-olds not in college. The law’s public-health benefits are undeniable. And yet many of the students already primed to be heavy drinkers have begun consuming alcohol in the intense new manner, chasing not a high but oblivion.
How much are these students drinking? We don’t know. In 1994, Harvard’s College Alcohol Study established what is still the prevailing definition of a college binge: five or more drinks in a row for a man, and four or more for a woman. But while this measure may have been useful a quarter century ago, it’s essentially useless today, when bingers often have 10 or more drinks in a night. The change on campuses may involve not the number of students drinking but the intensity with which they drink—by the traditional measure, fewer students are binge drinking, but of those who do, a sizable number are now doing so to the extreme. A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Health Education found that 77 percent of college freshmen “drink to get drunk”—and what today’s college student calls being “drunk” is oftentimes something an expert would define as being in a blackout.

Who are these students? By and large, they constitute the most privileged subset of undergraduates, and those who would (unwisely) emulate them. The students at the center of this culture are most likely to be the children of white, college-educated parents, young people whose free time is probably spent not working to help support themselves, but rather participating in certain activities, most notably Greek life and athletics. They are at the center of the most visible social scene on campus, and while their sorrows and travails unfold in private, their wild partying is a public spectacle.

Black students drink less than all other races on campus.
Some less privileged students look on in disdain, while others gaze in envy, imagining that if they only pour enough booze down their throats, they will join the crowds of wealthy white sorority sisters, with their polished hair and bouncy cheerfulness. But for these kids, who lack the layers of protection and support that cocoon the richer and whiter kids, the consequences can be harsh.

Black students drink less than all other races on campus. Why? The question hardly merits an answer. Drinking while black can be downright dangerous, as local police officers tend to take a dim view of young black people breaking laws. Last year, a black University of Virginia student sustained head injuries requiring 10 stitches after he was arrested by three state law-enforcement officers for the outrageous act of trying to enter a student bar. “I go to UVA, you racists!” he yelled at the men, blood streaming down his face. Not long after the Ferguson riots, at a New Hampshire outfit named Keene State College (87 percent white), a local event called Pumpkin Fest turned the area around the campus into a kind of war zone in which young people—including students from Keene and other local colleges—took part in a massive drunken riot that included throwing billiard balls and full bottles of alcohol at cops, pulling street signs out of the ground, setting fires, overturning a car, and reportedly threatening to kill police officers. In the disappointed characterization of Keene State’s president, the children failed to “pumpkin responsibly.” How long would those behaviors be tolerated if they were committed by young black men?
This kind of spectacle, with its confusing mixture of misery and social power, encourages Good Parents and Get-Real Parents to make their very different decisions. Good Parents want their children to avoid the unhappiness that binge drinking can result in. They may also wish to transmit to their children larger values—of abiding the law, or of religious practice, or of aligning themselves with activities that will uplift rather than diminish a person. Intuitively, the Good Parent understands something public-health research confirms: that when it comes to alcohol use, adolescents take their parents’ counsel into strong consideration. Today’s young people—unlike members of my own, ’70s generation—don’t ignore their parents’ guidance on important matters; they seek it. Even if the child of a Good Parent decides to drink, she has a lodestar that many of her peers do not. When she wakes up in the mess and humiliation of a morning after, she thinks: This isn’t what my parents want for me.

What about the Get-Real Parents? Don’t they love their children? Of course they do. Some of them even think they’re helping their kids by teaching them to drink while they’re still at home—like “the Europeans,” or, more specifically, “the French.” Leaving aside the fact that the French have their own burgeoning teen-drinking problem, the research shows that college binge drinking is a performative behavior, with its own customs and vocabulary and a high degree of intentionality. Kids don’t binge instead of drinking moderately; they do it in addition—they perceive the two behaviors as distinct. You can teach a young person to enjoy a glass of good wine with dinner, but this will not be a protective factor when it comes to binge drinking. It will probably be irrelevant. Kids don’t binge on pinot noir and braised lamb shanks. They binge on flavored vodka and cinnamon whiskey, and they do it until they puke. As for letting them drink heavily with their pals so they can “learn their limits”—the way parents did back in the day—that notion is out-of-date. The point of college binge drinking today is that there are no limits. Blacking out isn’t a mistake; blacking out is the goal.
The real question about these parents (many of whom pay for their kids’ alcohol, revel in their stories about the shit show, delight in emails from campus highlighting new services for the plastered, such as golf-cart rides back to the dorm by helpful safety officers) is this: Why have they so cheerfully handed over their children to this ugly and worthless experience?

To a large extent, what many Get-Real Parents are interested in is success. Ever since returning home from the maternity ward, they have been in the business of raising winners. Winners make varsity, winners take Advanced Placement classes, winners apply early decision to selective colleges, and winners are at the top of the social hierarchy at their competitive high schools—which means they boot and (more important) rally. Perhaps, for some of the more mercenary and lucrative professions—including stock trading, investment banking, and high-stakes sales—there are actually benefits to heavy drinking. A binge drinker emerges from college both elevated and coarsened: educated enough to compete in the market and sullied enough by the hard knocks of binge drinking that he won’t be too shocked by what he finds there.

No wonder these young people keep drinking. The hollowness at the center of their lives—the increasing abandonment of religion, the untethering of sexuality not just from relationships but even from kindness, the race to jump aboard the stem express because that’s where the money is, the understanding of eventual parenthood as something that will be subordinated to the management of two successful careers, and the understanding that their own parents care so little about them that they will happily allow them to sustain the kind of moral injuries that blackout behavior often engenders—would make too much consciousness hard for anyone to take.

What are these kids really vomiting up every weekend at their fancy colleges? Is it really just 12 shots of apple-flavored vodka? Or is it a set of values, an attitude toward the self and toward others, that has become increasingly hard for them to stomach?

Want to Raise Successful Kids?

03/16/2016
Bill Murphy Jr.contact.billmurphyjr.com

DAN BARNES VIA GETTY IMAGES

If there’s one thing many parents want more than to lead happy, successful lives, it’s to make sure their kids lead happy, successful lives.

Now a former dean of Stanford University freshmen, Julie Lythcott-Haims, says many parents’ hearts may be in the right place—but they’re screwing things up big-time nonetheless.

In her New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims says the problem is a phenomenon we’ve been hearing about since the 1990s—one that’s now crashing hard into American society: helicopter parenting.

She summed up her experience in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“Working with the quote-unquote best and brightest, I was seeing more and more [students] who seemed less and less capable of doing the stuff of life. They were incredibly accomplished in the transcript and GPA sense but less with their own selves, evidenced by how frequently they communicated with a parent, texting multiple times a day, needing a parent to tell them what to do.

“I’d been scolding other people for five or six years. One night I started cutting my 10-year-old son’s meat and realized I was enabling dependence on me. I could see the link between parenting and why my college students, though very accomplished academically, were rather existentially impotent.”

“Existentially impotent.”
Ouch! That may be the most original and cutting insult I’ve ever heard.

What’s more, Lythcott-Haims said it applies largely to some of the most privileged kids in our society. Students from less affluent families—who statistically speaking might be more likely to join the military or work while attending community college—seemed to her to be at least as self-sufficient as their predecessors.

But the students she was dealing with as dean of freshmen students, who were attending one of the most elite universities in the world, and who were more likely to graduate and have amazing opportunities, were overwhelmed and unable to function as real adults.

No phone calls?
For example, Lythcott-Haims cited the idea that many Millennials—using her own daughters as examples—seem “paralyzed” by the idea of having to make a simple phone call, because they never had to do so while growing up.

(Her solution with her daughters was to give them tasks that could be resolved only by making phone calls—“because you need to know how to talk to a stranger on a phone and ask a question.”)

So what do we do about this? Her advice for parents, she said in a speech reported by the Chicago Tribune, is to “put ourselves out of a job” by doing a few specific things:

Remember the difference between “I” and “we.”
“If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter—as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’—it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy.”

Be your kids’ advocate, not their lawyer.
“If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested. When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”

Remember that their work is their work.
Don’t do their homework, she said. “Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own. … Chores build a sense of accountability.”

Bottom line, let them try things—and fail.
“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” Lythcott-Haimes wrote in How to Raise an Adult. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”

Brutally Honest: Is it OK to let your child fail?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
January 20, 2015

In ‘Brutally Honest’ series, Kelly Wallace tackles provocative parenting questions
An article on why parents should let their children fail went viral in January 2013
Studies: Helicopter parenting can lead to more depressed and less confident adults

Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)Recently, my younger daughter left her class project, a time capsule, at the door so I would see it the minute I got home.

Her project wasn’t due for a month, and she took it upon herself to start it and finish it. I beamed at her great work ethic.

If the story ended here, I would proudly say I am one of those parents who is totally comfortable with the whole “letting my kids fail” concept, but alas, there is more.

You see, even though my daughter worked hard to create a unique time capsule — complete with a slipper, miniature soccer and basketball, chess set, Pokemon cards and cordless phone — I worried that the other kids, probably with help from their parents, would have much more elaborate and highly constructed time capsules. Plus, I thought my daughter didn’t quite complete the assignment.

She wanted to bring the project in the following morning. “I put my heart into it,” she told me.

No-brainer, right? But no, I was torn between not wanting to crush her spirit and making sure her project was viewed positively by her teacher and peers.
I think you can probably guess which feeling won out. She brought the project in after the weekend — and only after I had her re-read the assignment and add decorations and information.

There is no doubt in my mind she was prouder of her work before I meddled. Why on earth did I do such a thing?

Many of us good, well-meaning parents are scared of our children “not being right all the time” and are motivated by a desire to buck up our kids’ self-esteem when we’re actually doing more harm than good, according to Jessica Lahey, author of the upcoming book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” which will be released in August.

Lahey, who has spent more than a decade teaching middle and high school students, has become somewhat of an expert in this area, after her article “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” in The Atlantic back in January 2013 went viral.

The article included an unforgettable anecdote: Lahey called a parent to inform her that her child would be punished for plagiarism only to learn from the mother that she, not her daughter, wrote the entire paper.

Sure, an extreme case, but an example of what many parents do, thinking they are actually helping their children.

“Every single time we turn around and say, ‘I’ll just do that for you’ or ‘Here let me help you with that,’ we are saying to them, ‘I don’t think you can do that for yourself,’ ” said Lahey, who is also a columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to The Atlantic and Vermont Public Radio.
“And that is really damaging over time. We create a really helpless culture of kids so that now when I talk to college professors, they say these kids show up to college unable to handle anything on their own.”

The research backs up just how dangerous our inability to let our children stumble and figure things out on their own can be for them as young adults.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that helicopter parenting can lead to anxiety and depression in college students, and decreased feelings of autonomy and competence.

Another investigation, this one led by the University of Arizona, found that adults who were overparented have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and more doubt about their ability to overcome challenges.

The study also found that helicopter parents have dependent and neurotic kids.

Why do we do it?

Part of the reason we step in, says Lahey, is because we want our kids to love us.

“We want to feel needed and so when we take that homework assignment to school for them and rescue them, we feel we get to check that box off today. ‘I was a good parent,'” said Lahey.
She writes in the book about her own struggles, how one morning, her younger child, who is now 11, worked really hard on his homework assignment and then left it on the coffee table.

“And I took to Facebook (and wrote) ‘Just for those of you who think this is easy for me, that homework assignment is sitting there on the table.'”

She did not take the homework to school, as at least one member of her Facebook community suggested she do, and was on “tenterhooks” all day, she said.

“But he came home at the end of the day and he’s like, ‘It’s fine. I talked to my teacher,'” said Lahey. “Giving kids the opportunity to problem solve when something goes wrong, there’s nothing better than that and when we take that away from them, it’s a real tragedy.”
In conversations with parents across the country, there was definite disagreement over just what letting a child fail means and just how far a parent can take it.

“I think when you use the word ‘fail’ you alienate a lot of people,” said the children’s television host Miss Lori, a mom of three. “I believe in allowing my children to stumble.”

Teaching them how to get up again is enormously important, said the social media strategist and Babble.com contributor. “But fail, not so much, especially in school. Our education system is already failing them in most cities. Their school resume is too important and they have too few years to amass it.”

Allowing kids to “fail” has different meanings to parents, says Vicki Hoefle, author of “Duct Tape Parenting: A Less is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids.”

“And this is where some of the confusion comes in. Allowing your first-grader to fail a spelling test because they did study is much easier for a parent to deal with than allowing your eight-grader to fail science because he chose not to study and will have to repeat the class over the summer,” said Hoefle, whose newest book, “The Straight Talk on Parenting,” will be released in April.
Balance is key, says Avital Norman Nathman, a mom of an 8-year-old in Northhampton, Massachusetts, who blogs at The Mamafesto. We shouldn’t always let our kids “hang out to dry,” but we also need to realize part of our desire to see our kids succeed is our own ego.

“We see our successes in our own children so when we allow them to fail, that also kind of reflects on us … and so it’s uncomfortable but we need to get there because otherwise we’re going to have these helpless kids who either feel incredibly entitled and who would want that, or helpless, they don’t know how to do things for themselves,” said Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology “The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality.”

If we’re hurting our kids, how do we stop doing it?

In many ways, it’s so much easier not to let our kids fail, parents say.

Cecily Kellogg of Philadelphia remembers when her 8-year-old joined their local Junior Roller Derby team. In the middle of the first practice, she skated over to her mom shaking and crying because she felt she was slower than everyone and didn’t know the moves. She wanted to leave immediately, but her mom refused to take her home.

Her daughter was clinging to her, but Kellogg pried herself away and left her to her coaches.

The next practice her daughter still felt embarrassed and ashamed she wasn’t an expert but agreed to go inside the rink only after her mother left.

“Boy oh boy, did I want her to quit. Both times I walked away from her, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Kellogg. “Now? She’s absolutely crazy about roller derby and loves it. Can’t wait to go each week.”

Kellogg says the experience was not just about allowing her daughter to “fail” and learning the “hard way she wasn’t going to be the very best at what she did without practice.” It was also about “pushing her to keep going without letting her quit.”

Lahey says her biggest piece of advice for parents is to move away from any focus on the end results, namely grades and test scores.

Let your kids make up their short-term goals, she suggests, which could include everything from making more friends at school to cleaning their room seven days in a row to making the roller derby team.

“If … they don’t achieve them, that’s OK, yes, they failed at something. They failed to achieve their goals, but what are the consequences? It’s nothing.”

Parents, stop hovering! It’s not your job to remove every obstacle from your kids’ paths

Salon

We’ve taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we’ve blocked the surest and clearest path to their success

Parents, stop hovering! It's not your job to remove every obstacle from your kids' paths(Credit: auremar via Shutterstock)

I became a parent and a middle school teacher in the same year, and these twin roles have shaped the way I’ve raised my children and educated my students. Over the course of my first decade raising two boys and teaching hundreds of children, I began to feel a creeping sense of unease, a suspicion that something was rotten in the state of my parenting. But it was only when my elder child entered middle school that my worlds collided and the source of the problem became clear to me: today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation. From my vantage point at the front of a classroom, I’d long viewed myself as part of the solution, a champion of my students’ intellectual and emotional bravery. However, as the same caution and fear I witnessed in my students began to show up in my own children’s lives, I had to admit that I was part of the problem, too. We have taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success. That’s certainly not what we meant to do, and we did it for all the best and well-intentioned reasons, but it’s what we have wrought nevertheless. Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of this world.

As I stood there in my middle school classroom on the day of my personal epiphany, looking at the students before me and seeing my own parenting clearly for the first time, I resolved to do what I needed to do to guide both my children and my students back toward the path to competence and independence. The way isn’t smooth, and the going certainly isn’t easy, but that’s kind of the point. We parents are going to have to step back, leave those scary obstacles lying in the road, and allow our children to face them head-on. Given our support, love, and a lot of restraint, our kids can learn how to engineer their own solutions and pave their way toward success that is truly of their own making.

The discomfort I’d been feeling in my own parenting had been growing for a while, but I could not put my finger on where I’d gone wrong. I read all the parenting blogs, from the austere to the zealous, and read books by the experts on how to raise happy, healthy children. However, as I watched my boys approach their teenage years, something was amiss. They were good, well-adjusted kids, but I couldn’t shake the sense that when it came time for them to head out on their own and make their way in the world, they were ill-prepared. As long as they stayed inside the safe haven I’d created for them, they were confident and successful, but when forced to venture outside, would they know how to function? I’d so successfully researched, planned, and constructed their comfortable childhoods that I’d failed to teach them how to adapt to the world on its terms.

I never meant to teach my children to be helpless or fear failure, and a life of anxiety is certainly not what I envisioned for them. On the contrary, I thought my kids would grow up brave, in the sort of wild, free idyll I experienced as a child. I wanted them to explore the woods with a pocketknife and a couple of cookies shoved in their pockets, build tree forts, shoot handmade arrows at imaginary enemies, and swim in the local watering hole. I wanted them to have the time and the courage to try new things, explore their boundaries, and climb one branch beyond the edge of their comfort zones.

But somehow, somewhere, that idyllic version of childhood morphed into something very different, a high-stakes, cutthroat race to the top. Today, careless afternoons in the woods seem like a quaint throwback because the pressure to succeed from an early age has ramped up for both parents and kids. It never lets up, and there is no longer room in our children’s schedules for leisure time in the woods, let alone opportunities to problem-solve their way out of the muck and mire they encounter out there. In the new normal, every moment counts, and the more successful our kids are as students, athletes, and musicians, the more successful we judge ourselves as parents. The race to the top starts when children take their first steps and does not end until a six-figure income and socioeconomic upward mobility are secured. And, come on, what kind of negligent mother allows her kids to play alone in the woods during homework time, with pockets full of gluten and sugar, armed to the teeth with pocketknives and arrows?

Standing in my middle school classroom, frozen in that horrible realization of my own culpability in the epidemic of overparenting, I finally understood just how far off the path we parents have strayed.

We bring a beautiful, precious child into the world, and after those first moments of bliss wear off, we realize that our new purpose in life is to protect this fragile human being from harm. And if we are to believe the fear-mongering mass media, that harm is all around us. Baby snatchers disguised as maternity nurses, antibiotic-resistant germs, toxic chemicals, disease-carrying ticks, bullying kids, unfair teachers, murderous school shooters . . . no wonder we’ve gone nuts where our children are concerned.

However, this fear doesn’t just cause us to overparent; it makes us feel overwhelmed, myopic, and much too credulous of those who seek to stoke our parental fears. It’s easier to self-soothe by shielding our kids from all risk than to take a pause and figure out which risks are necessary to their development and emotional health. We protect our kids from all threats, whether real or imagined, and when we tuck our kids in bed at night, free of cuts, bruises, or emotional hurt, we have, for one more day, found tangible evidence of our parenting success.

We revel in their safety and reassure ourselves that there’s plenty of time to teach them how to deal with risk and failure. Maybe tomorrow I’ll let them walk to school, but today, they got to school safely. Maybe tomorrow they will do their own homework, but today, they are successful in math. Maybe tomorrow continues until it’s time for them to leave home, and by then, they have learned that we will always be there to save them from themselves.

I am as guilty as the next parent; I have inadvertently extended my children’s dependence in order to appropriate their successes as evidence and validation of my parenting. Every time I pack my child’s lunch for him or drive his forgotten homework to school, I am rewarded with tangible proof of my conscientious mothering. I love, therefore I provide. I provide, therefore I love. While I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my children really should be doing these kinds of tasks for themselves, it makes me feel good to give them these small displays of my deep, unconditional love. I reassure myself with what feels like a vast expanse of childhood, stretching out for years, its eventual end invisible over the horizon. My kids will have their entire lives to pack their lunches and remember their backpacks, but I only have a very brief window of time to be able to do these things for them.

There’s a term for this behavior in psychiatric circles. It’s called enmeshment, and it’s not healthy for kids or parents. It’s a maladaptive state of symbiosis that makes for unhappy, resentful parents and “failure to launch” children who move back in to their bedrooms after college graduation. In 2012, 36 percent of adults age 18–31 still lived in their parents’ home, and while some of that figure is due to declining employment and marriage statistics, these numbers are part of a trend that’s been rising for decades. In order to raise healthy, happy kids who can begin to build their own adulthood separate from us, we are going to have to extricate our egos from our children’s lives and allow them to feel the pride of their own accomplishments as well as the pain of their own failures.

We are also going to have to knock it off with the competitive parenting, because we have managed to whip ourselves up into a frenzy of anxiety and paranoia. Our Facebook posts and soccer tournament sideline chat is jam-packed with passive-aggressive tales of academic honors and athletic glory. As our kids get older, we spin tales of coast-to-coast college tours, SAT prep and AP tutoring, because didn’t you hear? According to the news, today’s college degree counts as much as our high school diplomas . . . and in order to get that college degree, our kids will have to jump through all sorts of hoops we never had to deal with because colleges have become more expensive and selective . . . and there is no such thing as a safety school anymore . . . and as the economy is in the toilet, once our kids graduate from whatever college will deign to take them, they may have to work as minimum-wage baristas in order to be able to afford to share an apartment with sixteen of their friends.

We need to stop and take a very deep breath. Research shows that this behavior, this “Pressured Parents Phenomenon,” is extremely contagious. Even when I’ve vaccinated myself against it ahead of time, I have fallen victim to it as well. Consequently, I am not the mother I hoped I would be. I hover over homework and obsess about grade point averages as the specter of college admission looms large on the horizon. It is as if the better angels of my nature have been cowed into silence, and I’ve bought into the hype: unless I push my kids to do more, be more, they will fail, and, by logical extension, I will have failed as a mother. In my darker moments, I’ve cast around for others to blame for my plight, and I’ve found plenty of scapegoats. Reaction against the hands-off parenting of the fifties and sixties, extension of the attachment parenting we employed when our children were in infancy, and guilt over our failed attempts to strike an impossible balance between work and family. There does not seem to be a middle ground anymore, a safe harbor between having it all and having nothing.

Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out

Slate

Recent studies suggests that kids with overinvolved parents and rigidly structured childhoods suffer psychological blowback in college.

Stressed out student in hallway of school building.
What helicopter parenting hath wrought.

Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Thinkstock

Excerpted from How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, out now from Henry Holt and Co.

Academically overbearing parents are doing great harm. So says Bill Deresiewicz in his groundbreaking 2014 manifesto Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. “[For students] haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure,” writes Deresiewicz, “the cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

Those whom Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep” I call the “existentially impotent.” From 2006 to 2008, I served on Stanford University’s mental health task force, which examined the problem of student depression and proposed ways to teach faculty, staff, and students to better understand, notice, and respond to mental health issues. As dean, I saw a lack of intellectual and emotional freedom—this existential impotence—behind closed doors. The “excellent sheep” were in my office. Often brilliant, always accomplished, these students would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that these outwardly successful situations were their miserable lives.

In my years as dean, I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed theyhad to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano,and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés. Some shrugged off any right to be bothered by their own lack of interest in what they were working on, saying, “My parents know what’s best for me.”

One kid’s father threatened to divorce her mother if the daughter didn’t major in economics. It took this student seven years to finish instead of the usual four, and along the way the father micromanaged his daughter’s every move, including requiring her to study off campus at her uncle’s every weekend. At her father’s insistence, the daughter went to see one of her econ professors during office hours one weekday. She forgot to call her father to report on how that went, and when she returned to her dorm later that evening her uncle was in the dorm lobby looking visibly uncomfortable about having to “force” her to call her dad to update him. Later this student told me, “I pretty much had a panic attack from the lack of control in my life.” But an economics major she was indeed. And the parents got divorced anyway.

In 2013 the news was filled with worrisome statistics about the mental health crisis on college campuses, particularly the number of students medicated for depression. Charlie Gofen, the retired chairman of the board at the Latin School of Chicago, a private school serving about 1,100 students, emailed the statistics off to a colleague at another school and asked, “Do you think parents at your school would rather their kid be depressed at Yale or happy at University of Arizona?” The colleague quickly replied, “My guess is 75 percent of the parents would rather see their kids depressed at Yale. They figure that the kid can straighten the emotional stuff out in his/her 20’s, but no one can go back and get the Yale undergrad degree.”

Here are the statistics to which Charlie Gofen was likely alluding:

In a 2013 survey of college counseling center directors, 95 percent said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus, 70 percent said that the number of students on their campus with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year, and they reported that 24.5 percent of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs.

In 2013 the American College Health Association surveyed close to 100,000 college students from 153 different campuses about their health. When asked about their experiences, at some point over the past 12 months:

  • 84.3 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do
  • 60.5 percent felt very sad
  • 57.0 percent felt very lonely
  • 51.3 percent felt overwhelming anxiety
  • 8.0 percent seriously considered suicide

The 153 schools surveyed included campuses in all 50 states, small liberal arts colleges and large research universities, religious institutions and nonreligious, from the small to medium-sized to the very the large. The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere. The increase in mental health problems among college students may reflect the lengths to which we push kids toward academic achievement, but since they are happening to kids who end up at hundreds of schools in every tier, they appear to stem not from what it takes to get into the most elite schools but from some facet of American childhood itself.

As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?

You’re right to be thinking Yes, but do we know whether overparenting causes this rise in mental health problems? The answer is that we don’t have studies proving causation, but a number of recent studies show correlation.

In 2010, psychology professor Neil Montgomery of Keene State College in New Hampshire surveyed 300 college freshmen nationwide and found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and actions and more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious. “[S]tudents who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents—so-called ‘free rangers’—the effects were reversed,” Montgomery’s study found. A 2011 study by Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga looking at more than 300 students found that students with “hovering” or “helicopter” parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.

A 2012 study of 438 college students reported in the Journal of Adolescence found “initial evidence for this form of intrusive parenting being linked to problematic development in emerging adulthood … by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.” A 2013 study of 297 college students reported in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students with helicopter parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life and attributed this diminishment in well-being to a violation of the students’ “basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.” And a 2014 study from researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder is the first to correlate a highly structured childhood with less executive function capabilities. Executive function is our ability to determine which goal-directed actions to carry out and when and is a skill set lacking in many kids with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of them when it comes to life skills yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them.

Karen Able is a staff psychologist at a large public university in the Midwest. (Her name has been changed here because of the sensitive nature of her work.) Based on her clinical experience, Able says, “Overinvolved parenting is taking a serious toll on the psychological well-being of college students who can’t negotiate a balance between consulting with parents and independent decision-making.”

When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent.

When seemingly perfectly healthy but overparented kids get to college and have trouble coping with the various new situations they might encounter—a roommate who has a different sense of “clean,” a professor who wants a revision to the paper but won’t say specifically what is “wrong,” a friend who isn’t being so friendly anymore, a choice between doing a summer seminar or service project but not both—they can have real difficulty knowing how to handle the disagreement, the uncertainty, the hurt feelings, or the decision-making process. This inability to cope—to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision—can become a problem unto itself.

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says that there are three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:
  1. When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
  2. When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
  3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.

Levine said that when we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are. In short, it deprives them of the chance to be, well, human. Although we overinvolve ourselves to protect our kids and it may in fact lead to short-term gains, our behavior actually delivers the rather soul-crushing news: Kid, you can’t actually do any of this without me.

As Able told me:

When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem solve very well. They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety.

Neither Karen Able nor I is suggesting that grown kids should never call their parents. The devil is in the details of the conversation. If they call with a problem or a decision to be made, do we tell them what to do? Or do we listen thoughtfully, ask some questions based on our own sense of the situation, then say, “OK. So how do you think you’re going to handle that?”

Knowing what could unfold for our kids when they’re out of our sight can make us parents feel like we’re in straitjackets. What else are we supposed to do? If we’re not there for our kids when they are away from home and bewildered, confused, frightened, or hurting, then who will be?

Here’s the point—and this is so much more important than I realized until rather recently when the data started coming in: The research shows that figuring out for themselves is a critical element to people’s mental health. Your kids have to be there for themselves. That’s a harder truth to swallow when your kid is in the midst of a problem or worse, a crisis, but taking the long view, it’s the best medicine for them.

Excerpted from How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Julie Lythcott- Haims. All rights reserved.

A Cure for Hyper-Parenting

Photo

CreditNatalie Andrewson

PARIS — I recently spent the afternoon with some Norwegians who are making a documentary about French child-rearing. Why would people in one of the world’s most successful countries care how anyone else raises kids?

In Norway “we have brats, child kings, and many of us suffer from hyper-parenting. We’re spoiling them,” explained the producer, a father of three. The French “demand more of their kids, and this could be an inspiration to us.”

I used to think that only Americans and Brits did helicopter parenting. In fact, it’s now a global trend. Middle-class Brazilians, Chileans, Germans, Poles, Israelis, Russians and others have adopted versions of it too. The guilt-ridden, sacrificial mother — fretting that she’s overdoing it, or not doing enough — has become a global icon. In “Parenting With Style,” a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti say intensive parenting springs from rising inequality, because parents know there’s a bigger payoff for people with lots of education and skills. (France is a rare rich country where helicoptering isn’t the norm.)

Hyper-parenting is also driven by science. The latest toddler brain studies reach parents in Bogotá and Berlin too. And people around the world are breeding later in life, when they’re richer and more grateful, so the whole parenting experience becomes hallowed. Scandinavians complain of “curling parents,” a reference to the sport in which you frantically scrub the ice to let a stone glide across it. (In Norway, “we do not, for example, count goals in soccer for children under 12, because they should all feel like winners,” the producer said.)

Twenty-first century parenting isn’t entirely illogical. Rather than trying to eradicate it, I suggest a strategy of containment: Rein in its excesses, and keep it from getting worse. Based on my own research, an unscientific reading of parenting literature, and a sample size of three kids, here are some key things modern parents should know:

Babies aren’t savages. Toddlers understand language long before they can talk. This means you can teach them not to pummel you with carrots at dinnertime, making your life calmer (and your floor cleaner). “Expect more from your children, and they will rise to it. Expect less, and they will sink,” Emma Jenner writes in the book “Keep Calm and Parent On.”

Seize windows of freedom joyfully, without guilt. Remember that the problem with hyper-parenting isn’t that it’s bad for children; it’s that it’s bad for parents. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, college-educated American moms began spending more than nine additional hours per week on child care; this came directly out of their leisure time. The greatest insight to emerge from France since “I think, therefore I am” is that children’s birthday parties should be drop-offs. The other parents get three hours to go off and play.

Don’t just parent for the future, parent for this evening. Your child probably won’t get into the Ivy League or win a sports scholarship. At age 24, he might be back in his childhood bedroom, in debt, after a mediocre college career. Raise him so that, if that happens, it will still have been worth it. A Dutch father of three told me about his Buddhist-inspired approach: total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome.

Try the sleeping cure. Most parenting crises are caused by exhaustion. Force yourself to observe the same nighttime rituals as your toddler: bath, book, bed. When you feel an adult tantrum approaching, give yourself a timeout.

Have less stuff. Messiness compounds the chaos of family life.

Don’t worry about overscheduling your child. Kids who do extracurriculars have higher grades and self-esteem than those who don’t, among many other benefits, says a 2006 overview in the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report. “Of greater concern,” it noted, “is the fact that many youth do not participate at all.”

Don’t beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfect work-life balance. The French have national paid maternity leave, subsidized nannies, excellent state day care and free universal preschool, and yet they blame the government for not helping parents enough. We Americans have none of the above, yet we blame ourselves.

Teach your kids emotional intelligence. Help them become more evolved than you are. Explain that, for instance, not everyone will like them. “When a girl meets a new person, she often automatically strives to be likable, even before she has decided whether or not she likes the new person herself,” Rachel Simmons writes in her book “The Curse of the Good Girl.” “Tell your daughter to switch the order: Size up the person before you start worrying about what she thinks of you.”

Transmit the Nelson Mandela rule: You can get what you want by showing people ordinary respect. When Mr. Mandela heard that an Afrikaner general was arming rebels to prevent multiracial elections, he invited the general over for tea. The journalist John Carlin writes that Gen. Constand Viljoen “was dumbstruck by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail” and by his sensitivity to the fears of white South Africans. The general abandoned violence. Remind your kids that this technique also works on parents.

It really is just a phase. Unbearable 4-year-olds morph into tolerable 8-year-olds.

Don’t bother obsessing about what you think you’re doing wrong. You won’t screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you’ll do it in ways you hadn’t even considered. No amount of hyper-parenting can change that.

Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist and the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.”