Doing too much for one’s children is mainly a middle-to-upper-middle-class affliction; children growing up in less privileged communities tend not to suffer from parental overinvolvement. Nevertheless, says former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, who has written a book on the ills of overparenting, the impact on children is serious and long-lasting.

“There’s tremendous psychological harm that comes from overparenting,” said Lythcott-Haims. Most damaging to kids is the implied message that they’re not equipped to handle life’s bumps on their own. When parents jump in, remove obstacles, orchestrate play and direct the future, they extinguish a child’s ability to think and act for herself.

At Stanford, Lythcott-Haims counseled countless undergraduates who suffered from what she calls “existential impotence” and a lack of self-efficacy. It’s true that some kids will gain a short-term advantage from parental homework help and handholding, she said. However, parents need to realize that over the long term, such interference undermines children’s self-reliance and sense of self.

But she insists that recovery from overparenting is possible.

Indeed, Lythcott-Haims is something of a recovering overparenter herself. She vividly recalls the time she recognized her own tendency to hover over her offspring. During a dinner with her husband and two kids, she leaned over and began cutting her 10-year-old son’s meat.

Mortified, Lythcott-Haims stopped in her tracks, handed over the knife and resolved to let her son use his own cutlery, among other duties. She and her husband also began assigning their children more chores at home, which provoked resistance. Though an expert on the impact of too-involved parents on children’s well-being and fitness for adulthood — her book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” tackles the very issue — even Lythcott-Haims had to muster up the courage to address her own overprotective instincts.

And she has advice for the many well-intended mothers and fathers, or “concierge parents,” as she calls them, who seek to rein in their overinvolvement: strive for an authoritative style that blends emotional warmth with a firm set of boundaries. Be involved, but let them make their own mistakes. And be strict, but treat children like rational beings who deserve reasonable explanations rather than orders.

Lythcott-Haims offers parents a menu of methods to help them scale back, some of which are summarized here:

Give teachers a break, and remember that school is for kids. Treat teachers as partners in your child’s education rather than adversaries. “We’re doing too much questioning and not enough trusting,” Lythcott-Haims said. Most teachers, coaches and administrators are professionals who are trying to work with children to help them grow. When parents interfere to lobby and protest grades or playing time, they are denying their children an opportunity to fail and learn. The same is true for “helping” with homework. If you construct your 9-year-old’s diorama, “you’re telling them they’re not capable of being a fourth-grader,” she added.

Stop obsessively monitoring grades. Lythcott-Haims encourages parents to limit how often they peruse online portals that post children’s grades. Better for parents and children to talk about what’s happening in the classroom than rely on third-party software to report on a child’s scholastic progress, she explained. Daily monitoring of quizzes and tests gives kids the impression that parents are checking up on them rather than behaving as allies in learning. “We’ve decided that every quiz, test and homework assignment is a make-or-break moment for their future,” she said. “I believe that the arc of learning is longer than day to day or week to week,” she said.

Quit fixating on the “best” colleges. Let go of your ego and widen your mind to consider the scores of colleges beyond the Ivies and the like; pay more than lip service to the idea that fit is what matters. Look beyond the U.S. News & World Report rankings toward other, more subtle measures of success: the “Fiske Guide to Colleges,” “Colleges that Change Lives” and “The Alumni Factor,” to name three. And don’t let the warped college admissions process set the terms for how you rear your children. Over time, that process has come to demand far too much of 17-year-olds, rewarding behavior that can be emotionally destructive and intellectually crippling. “Character is as important as academic achievement, if not more so,” Lythcott-Haims said.

Author Julie Lythcott-Haims
Author Julie Lythcott-Haims (Kristina Vetter)

Impose chores, even when it’s easier to do them yourself. Studies suggest that childhood chores correlate to adult success. For that reason alone, insist that your children contribute to the running of the household, including doing the dirty work. Start by modeling the behavior you’re looking to inspire: Pick up after yourself and look out for everyone. Ask children to help, and make it an expectation. If — and when — they resist, don’t apologize for asking or suffocate them with explanations. Be clear about what needs to be done, show them how to do it and let them try. As tempting as it may be to celebrate the completed chore, emptying the dishwasher doesn’t call for effusive praise; a simple thank you is enough. And as much as possible, institutionalize the chores, so they become habits rather than one-off exercises. Tolerate the guff you initially get in return.

Get a life. “Instead of showing kids that a parent’s primary purpose and function is to hover over a kid and facilitate all of their interactions and activities,” Lythcott-Haims writes, “we need to show them — through the choices we make, the activities we undertake, and the principles we value — what it actually means to lead a fulfilling adult life.” To that end, rediscover and nurture your own interests; resist the urge to say yes to every request; and tend to your personal relationships.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re walking your own life path — not only for your own sake, but for your kids’ sake, too,” Lythcott-Haims adds.

Not that any of this is easy. Ordinary mothers and fathers trying to combat the urge to overparent can attest to how hard it is. “Up until this fall, I wouldn’t have seen myself as one who was overparenting, but indeed, that is what happened,” Jennifer H. told me. Without realizing it, she had begun to take an outsized interest in her high school daughter’s running performances, checking in with her after practice, inquiring about her workouts and offering to arrange sports massages. When her daughter erupted in anger one night after practice, Jennifer recognized she’d gone too far.

“You don’t see it happening but then it just smacks you in the face,” she said.

The two talked about the pressure all the parental attention had whipped up, and Jennifer apologized for contributing to it. She also vowed to butt out. “After we had our chat, I felt like a weight had been lifted,” she said, though she still battles the urge to intervene. She added, “So maybe our story isn’t a success story yet, but merely a work-in-progress story.”

Overparenting: 5 Recovery Steps From a Former Stanford Dean 29 April,2016Linda Flanagan

  • Is it just me or do the people who get stuff like this intuitively never write books about it. It always seems to be people like former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, who didn’t realize what she was doing for 10 years, that wind up writing a book about how everyone else should be doing it! I know I’d much rather get advice from someone who did it right all along than from someone who finally learned from their mistakes.

    • Kris Allen

      If it is good advice, why do you care who gives it?

      • I find it interesting that I see so many books written and advice given by people who suddenly realized that they’ve been doing it wrong all along, and I never see the same from people to whom this is just common sense. Why is it that the former feel they are an authority on the subject to the point that they write a book about it? Conversely, what keeps the latter from writing that book? Sometimes I even wonder if the people that write these books make up the part about doing it wrong so they will seem more relate-able.

        • SFnative74

          Probably because people learn the most from mistakes. You actually don’t learn as much from ongoing successes.

          • It may be true that people learn the most from their own mistakes (even though I think that’s a misnomer and what people really learn the most from is trying new things) but people don’t learn any more from other people’s mistakes than from other people’s successes, which is what I’m addressing.

    • pixie1122

      I disagree. I appreciate people who are humble and introspective enough to acknowledge their own missteps. I’m always looking to learn what may be a more effective approach to guiding my own children.

      • What is it that you disagree with? Do you think that, for example, intuitively knowing that cutting your 10-year-old’s meat is probably not the best way to yield the outcomes you’re looking for, is mutually exclusive from being humble and/or introspective? All else being equal, do you think the advice is better received from someone who suddenly realized that had been doing wrong than from someone to whom this was obvious?

  • Chris

    I love this article because I’m already practicing her recommendations. The one that I am not doing well is having the kids do chores. My teenager daughters do their own lunches and laundry, but my 9 year old son does nothing. Must rectify this situation!

    • Stacey M Pederson

      I, too, have taught at a state university and I agree with MidwestKris. Chris, the fact that you even have an opinion about partnering with your college-aged daughter’s professors is a conspicuous clue you overparent. By way of analogy: what would you think of a parent “partnering with” his/her adult child’s boss?

      • Phranqlin

        Partnering with a teacher works pretty well with younger kids, though. (For instance, enlisting my son’s grade school and middle school teachers as partners was key to helping him work through some academic issues he was having.) However, parents need to let kids take responsibility for this as they get older. I’d keep it to an occasional call or email if there’s an issue in high school (unless your kid encounters real academic problems).

        Once they hit college, they’re on their own academically as far as I’m concerned. I’d have been mortified if my parents had contacted my professors about my grades.

        • Barbara Saunders

          I cannot imagine my parents even thinking of contacting my professors about grades — and they were both educators!

      • Chris

        Hi Stacy,
        My daughter is a freshman in high school. I don’t expect to partner with her teachers. I am thinking more on the elementary school level, where I have two younger kids. I realize that was kind of unclear.

        • Stacey M Pederson

          Whew! I thought your daughter was in college. Thanks for the clarification.

    • sandra richter

      One of the reasons my husband retired early from a professorship at a state-school graduate school was the over-parented, needy, weak, manipulative students. These were graduate students. Parents still called.

      • Danielle

        I have to ask. When these parents called, did he feel obligated to respond? Isn’t there some kind of privacy act that would be violated had he done so? Even if there wasn’t, if I were in his place, I’d say there was and be done with it. Unbelievable. How does a student who is that immature and helpless get into grad school in the first place? There must be a serious flaw in the selection system.

  • 1SB

    Parents might not obsess so much over grades or which colleges to apply for their child to apply to if the could more easily afford to sent their kids to college. It is a pretty well know fact that grades and high SAT scores equal more financial aid. Lower their financial burden and parents won’t over emphasis doing well means going to a good school.

  • Phranqlin

    School, sports, college admissions, jobs, and life in general are much more competitive now than when my cohort (Gen X) was young. Everything seems harsher and less certain. We’re frightened that our kids will fall out of the middle class and want to give them every advantage we can. And we’re pretty much on our own — there is less and less support from institutions and society for families, making things that much tougher. Is it any wonder that some of us overparent? It’s one of the few things we have control over.

    • sandra richter

      But it is damaging to the children. Damaging.

  • JoAnne Chaffeur

    Great story! Thank you for your insight!

  • myleftone

    More parent hate. Love it. Show me the study that proves this is actually a trend, and I’ll take you seriously.

  • Danielle

    Here’s the problem using the fourth-grade diorama example. If most of the dioramas turned in by students in a given class are constructed by adults, that becomes the standard by which all dioramas are judged. When a fourth-grader turns in a fourth-grade level diorama, it looks pretty bad by comparison and will be graded as such. Most of us won’t allow our children to continue at such a disadvantage so we feel that we have no choice but to jump on the “helicopter parent” bandwagon. What’s the alternative? Allowing your child to wallow at the low end? Teachers could change this scenario by calling out work that is obviously done by adults, but I have never heard of this happening. The only answer is eliminating any kind of homework or home-based project.

    • ScottMc76

      My wife teaches 8th grade and specializes in “project based learning”. This teaching approach integrates subject areas in a practical application project (such as constructing a scale model of a house). The projects must be made at school using “found” or donated materials. No projects are allowed to go home with the kids, and no kids are allowed to purchase materials to make their projects better. This evens the playing field and ensures all kids, rich or poor, over-parented or under-parented, are given the same opportunity to learn and apply their knowledge.

      Twenty-first century teaching techniques like this are the answer to much of the problems ailing our schools — everything from parental over-involvement (or under-involvement) to an obsession with standardized test scores. Knowledge is now a commodity. The average person with a smart phone now has instant access to information that would have taken our grandparents a lifetime to learn. What schools need to teach is critical thinking skills, the ability to collaborate and form networks, adaptability, and the ability to innovate from iterative trial and error. This is what schools MUST be teaching if our kids are going to be prepared to be successful adults in our modernized society.

      • Danielle

        Those who tout Common Core will say that is what the standards are all about…fostering critical thinking skills. Thus far, I have seen nothing of the kind, only opportunities for textbook publishers and educational services such Lexile to advance their financial agendas.

        • ScottMc76

          Common Core actually works contrary to what my wife and other innovative educators are starting to recognize. There are certain areas of education that spend an inordinate amount of time and energy to install knowledge that is unnecessary in our modern age. Common Core doubles down on that mistake by taking what is a commodity (something that can be calculated easily with technology or accessed quickly from memory) and overcomplicating it. It becomes an academic exercise for the sake of academic exercise, rather than working for the purpose of problem solving. Teaching kids to spend 20 minutes demonstrating why 12×12=144 is a complete waste of their time. Either teach them the proper way to use a calculator or give them a practical short cut to memorizing multiplication tables. Either way, the focus is on efficient access to information that can then be applied toward the practical solution to a practical problem. If a student progresses to the point where they need to know advanced mathematical theories and constructs to solve a problem, that is the appropriate point to delve into what Common Core is attempting to teach. Why force kids to learn mathematical theories at a point when they have no practical use for them? It’s like forcing someone to become a certified electrician before teaching them how to screw in a light bulb.

          • Danielle

            Could not agree more. Silliness. Expensive silliness.

          • ah1960

            There is value in students being able to explain why arithmetic works. It has to do with developing patterns of thought that will pay life-long dividends. Not everything worth knowing has immediate practical applications. Otherwise we would throw out fiction and a whole lot of other stuff.

          • ah1960

            That said, yes, this emphasis on CC standards is silly.

          • ScottMc76

            Yes. There’s value in it when it comes time to move into more advanced areas of math. But you do not need to understand conceptual mathematics before you can recite a multiplication table. Most kids in 1-3 grades do not yet have the cognitive ability for that level of abstract thought.

          • ah1960

            You said “teaching kids to spend 20 minutes demonstrating why 12X12=144 is a complete waste of time.” You didn’t specify.

  • Great article! Let’s raise big-hearted children who can think and do for themselves. And on the subject of chores, we recently tackled that topic in our newsletter:

  • Cindy Hollenbeck

    I agree with 90% of this. As for the homework, I would LOVE not to help my son with his homework. But, the teachers expect perfection. And if his homework is expected to be error free, it’s his father and I who have to help him “correct” it before it gets turned in. My parents never looked at my homework. And it was wrong, a lot.

    • ah1960

      Neither I nor any other teacher I know expects perfection. What would happen if you let your child manage this on their own?


Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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