Julie Lythcott-Haims wants our kids to be a success. She means this kind of success: capable young people who are able to figure out what they love and work hard toward becoming their best self—without us! She made the case in her as-important-as-it-is-useful 2015 bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success (which comes out in paperback next month). As the former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and the mom of two teens, she’s long had a front-row seat on what works—and what’s missing.
We asked her to share her favorite parenting insights and resources:
A skill every kid should have that’s seldom taught: Look people in the eye when you talk to them. It’s polite, and it’ll get you far in life.
A family ritual we love: I’m always reminding my kids, “We’re wavers.” When we have friends or family over to our house and they’re getting ready to leave, my husband and kids and I amble down the driveway behind our guests and stand with our arms around one another and wave until our guests have piled into their car and have driven out of sight at the end of the road.
To me it’s an extension of please and thank you; it’s the polite thing to do. I was raised this way and assumed all families did it until I got out into the real world and discovered that was not the case!
I knew it was an actual family ritual—not just a value in my own head and heart— when I overheard my 17-year-old son say to a gaggle of his friends who were leaving our house, “I’ll walk you out. We’re wavers.” And darn it if the whole family didn’t follow him out there to see his friends off properly.
A skill every school-age kid should have that’s seldom taught: When they don’t understand something or have a concern, they can and should approach their teacher to talk about it. Too often we’re doing this for them instead of teaching them how to speak up for themselves. We can role-play with them to help them figure out what they’d want to say, but we shouldn’t do it for them unless the subject is quite sensitive or we have a well-founded lack of faith in the teacher.
Best summer activity for any kid: Sleepaway camp. Whether it’s for a week, a month, or the entire summer, good old-fashioned sleepaway camp used to be that cherished place just beyond kids’ comfort zone where they could stretch their limbs and minds and come home a lot more grown up. It’s a bit under siege these days, what with the arms race for elite college admission—which posits that summer is better spent on academically enriching activities—and the fears of many parents that their kid cannot be out of constant touch. But I applaud the camps that are staking their claim as key players in the time of life called childhood, which continue to serve as that essential “third place”—neither school nor home—where kids can really start to develop a sense of self.
Our favorite family vacation: Ever since our kids were 5 and 3, we’ve spent the last week of July at a family camp in the South Lake Tahoe region of California. I think it’s the only family activity or vacation we can truly say we’ve “always” done, and the “always” nature of it has made it our favorite. Each year we see the same families and participate in the same cherished rituals, and we watch kids and adults alike go through life transitions. The kids have a curfew and a key, and from early morning until late evening they’re doing something fun with peers while we grown-ups get some much needed adult and alone time.
The best parenting advice I ever got: When you have your second kid and your first kid comes to the hospital to see you, don’t have the newborn in your arms. Let the newborn lay in the bassinet. The older kid doesn’t want to feel displaced by seeing another baby in your arms. Let the older one ask to see the baby and then say, “Oh, do you want to see her? Here she is.” We took this approach, and I’m convinced it’s why my kids have always gotten along so well.
The secret to less stressful mornings: Divide and conquer. My husband and I trade off—one of us gets the kids out the door while the other sleeps in! The next day we switch.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how involved I am in homework: There’s caring about it being done correctly and caring about it getting done at all, and on both fronts I’ve transitioned over the years from an 8 all the way down to a 2, while my kids’ responsibility for both has risen accordingly.
I know from my travels around the country with How to Raise an Adult that too many of us are too involved in homework, sometimes going so far as to correct it, rewrite it, or outright do it ourselves. Sure, I’ve been tempted to “fix” something I knew could be better articulated or more accurate. And of course I want my kids to do well. But I know their homework is just that: theirs. (As one wise friend of mine tells his kids, “I’ve been an eighth grader; now it’s your turn!”) I know it’s okay to explain something, teach them a concept, or give them feedback, but I mustn’t outright do it for them.
I’ve also stopped behaving as if they can’t be responsible to do their homework without my nagging. When I’m on the road, I encourage parents to say to their kid, “You know, I realize I’m always nagging you about your homework, but I know you know it’s important and that you’ll get it done. For a whole week I’m going to stop asking you about it.” Parents tell me that when they try this experiment, there’s more laughter in their homes.
My favorite children’s books of all time:
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. My mom read it to me over a series of evenings when I was 6 or 7. Each night we nestled in the huge gray beanbag in our living room, and on the last night—as the book came to its mournful end and the sadness surged up from my heart and my tears spilled out—I learned for the first time that a fictional story could be as emotionally powerful as a story from real life.
Hug by Jez Alborough. This fantastic picture book about a little chimpanzee contains only three words, so it invites parents to unpack the story told by the illustrations, particularly the emotion on the faces of the animals as the young chimpanzee goes from ambling through the jungle, to feeling lonely, to feeling sad and perhaps lost. The kindness of strangers is tucked in there, as is the fierce love between a parent and a child. On top of that, it’s a beautiful testament to the universal need for a hug.
Moo, Baa, LaLaLa by Sandra Boynton. This board book has a singalong rhythm that is still stuck in my head 12 years after I stopped reading it to anyone. All of Boynton’s books had a prominent place on our kids’ first bookshelves.
The one resource I recommend to every parent I know: The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Lahey is an author, journalist, middle-school teacher, and mom, and no one is better positioned to help parents understand that kids have to be allowed to struggle in order to progress both academically and personally.
The best gift I can give my kids is: A clear picture of romantic love. My husband and I have been together for over 28 years, and we don’t hesitate to kiss, hug, and hold each other in front of our kids. We want them to leave our home knowing what love looks like. We don’t want them to settle for anything less.
A question Stanford students always asked me that would surprise their parents: “How do I tell my parents who I really am or what I really want to do with my life?”
One thing parents worry about but shouldn’t: Their kid’s GPA. Short of getting Ds and Fs all the time—which bespeaks a real problem that ought to be investigated—your kid will be fine. Care that they have a strong work ethic and know that effort and perseverance matter, but stop obsessing about their GPA.
One thing parents don’t worry about but should: Do my kids think I’m their only go-to resource for help/support/advice? If I don’t answer their text or call right away, are they paralyzed or can they try to figure things out on their own?
An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: When my own kids were still quite little, I’d met with many college students in real distress over parents who controlled their every move, even from afar. I vowed never to be like those parents, and I think I’m a better parent of my two because I got to see the harmful effect of that so-called “tiger” parenting.
3 things I really wish all parents knew:
- Our kids are neither our property nor mini-me’s. They’re their own person, and we should take an interest in helping them become who they seem inclined to be.
- Humans struggle. We shouldn’t prevent our kids from experiencing struggle; we should teach them how humans respond to and emerge from struggle.
- Kids need to play freely, both in outdoor spaces and in our homes, free from the cage of our expectations, our overblown fears, and all the stuff we think of as enrichment.
My definition of a kid who’s truly ready for college: A kid who did most of the work of applying on his or her own—things like tracking deadlines, filling out apps, writing essays, requesting letters of rec. A kid whose parent handles this stuff— essentially acting like a concierge or secretary through the process—is probably not ready to manage college life and probably won’t thrive there without a lot of continued oversight and help from a parent. That only sets kids up for continued dependence on parents when they head off to the workplace.
My motto as a mom: My kids aren’t bonsai trees—they’re wildflowers. My job isn’t to clip and prune them to resemble some ideal vision of a human I might have in mind; my job is to provide the right environment so they can become their glorious wildflower selves.