A Former Stanford Dean On The Danger Of Overparenting By Parents – And Startups

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In her new book, “How to Raise an Adult,” former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims argues that overparenting has grown to worrying extremes over the last decade-plus and that unchecked, it will be the ruin of society as we know it.

She noticed it in her own parenting, in fact. “There was a time when I was a finger-wagging dean, then realized: I’m still cutting my kids’ own meat, and they’re 8 and 10. I’m not judgmental, but I got this wonderful glimpse into the future where when too much is done for children, it makes them less capable.”

In conversation with TechCrunch, Lythcott-Haims explains how startups that similarly coddle their workers –- for the sake of making them more productive – aren’t helping things much, either. Our chat has been edited for length.

You were at Stanford a long while. At what point did you think: It’s weird how involved all these parents have become?

I began to see it more and more over time – parents who were coming to the university with their sons and daughters and sticking around, sometimes literally and often virtually. I found it bewildering. My own experience as a student in the ‘80s didn’t include much involvement from my parents at all, and I began wondering what if my parents had been expected to register for my courses, settle roommate disputes, talk with my professors about my grades. Not that long ago, 18- to 20-year-olds had the capacity to do those things for themselves, and now, they seemed not to.

This is a bigger problem than people recognize. Why?

My fear is if people lack a hunger, a desire, to do for themselves, what that will mean for them and for all of us at a societal level. We may be looking at people who are “adults” chronologically, but who are existentially still very dependent on others to do the hard work of life – as well as the dreaming.

You observe in the book that younger children and high-school students need more unstructured time.

Free time doesn’t happen anymore, and free time fuels curiosity. When everything is laid out for children, they aren’t developing the kind of skill set that enables them to [become independent thinkers].

Do you think our early education systems are partly to blame?

I do think there’s a teach-to-the-test mentality in too many schools, and that our kids are just regurgitating information and not applying it to new situations. It’s no wonder U.S. teenagers don’t do as well as [some of their peers abroad]. Education reform is essential if we’re going to adapt to what’s required in the 21st century, which is entrepreneurial, outside-the-box thinking.

Are you familiar with AltSchool, a nascent network of schools focused on personalized learning?

AltSchool sounds like it could be a viable alternative. [I also applaud] Montessori schools’ child-led learning approach, where kids get to go and figure out what they want to do and how they want to do it. [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos is a Montessori alum. So are [Google founders] Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page].

What role does technology play in this issue of overparenting?

It certainly doesn’t cause it. I was writing about overparenting before parents and teens were texting multiple times a day. Technology will easily enable a tendency if it’s there. But that we can now be in touch with our parents and children 24/7 doesn’t mean we should.

It’s interesting, all these young people who are still very tied to their parents, while at the same time, entrepreneurship seems to be on the rise. The trends seem at odds.

What’s beautiful about the culture out here is we know that you fail your way forward. We know we prototype, try things out and iterate and that we’re not going to get it right the first time. But we’re not parenting as if that’s true. I’d also say there’s an irony when parents who are entrepreneurs force their kids down a particular path. I guarantee you none were forced to be entrepreneurs by their own parents, but some do try leapfrogging their own experience of trying on other career opportunities for size and who instead think, “My kid needs to follow in my footsteps.”

In some cases, traditional career options are disappearing, though.

Obviously, the workplace is changing in ways that even we in the Bay Area may not be able to predict. What isn’t changing is that a human thrives when they have the sense that they are capable of doing and thinking for themselves. This is what we want for our kids and where parents are undercutting them instead, by laying out a “checklist childhood” for them. You see instead people who good at being told what do to but who lack the skills to [think many steps down the road].

You see much the same at these workplaces that have everything from food to recreation. I can see how all of it motivates workers. As a lawyer in the mid ‘90s, I had my dinner provided for me and my dry cleaning was taken care of so I could just work. But I wonder about the extent to which work is starting to feel like an extension of an overparented home, where your needs are anticipated and your enjoyment is attended to. It probably feels good and makes for a fun workplace, but if someone leaves that environment, they’re going to be really disappointed.