Forget Kumon, hand kids a vacuum: Parenting advice from Julie Lythcott-Haims


In her new book, Julie Lythcott-Haims gives parents permission to step off the modern-day parenting hamster wheel and let kids succeed on their own. Photo: TED

When I hear that a child is taking private mandolin lessons, I wonder if my second grader is falling behind. Should he be studying Mandarin or taking a more serious sport? It turns out, the feelings of inadequacy that come with modern-day parenting have real consequences for our kids. I spoke with Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid For Success (and the memoir, Real American), who explains that “overparenting” is detrimental to our family life. Good parenting doesn’t involve whipping up homemade cream cheese to bring to away games. It requires letting your child forget their homework, fail that math test, and not get an acceptance letter to Harvard. It also requires chores. (Her TED Talk on the importance of chores has over 3 million views.) Take a deep breath and read on. If there’s any parenting advice you read, make it this one.

(This interview has been condensed for length.)

BB:. What’s one main reason for why parents should stop overparenting?

JLH: When we overparent, we achieve a short-term win for our child. We can get them a higher grade if we argue with the teacher, we can get more playing time if we argue with the coach, but the long-term cost is to their mental health, because we’re depriving them of the opportunity to learn to have these conversations and solve these problems for themselves. They get to age 18 or 25, but they don’t know how to ‘adult.’

BB: On that same note, can you expand on your idea of a “checklisted” childhood?

JLH: This is the childhood we have constructed in communities like yours and mine– I’m out here in Silicon Valley– where we think success is a pretty narrow set of careers or a pretty small number of colleges and universities. We’ve created a childhood that is in furtherance of getting our kids to those higher ed opportunities and those careers. And so the “checklisted” childhood is moving to the right community, and then making sure our kid is in the right school, and making sure they are having the right classes, the right track or lane, making sure they get the right grades, maximizing grades through tutoring or coaching, or even with our own effort. Parents these days are outright doing their kids homework in a lot of communities in order to maximize the grade. The “checklisted” childhood is extremely busy. It is achievement based. It accumulates stuff for your childhood resume. And that stuff ought to be amazing and perfect, so as to impress a college admissions dean. Many kids are withering under the pressure of the “checklisted” childhood.

BB: I see that here in Brooklyn too. But if all parents are doing the homework, getting the tutors, etc., then it changes the playing field. How can one parent be the first to back off?

JLH: First, it’s recognizing that you are actually harming your kid by doing that. By doing your kids’ homework, even if every other parent is doing it, you can be motivated to stop because it sends your kid a horrible message that you don’t think they are capable of learning, achieving and succeeding; that you need to be the fourth grader that they aren’t capable of being. That’s a terribly destructive message to send to your kids, psychologically. Next, it brings tremendous relief to us when we step off that path. The “checklisted” childhood is excruciating and exhausting for us as well. The truth of the matter is parents are stressed out of their minds as well by this childhood. And so it just takes some brave respected people in the community to step off the treadmill and soon the community will start to pivot. Now it requires you to say, “I don’t care if my kid doesn’t get into Harvard.” The good news is there are plenty of great schools out there that don’t require your kids to mortgage their childhood in exchange for a chance of admission.

BB: I would love to know some suggestions to give a child a sense of independence at a few different ages/stages.

JLH: It’s hard to break it down like that because every kid is different and every community is different. But I think the message is this: The minute your kid can walk, they’re learning to walk away from you. And we want them to grow more able and more confident to feel safe and secure out in the world without us. At 5, when they are having a playdate, you don’t have to be hovering over them in the same room. At 8, they can be playing outside without you worrying that they are going to run into the street. They have to learn how to make food, talk to people in a store, walk down the street, talk to teachers, remember their belongings, keep track of their deadlines, and fill out their own forms. All of these things are done in childhood in small ways. A little application for summer camp ought to be filled out by the kid, because one day that becomes an application to the private independent high school or it becomes an application to college. If they’ve never had to fill out any kind of form and they’ve never had to start to learn how to deal with bureaucracy and they’re just encountering that for the first time when they get to college, we’ve totally undercut their chances of being successful out there. We’re essentially acting like they’re either a dog on a leash and we’re their trainer, or they’re some celebrity that always needs to be managed. They’re human beings who actually have to walk the path of life themselves. Get out of their way and allow them to walk that path, knowing that there will be stumbles, but that falling and picking [themselves] back up is what it means to be a human.

BB: Why do you think parents find it easier to manage their children? It seems counterintuitive.

JLH: We can always make the food to taste better, look better, be chopped more efficiently. We can load the dishwasher better than our kid. We can do everything better than they can, because were the older ones. The reason we do it is, it seems logical. If I want to get across the street, why don’t I just carry you? If I want to get out of the house quickly, I’ll just do all the chores. What we’re trying to do is shift the narrative. I hear stories of parents accompanying able-bodied 8th graders into their classrooms. It’s ridiculous. In part we do it because everyone is doing it, and it seems to have a short-term payoff. We’re also doing it because our egos are so fragile that our sense of self, particularly for women, is constructed out of how involved we are in our kids’ lives. So we have a need to show that. “I’m so involved. Look I made the homemade cream cheese and the gluten-free bagels for the soccer team and I’m going to make that science project that’s amazing.”  [We’re] forgetting that no, it’s the kids’ science project. It’s not for you to do. Get out of it. Get your ego out of it. Or so, there’s some art exhibit in Brooklyn but it’s in the middle of the week and you hear parents say, “Oh, we can’t do that because WE have a midterm tomorrow.” Parents are acting like the schoolwork is theirs. They can’t have a healthy adult life because they are so busy living their kids’ life.

BB: Yes! Do you have advice for parents on teaching kids how to do things for themselves?

JLK: There’s a beautiful four step method for teaching kids skills. 1) You do it for them. 2) You do it with them. 3) Then you watch them do it. 4) Then they can do it completely independently. This applies to learning to cross the street, or learning to make a meal on the stove, or anything. We’re all just stuck in steps one and two. Step three is the roles are reversed. They’ve watched you do it enough times and you say “OK, kid, help me make dinner, and this time I want you to be the one to take the lead on sautéeing everything and boiling the this and roasting the that.” You’re still there, you haven’t left the house, but the point is they have to know how to use knives, they have to be able to use stoves, and ovens, and hot things. The only way they are going to get to mastery is moving through these steps. And kids want to learn. They want to be competent. They don’t want to just be blobs who are served constantly. They want to develop competency and it’s our obligation to teach them. It’s never too late and just the older they are, the harder it is because if they’ve been lulled into this complacency.

BB: Why are chores important?

JLK: As I say in my TED talk, chores are the greatest predictor of professional success. You want your kid to be professionally successful? Forget Kumon, it’s the vacuum. Learn how to be useful. Roll up your sleeves. Pitch in. Do the dirty work. Everyone contributes. Kids want to make a contribution to the family life. The younger they are, the more amenable they are to being asked to help. The older they get, the more petulant they’re going to be but they still should do it.

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