The College Kids Are Not All Right

The College Kids Are Not All Right

A new book by a Stanford dean identifies the problems of millennials and their parents, but fails to grasp the moral nature of these generational failings.
Paul Bonicelli
By

I suppose it’s something of a contradiction that microaggressions would lead to mass hysteria, but with the student protests currently engulfing campuses across the country, it’s hard to deny the current generation is infected with host of troubling ideas about who they are and their place in society.

Against this backdrop, the prospect of reading a book entitled How to Raise an Adult and written by a college administrator seems risible. But as a professor with years of experience as a college administrator myself, it’s only fair to point out the politically charged atmosphere at colleges is only part of the problem. A great many kids are dysfunctional before they even set foot on campus. Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims has ample reason to suggest that parents are part of the problem—in fact, the full title of her book is How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

So then, this is book for successful middle-class parents who use their children to bolster their own self-esteem. Sound too harsh? Yeah, the author would likely not want that as a blurb on the dust jacket. Okay, how about this: This book reveals that many of today’s wealthier parents have a difficult time separating their lives from their children’s lives, so much so that by trying to help their kids succeed in life they actually stunt their emotional and intellectual growth with grave consequences for the kids, the country, and even the parents. Sound better? Well, both versions are true, and however the thesis is worded, I hope a lot of the target audience will read this book.

Lythcott-Haims is well suited to comment and advise, having been dean of freshman at Stanford University and a parent of this generation herself. She is also a Harvard-trained lawyer, but I don’t hold that against her as I might normally be inclined to, because she knows well the world of high-stakes college admissions to the elite universities. That admissions process is a focal point of the book because it is “success” in that effort that drives so much of the bad parenting and ensuing harm for children trying to become adults.

She tells parents forthrightly they are hurting their own kids.

Lythcott-Haims does a good job of reviewing the problems of millennials at the university and beyond. We all know how so many kids come to college and into the workplace needing their hands held, being sensitive to criticism, and being unable to simply function as mature and independent adults. But she does more than offer a litany of problems. She examines the roots of the problem—namely, pressure from parents and brand-plumping elite universities—and tells parents forthrightly they are hurting their own kids. Finally, she offers suggestions for how everyone can fix themselves.

Though the bulk of her advice is directed at parents, it also deserves to be read by university administrators and faculty. It’s not a perfect book. The author does fail to note a couple of major causes of the problems she’s identified and has missed some problems with the educational system altogether. And, like most in academia, her critique of our moral culture is tepid—but more on that later.

Overparenting Preempts Adulthood

The book rightly notes that overparenting is a newer phenomenon, ties it to the creation of millennials, and demonstrates its considerable harm to kids. Parents are making success at getting their kids into elite universities the entire focus of the family’s efforts. Think “tiger moms” like Amy Chua, or at least the caricature of her parenting style that has been much talked about.

Who else but a narcissist is so unaware of the toll his or her actions are taking on others?

We all want to assume that parents do this believing it will ensure the kids’ lifelong success, but Lythcott-Haims reveals something more. That is, some parents are sacrificing their children’s emotional and mental health as well as their happiness in order to make sure they grow up to demonstrate the parent’s success at raising them. What else can we conclude when parents are so ignorant of their children’s mental and emotional well-being? Parents are even doing a disservice to their kids’ physical health, given the astonishing number of children on anxiety medications. Who else but a narcissist is so unaware of the toll his or her actions are taking on others?

The book is replete with often heart-rending examples of unhappy, depressed, unnecessarily medicated kids and young adults whose entire lives have been micromanaged and dominated by parents oblivious to what their kids want or need.

High-school guidance counselors, college admissions counselors, mental health therapists, and the author herself report these stories. Andover’s college counselor captures well what is going on in this drive for parent-defined success:

When we first meet our eleventh-grade students we ask them several things: ‘Write down on an index card the first word that comes to mind when you think about college.’ The most common responses were ‘SAT, stress, freedom, independence, applications.’ Then we ask, ‘If you could say one thing to your parents, what would it be?’ The kids scrawl messages on index cards, things like, ‘I know you love me and you’re trying to do the best, but can you just back off?’ Next Anne meets with the parents of these eleventh graders and has them take an index card and write a note to their child. If she hasn’t shared the student cards with the parents first, the parents write things like, ‘Strive for the best,’ ‘I know you think you can’t get into Harvard but try.’ However, if she has shared the student cards, the parents write things like, ‘You are completely in charge.’ ‘I’ll be totally supportive of you.’

When Anne shares the students’ messages with parents, they squirm. They then write their more encouraging message to their kid, and ‘it gets very warm and fuzzy and parents say ‘that’s not what we’re doing,’ and everyone commits to doing the right thing.’ But when the application process starts to heat up, ‘the magic of that parent session wears off. A lot of parents go back to being their neurotic selves.’

Other stories reveal depressed, angry, and sometimes suicidal kids who, if they actually make it into the school of their parents’ choice, are either studying in majors that don’t interest them or are failing out. Many professors and college counselors can tell stories of having to be there for these kids and how the anger these kids feel at their parents is most to blame for creating this problem.

I found myself being thankful all over again for my parents (I’m a late Boomer). They didn’t try to chart my path; they left that to me while requiring me to be self-sufficient, to work hard, and to be a good person as I fulfilled my calling in life. In my family’s case—Southern, middle-class, evangelical Protestant—that meant loving God, family, and country and using my gifts and talents to be self-sufficient. In short, be a good man. No one had to give me any particular lesson on what that meant: I’d been learning that my whole life in church, at school, and at home. When I’ve failed, it has been wholly my fault. But knowing whom to blame is, of course, another lesson I learned from how my parents and grandparents raised me and my brother.

They didn’t try to chart my path; they required me to be self-sufficient, to work hard, and to be a good person.

Parents who read this book should take the time to ask themselves the serious questions the author has for them, and they should consider taking the remedial and proactive steps she offers. She draws on many good resources: things to read, groups to join, ways to think differently about college admissions, and what might be better for a given child than to strive for Harvard or that medical degree.

Above all—and these are my thoughts, and not necessarily Lythcott-Haims’, but I think her work bears them out—parents should stop seeking to affirm and augment their own status and self-esteem by forcing their children into lifelong roles they are not meant to fill or simply do not want. Your kid is yours to raise, but not to program. Just doing this will go a long way to salvaging a generation of kids trying to become adults.

The Traditionalist Critique

The title of the book is a tip-off to what’s ultimately problematic about the book. Perhaps the publisher and not the author chose the subtitle, but when I read “prepare your kid for success” my reaction is to say, “wait a minute, success is not the most important goal.” Everyone wants kids to be successful, especially one’s own, but what does “success” mean? And is it the best goal?

Success has not always been the goal of good parenting, nor did success used to be understood as simply achieving happiness. Lythcott-Haims seems to emphasize happiness for kids and for adults. She doesn’t cheerlead about that, but given the state of our “me” culture, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that “success as contentment” or “success as happiness” is the thrust of the book. But what I have in mind as a subtitle and goal of the book would probably keep it from jumping off the shelves, or at least relegate it to the “religious” area of the bookstore. What I have in mind is “prepare your kid to be a good person.”

We have been defining success incorrectly. We certainly haven’t been defining it humanely.

This brings up my other criticism of the book: the lack of emphasis on the need for parents and our schools to raise good human beings. The author certainly refers to it when she encourages character education, but this is a minor part of her work.

Naturally, the book fails to point out that the state of education at the elementary and secondary levels and the lack of moral training in our culture is one of the greatest culprits in bringing about the millennial generation that we all complain about. Encouraging parents to work at raising independent and self-actualizing adults without emphasizing that the only way to do that is to try to raise them to be good people is putting the cart before the horse.

Yes, it’s true that today we tend to regard people as successful when they appear to be happy by virtue of excelling professionally and by making a comfortable living. But with record rates of divorce, depression, suicide, and addiction, it seems obvious we have been defining success incorrectly. We certainly haven’t been defining it humanely, in the larger sense of that word.

When Kids Were Taught To Be Moral

So let’s all get in the time machine and go back to yesteryear when kids learned at home, in school, and at church or synagogue that the highest aim was a life well-lived. Everywhere children turned they were encouraged to be upright, kind, self-reliant, giving, and hardworking. They were taught to abjure evil, sloth, immorality, selfishness, and idleness. They got these lessons from their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They heard sermons and homilies and got life instructions from whatever their religious institution taught as the moral law.

Everywhere children turned they were encouraged to be upright, kind, self-reliant, giving, and hardworking.

When they went to school, these lessons were reinforced through the curriculum and the standard of behavior required of them. Kids, understood implicitly as moral beings, had adults to rely upon to help them navigate life’s ups and downs as they matured. For those rare kids who were spared much adversity in their young lives, there were lessons and examples aplenty in the things they read as a matter of course at school. No parents are perfect, but social pressure and the way things were constantly taught and reinforced living well.

Take one example: If one wants to know how human beings are supposed to face trials and overcome, how to be generous and giving toward others in need, great literature like the Bible, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Aesop’s fables offer excellent instruction with timeless examples for all ages and stations. For some kids in the past, that included Cicero and Aurelias, and Augustine and Aquinas.

Morals and ethics, taught by literature and the great philosophers; useful examples from history of famous and infamous people; the American Founders and other great souls in Western Civilization; all of these have been and still are instructive. Directly and indirectly, they taught children that happiness, success—whatever you want to call it—was a product of living a good, honorable, and productive life. Being a doctor or a lawyer has always been a fine goal, but you should have that goal because it makes you a benefit to society, not simply because it makes your family look good, your mom proud, and your car a Lexus. It is a matter of emphasis and of having a goal bigger than yourself and your own contentment.

If it were not for the failure of our culture to emphasize morals, I seriously doubt that we’d have the problems associated with the millennial generation.

Again, Lythcott-Haims does not ignore the need for kids to learn to be good people and develop admirable character. It is just that she doesn’t emphasize this as the main goal that helps to produce whatever else we look for in life. It is an indictment that anyone even needs to point this out. If it were not for the failure of our culture to emphasize morals and the failure of our education system to reinforce morality, I seriously doubt that we’d have the problems associated with the millennial generation.

I know that our parents and grandparents didn’t have nearly the number and variety of problems we complain about today. The problem isn’t so much that kids today are facing insurmountable or unique problems. Like all emerging generations, they’re trying to cope with the realities of the world, and we have simply not prepared them for the responsibilities that entails.

Pointing out that times have changed and that we can’t go back to yesteryear doesn’t impress me. Right reason and experience tell us the truth about how to raise children into adults. No amount of postmodern sophistry and relativism can overcome reality. Our efforts should be put into fixing the problem the right way—one kid, one family, and one school at a time.

The homeschoolers, the classical schools, the charter schools, and good college preparatory schools have great answers. Unfortunately, few parents either grasp or are amenable to these solutions. The only good news is that our educational system, from college on down, is crumbling so fast that parents may soon be left with no other options but to demand public policy changes that push education in a more moral direction.

Ultimately, I am afraid that many parents are so bound up in their own self-esteem issues that counseling is in order for some to break free of their desire to see their children as extensions of themselves instead of the independent creatures they were meant to be. Still, the first step in fixing these parents’ problem is getting them to admit they have one. How to Raise an Adult can help a lot of parents do some self-examination, and I hope many will read it.

Bonicelli served in the George W. Bush administration. His career includes a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation as assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development; as a professional staff member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives; and as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Tennessee.

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