One particular highlight of this fall’s Virtual Family Weekend was that students and parents alike had the opportunity to spend an hour with a dynamic, thought-provoking, inspiring guest speaker: Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult and the award-winning memoir Real American. Joining Middlesex via Zoom on October 16 and 17, the former Stanford University dean of freshmen honestly shared some of her personal experiences – from childhood through parenthood – and the wisdom she has gained along the way, letting others know that they are not alone and helping them through challenges in their own lives.
Engaging with students first in a Friday evening meeting, Ms. Lythcott-Haims related several painful stories from Real American, which chronicles her journey as a Black and biracial person in the U.S. Even as a young child, she noticed how people stared angrily when she was with her Black father – an accomplished physician – yet “no one stared at my white mother that way.” Whether living in East Coast or Midwestern white communities, Ms. Lythcott-Haims often encountered racism, such as when a birthday poster decorating her locker was defaced with racial slurs, or when a classmate’s father purposefully came to her math class to question her about why she had been accepted to Stanford instead of his son Harris. “In his eyes,” she stated, “I had stolen Harris’ place with my Blackness.” That these insults still saddened her was evident.
And these efforts to hurt and humiliate her had their effect; when she initially struggled academically at Stanford, she feared that maybe she didn’t belong there. Thankfully, her parents suggested that she go to the freshman advising office – the very office which, years later, she would run for a decade. There, she learned about time management skills and was encouraged to take classes that interested her most. Finding success and validation in those courses, she gradually moved “from self-loathing to self-love,” attaining the latter as the Black Lives Matter movement began.
In light of the country’s ongoing struggle with racism, Ms. Lythcott-Haims gave students important questions to consider. “Do you see Black and brown people as fully human? Where is the evidence of that?” she queried. “What are you doing to make the world kinder and safer for Black people?” In turn, Middlesex students showed their concern in their thoughtful questions, prompting her to conclude, “We have not given you a great world, but there is something about you all that gives us hope.”
The ARC of Parenting
Ms. Lythcott-Haims spoke to Middlesex parents the following afternoon on the topic of “The Harm of Overparenting,” noting at the outset, “This is what other parents are doing wrong – not you.” As a mother of two college-age children, she affirmed, “I am in this with you.”
During her 10 years as a Stanford dean, she noticed a troubling trend: students whose competence and passions did not match their resumes, and parents who frequently came to campus to help them. She discerned three types of overparenting, from the “overprotective” (trying to prevent any bad things from happening) to the “over-directive” (determining their student’s career for them) to the “concierge” parent (handling all of life’s details). Each fall, Ms. Lythcott-Haims confidently told these freshman parents, “Trust your kid. Trust us. Please go” – until she realized one night that she was one of those parents, still cutting her 10-year-old’s meat at dinner and directing her children’s interests with an eye toward highly competitive colleges.
To become functioning adults, she stressed, children need agency, resilience, and character – or ARC – in order to know they are competent, capable, and caring. “Teach your children skills,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims urged. “These children are a gift,” she reflected. “Our job is to shelter and nourish them and get out of their way so they can become themselves, so they can have ARC.”