Welcome everyone to the new Foundation Wellness book-review series! Each month, we will take a look at a different book that hits on some wellness-related theme. Admittedly, this gives us a very broad array of books from which to choose. If the goal is to find material that connects to the dimensions of wellness, then that could mean many things, right? Possibilities are as diverse as the human experience. There is a method to our madness, however, and each selection will be directly related to what makes us look, feel, think, interact, and/or perform well.
That stated, the first book selection is by former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims and is entitled How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. What affects our mood, emotions, and even our physical state more than raising children? What work that we do is more important and, at times, pressure filled? The overarching theme of the book, though, is that we should be less involved logistically and emotionally in our children’s lives, for their sake as well as ours, and that we should take several steps back, do less for them, and require that they do more for themselves.
She makes a strong argument, too. From early on, Lythcott-Haims hits on the theme that bad things have always happened, and that life at all stages contains risk, but we as parents, and as a society, have blown things out of proportion, and that we need to get back to letting our kids roam free. And the 24/7 news cycle certainly hasn’t helped. “Terrible things happen everywhere in the world,” the author writes. “But terrible things have always happened and they are statistically less likely to happen today than in previous decades. Yet we hear about bad things whenever they’ve happened and mere moments after they occur.” She goes on to comment on our collective anxiety and chronic stress (of which no one can deny), and bemoans how in the U.S., our approach to control this anxiety leads to sheltering our children.
The dynamic she focuses on most is between the Baby Boomer generation (the parenting cohort that introduced the “everyone gets a trophy” mantra) and their Millennial children. Again, she and the experts she quotes for the book make good points. And she contrasts the way we have been doing things for decades in the States with the Swiss child-rearing mindset, “which includes encouraging kids as young as kindergarten to walk or take public transportation alone to and and from school, and providing ‘forest play-group’ for four-year-olds, a weekly four-hour excursion into the forest, rain or shine, where the children saw and file wood, and roast hot dogs over an open fire for lunch.” Could you imagine? I can just see the faces of some of the parents in my neighborhood as they hear that their four and five year olds are down by the creek building a fire. There would be raised voices and severe “time outs” all around.
Kids do probably need a little more free time these days and room to explore. However, from this Gen X man’s perspective, having been raised by the first/oldest wave of Baby Boomers, I would say that too much freedom and not enough structure can be a not-so-healthy thing, as well. As with most topics, I think the Best Way probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The author devotes much of the last two thirds of the book to the parental madness surrounding kids’ college admission process (that oftentimes begins when they are in pre-k). The book was first published in 2016, before we learned of the college-admissions scandal that would implicate some of the nation’s most selective universities, along with some big names in Hollywood (dubbed “Varsity Blues” by the FBI), and reading these sections, knowing about this widespread, embarrassing scandal, made them ring very true.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the trend Lythcott-Haims describes of parents who have grown so used to managing every aspect of their children’s lives that they continue to try to do so once the kids are working adults! One executive she interviewed told this cringe-inducing anecdote:
I had a dad call me last year. He said, ‘I just want you to be aware of the hours my daughter has been keeping. If she knew I was calling she’d be so upset.’ I looked into it and the father was dead right. But I would have loved if that young lady had said to her dad, ‘I’m really struggling. I need help but still want to be perceived well. What should I do?’ If he’d sat with her and helped her prepare to have a discussion with us, the situation would have been better. That’s a great role for parents.
There are multiple examples like this one in the book. Cautionary tales: Do not do things like this. But the truth is that most parents today could probably read it and have at least a few moments of recognition, of “at least I’m not that bad,” but “it’s still too close to my reality than I am comfortable admitting.”
The author is effective at putting into perspective the quest of many parents (and their children) of getting into an “elite” university. She goes into some detail regarding how the famed U.S. News and World Report college-rankings list actually gets compiled (22.5 percent of the data that goes into the rankings comes from its “reputation” survey, “a process known among college presidents as the ‘beauty pageant.’”) And she offers up other alternative rankings, based on factors such as how alumni feel about the school, affordability, and job placement. Getting into one the nation’s most elite, highly selective universities is a bit like winning the lottery. True, you definitely won’t win if you aren’t able to get your hands on a ticket (achieve a near perfect GPA and test scores), but the odds are still very slim that you’ll be among the chosen few. Without minimizing the importance of a quality, college education, she does put much emphasis on the idea that you don’t have to go to a top-20 school in order to make it big (or even a top-30 or top-50 school). Yes, she points out that it’s more important than ever to have a college degree and that, in contrast with 40 years ago, when only a quarter of the population aged 25 to 29 had at least a bachelor’s degree, today over third of this demographic has a four-year slip of paper. There are many fruitful way, however, in which one gain achieve this credential, and there are many wonderful schools out there to choose from, of all different sizes, locations, and concentrations.
And besides, the research points to another factor’s being more important than going to an Ivy League school: whether or not one had to do chores.
Too many of us are doing too much for our children. And once they are on their own, they don’t know how to do for themselves. One of the most helpful sections of the book, for me, was when Lythcott-Haims details all the life skills a person should have proficiency for at each age and stage: pre-k through the late teens. This alone was worth the cost of the book, and I will be using it as a parenting reference for the remaining years of my kids’ time in the “nest.”
As I mentioned at the outset, nothing affects our wellbeing while we are of a certain age and stage quite like our daily parenting trials. I would recommend this book to any parent of kids still at home; however, it would be most useful to folks out there who are just getting starting. If only this one had been around sooner.