A Note From Noah

(Below my Note is an introduction to our new atelierista/art studio teacher)

There is a cliff ahead!

This was Julie Lythcott-Haims’ warning Tuesday night as she spoke to a packed room at the JCC. Julie was sharing advice from her 2015 NY Times best seller, How To Raise An Adult, which leaned on perspective gained after a decade as Dean of Freshman at Stanford University. Julie’s work revolves around “how a parent can rob a child from developing agency by over-parenting.” Her message about the cliff is that we – parents of young children – are often ignorant (or just not-yet-there) of the dis-correlation between our over-parenting (helicopter, tiger, lawnmower, etc – cultural phenomena, not necessarily implicating any particular individual) and the need for children to build self-sufficiency into their repertoire before they approach the “cliff” of college and launch into adulthood.

As Dean of Freshman, Julie described seeing an acceleration in the “encroachment of parents into the lives” of children and college students. She found herself contemplating, as she watched well-resuméd 19 year olds trot into her office to talk about their course selection or summer internship: “Is any of this really your passion or are you just exceptional at doing what your told?” Julie boiled down her advice to parents in her role as dean to three points, eerily similar (minus the last one) to my advice to you all during Parent Orientation in September: Trust your kid. Trust your kid’s school. Now leave. Her point to college parents, she told us on Tuesday, was that by sticking around – by being over-present in their child’s life – the message inadvertently sent is, “Hey kid, you’re not really capable of succeeding without me.”

What happens when children receive that message? “All of this encroachment into their lives leads to higher anxiety and undercuts their sense of self. We are interrupting the development of self-efficacy.” Julie told us that the pattern she has seen develop is that parents “mortgage their children’s childhood for a chance at college admissions.”

In my dissertation at Teachers College (I am defending in March, wish me luck!) I touch on some of the same points, looking at how adults “extend control into children’s lives”, labeling this “adult imperialism” due to the intrusion into the sovereignty of another individual. By examining the life of a two year old as she begins nursery school, in the dissertation I offer four “stances” that a parent can take with their child which might mitigate the “over-parenting trap” that Julie describes and prepare our children for the “cliff” ahead. In brief, these four “stances” are:

Symmetry: Seek out moments of symmetry, rather than power, with your child. Where, when, and how do you not need to be in control? Where, when, and how can you look at them as equals, instead of less-than?

Shedding: Shed your developmental assumptions about what a child of a particular age can, or should, do. Instead, look across (in a symmetrical relationship) at the child, asking: What can you do? What do you like to do? How can I support you in doing that? The answer we find might be very different than where developmental assumptions would guide us.

Listening: Listening to a child gives them the opposite message than encroachment offers. When we genuinely listen to our child, the message we give is, “Hey kid, you’re pretty awesome and the world needs your ideas. You belong here as a contributing member of society.” The best way to do this – to listen – is quite literally to stop talking. As parents we tend to ask a question and upon not immediately hearing answer, ask it again six times with slight tweaks; likewise, we can be anxious around the quiet pause in conversation and so fill it with our voice. Listening to a child requires a non-talking-adult, at least for portions of the conversation. Leave room on the stage for your child; make sure they hold the microphone too.

Ceding: Ceding is the most important and also the hardest. Cede territory in your child’s life back to them. Where, when, and how are you present in their life in areas they do not need you? I will throw out a few potential examples to make the point: putting their jacket on; flushing the toilet; clearing their plate; cleaning their spill; choosing their sport or musical instrument or afterschool class. My point is not that all of us should cede all of these areas all at once – but instead that too often we forget to “give back” areas of children’s lives once we are no longer needed. Our presence becomes vestigial and anachronistic – it makes sense only because it’s the only way we allow ourselves to see our child, not because they actually still need us.

Ceding territory of our child’s life back to them means giving them the time, space, and repetition to, incrementally, take control of their own life. It prepares them for the cliff ahead, when – like it or not – they launch. Julie’s point on Tuesday was that it is impossible to extend control into our children’s lives from birth to 18 and then simply tell them, “Oh, by the way? You’re on your own now.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – What areas of your child’s life are you extending control into but want to get out of? Conversely, what areas of your child’s life are you encroaching into but do not feel they are ready for you to recede from? And, in those areas, what is your exit strategy for when your child is ready for increased autonomy?

Shabbat shalom,