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Book Review: How to Raise an Adult

Author Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford University, says young people raised by helicopter parents emerge from college without basic survival skills like how to cook, clean, or solve their own problems
BY Uttara Choudhury |   18-10-2017
Photo illustration of a boy studying an open book, being disturbed by a hovering cellphone showing an image of his mother

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, published by Henry Holt and Company

Many parents, especially Asian ones, bought wholesale into Yale law professor Amy Chua’s tough love and helicopter parenting style described vividly in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her razor-sharp pen, Chua, a self-described “tiger mother”, chronicled stories about never accepting a grade lower than A, insisting on hours of math and spelling drills, daily piano practice, and keeping a hawk-eye on her daughters, both brilliant but insecure overachievers. Chua’s parenting style was also characterized by a helicopter-like tendency to hover over her girls and swoop in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble.

In refreshing contrast, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former freshman dean of Stanford University, gives us the more calibrated How to Raise an Adult. Madeline Levine, author of the New York Times bestsellerTeach Your Children Well, hails How to Raise an Adult as a “must read for every parent” who senses that there is a “healthier and saner way” to raise children.

Cover of the book titled

As the freshman dean at Stanford University, the author was truly surprised by the expanding academic caliber of each freshman batch she encountered.

“Every batch of freshmen is more accomplished than the last. Somehow their median GPA is a little higher, their SAT score a little stronger, they’ve done more AP’s than ever. They’ve got stories and novels and... Who are these people?” writes Lythcott-Haims.

The author soon discovered that high academic achievement was not the only hallmark that set millennials apart from previous generations. Overall, millennials lacked the “executive function” necessary to make it on their own. In other words, they simply lacked independence. “Many students don’t make eye contact, don’t interact with teachers, and when they’re lost or need help, they reflexively text their mothers,” writes Lythcott-Haims.

This has everything to do with the reality that more and more college-going students are being raised by helicopter parents. While most parents start scaling back their involvement when children head to college, helicopter parents ramp up support. The worst examples of helicopter parenting include previously unheard-of behaviors like parents attending their adult children’s job interviews or calling college professors to argue over a grade. Meanwhile, these young adults emerge from college without basic survival skills like how to cook, clean or solve their own roommate hassles.

Sadly, I know too many Indian parents who keep their children digitally tethered with round-the-clock Skype, WhatsApp and cell phone calls. Essentially they are micromanaging their college going kids —even when they are studying half a world away in America.

Lythcott-Haimswrites that “never in Stanford’s history” have so many parents called in to discuss things like their children’s roommate situation, college dorms, teacher complications, and opportunities for their student to perform research at the college.

This is an eye-opening book about parents who are excessively involved in the lives of their 18- to 21-year-old college going children. It invites parents to analyze if they are inadvertently crossing a red line: after all hovering has a way of ultimately backfiring. Young people who say they have over-controlling parents report feeling less competent. They show less initiative than their peers who weren’t parented in this way. A student’s ability to launch into adulthood may be stunted by her parents’ over-protectiveness or even adamant refusal to let her struggle and fail on her own. 

While empathizing with parental hopes and especially fears that lead to over-parenting, Lythcott-Haims offers parents constructive tips for stepping back and allowing children to make their own mistakes. This gives students the emotional bandwidth to weather life’s lows and succeed when they step out of college into the working world.


Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

For more on parenting your college-age child, check out these links!
Former Stanford dean on important skills every young adult needs
How to nurture your child's passion - advice for parents
We created a shady agent for a fraud awareness campaign and some students sought his advice
Advice from a girl who worked hard and got to choose between an Ivy League school and a full scholarship
The dilemma of switching majors from undergrad to grad school
How a homeschooled Mumbai teen won a scholarship to MIT
The value of summer programs for high-school students


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