Are you a helicopter parent? This expert has tips on how to stop hovering

Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, warns Montreal parents about the risks of over-parenting

'It's a parenting fail if they can't fend for themselves,' says ex-Stanford University dean

Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University tells Montreal parents to 'stop doing kids' homework.' (Submitted by Howard Kay/Ometz)

No parent wants to be lectured about what they're doing wrong — unless, it seems, that lecture is coming from Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University.

Lythcott-Haims attracted a crowd of close to 200 Montrealers, eager to hear her warnings about the consequences of helicopter parenting, to an event in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce this week.

Ometz, a charitable organization that offers various community services to families, organized the event and invited her to speak because overparenting and parent anxiety are the top two issues that come up in its monthly parent discussion groups.

She explained how helicopter parenting hurts a child's ability to manage life as an adult, how she too has made some of the most common mistakes and how parents can stop overparenting by making a few key changes. 

Don't do their homework

Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, says when parents are overprotective and micromanage their kids' lives, those kids later struggle to cope with life as an adult.

As dean of freshmen at Stanford University, she witnessed parents tracking their young adult children with GPS technology on smart phones, using webcams to wake students up for class and frequently contacting professors to complain about grades.

We're supposed to be delighting in our kids getting more and more independent every year.- Julie  Lythcott-Haims

Parents often begin this type of behaviour when their kids are young, so Lythcott-Haims urges parents to stop doing their child's homework.

It's unethical and makes it difficult for teachers to figure out what their students actually know, Lythcott-Haims said.

"And worst of all, it sends this horrible message into your kid's developing psyche: 'You're not capable, I have to do your homework for you,'" she said.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, speaks to Montreal parents about the risks of over-parenting and focusing too much on students' grades. (submitted by Howard Kay/Ometz)

Less 'how much homework do you have?'

After school, the first question many parents ask is "how much homework do you have?" or "when are we going to do your homework?"

That teaches kids that their worth is some function of grades and scores, she said.

"It's stressful for our kids, it's very stressful for us."

Lythcott-Haims recognizes that she has made similar mistakes as a parent.

When her teens Sawyer and Avery were younger, she was determined they would go to the best schools, including Stanford University, her alma mater and employer at the time.

More 'what are you good at? What do you love?'

That focus made it hard to listen when a daycare teacher was telling her that 4-year-old Avery was an exceptionally talented painter for her age.

"Inside I'm thinking... 'That's just art. That's not going to get her into Stanford,'" she said.

Only when she had a 20-year-old pre-med student in her office, clearly uninterested in medicine and unhappy to be simply fulfilling her parents wishes, did Lythcott-Haims realize her own daughter could wind up in a similar situation.

"Are they going to ask her the questions I ask other people's kids: 'what are you good at? What do you love?'" she said, fighting tears.

"And is my girl going to say 'I was good at art but they dismissed it?'"

Montreal parents relate

That story resonated with many parents in the room, including Anita Sharma, who is a social worker and mother of three young children.

Sharma says she's now thinking twice about focusing on getting top grades and professions that are idealized.

"I think for myself I might have to let that go and not put my wishes to have a doctor or lawyer in the family on them," she said.

"And just let them find their path and their joy," Sharma said.
Anita Sharma says she's now rethinking messages she sends her 9-year-old about riding his bike. 'I'm nervous to let him go around the corner because I can't see him... you have to let them go and trust they're going to come around the corner.' (Shari Okeke/CBC)

3 things to stop — right now

Lythcott-Haims says parents who want to avoid overparenting can make three changes immediately:

  1. Stop saying "we," as in "We have a science project" — let your kids own it.
  2. Stop arguing with adults — teachers, coaches — in your kids' lives. Teach kids to advocate for themselves. 
  3. Stop doing their homework. It sends the message that they cannot do it themselves.

The ultimate goal is to raise kids who eventually will no longer need you, Lythcott-Haims said.

"It's a parenting fail if they can't fend for themselves when they leave our homes."

"Your job is not to love and smother and maintain dependence, we're supposed to be delighting in our kids getting more and more independent every year."

About the Author

Shari Okeke

Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, a CBC original podcast. She was born and raised in Montreal.