The Danger of a "Checklisted Childhood"
Posted 02/16/2017 02:48PM

Last week, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former freshmen dean at Stanford University, came to Charlotte to talk about what she has learned about parenting. I hope many of you had a chance to listen to her speak—she is funny, self-deprecating, and has an important message for all of us working on raising adults. It is, she readily admits, easier to learn from watching others than it is to learn when you are in the thick of it yourself :), and she admitted that she often finds herself falling into the very trap she warns us against.   

That trap is the trap of over parenting and the danger of a "checklisted childhood." For those of you who've read Mindset or Blessing of a Skinned Knee, her message pulls on similar themes. She argues that parents are often pushed into too narrow a definition of success for their children. We are told we have to put our kids on the "right path" to the "right colleges," and so we spend all our time nudging, cajoling, and nagging our children (and our children's coaches, teachers, and principals) to ensure that they have the right classes, the right scores, the right accolades, the right leadership opportunities, the right athletic successes, the right community service experiences, etc.—all with the end goal of making them the perfect candidate for these elite colleges (who, incidentally, reject the vast majority of even these perfect students). What is at stake, we're told (despite evidence to the contrary), is our children's success—their financial future. But what is really at stake is their health and well being. What's lost in all of this adult "helping" is the children themselves—their roles, their responsibilities, their hopes/dreams and passions, their voices...their very sense of self. 

The end result of this "checklisted childhood" is what Lythcott-Haims saw every year in her freshmen classes at Stanford—young men and women who were more brilliant, more high achieving, more well-rounded, and more experienced than any of us ever dreamed of being at 18 years old. And yet, they were also "breathless, brittle, burned out, and old before their time." They were literally "withering before our eyes under high rates of anxiety and depression," and they were asking us "is it going to be worth it?"

What they missed out on was their childhoods—time for play and exploration; time for bumps and bruises; time for squabbles and make ups; time for discovering their true loves and passions. What they missed out on was getting enough sleep and having enough downtime to be bored enough to get creative. What they missed out on was the expectation that they need to be a contributing member to the family, someone who pitches in and does the dirty work around the house. What they missed out on was knowing that their self-worth and our love for them wasn't based on their level of achievement or test scores.

The fundamental skill set they missed out on developing, Lythcott-Haims argues, is the one that is proven to be most crucial to professional success in life…it's self-efficacy, "to see that one's own actions lead to outcomes…not one's parents' actions on one's behalf."  Simply put, she says, if our kids are going to learn how to live, they have to do "a whole lot more of the thinking, planning, deciding, hoping/coping, trial and error, dreaming, and experiencing of life for themselves."

At the end of the day—we want to grow adults who are good partners in life and good colleagues at work. And to do that, we sometimes need to take a step back. "When parents laugh and enjoy the moment but also teach the satisfaction of hard work, when they listen closely but also give their children space to become who they are, they wind up with kids who know how to work hard, solve problems, and savor the moment, too." In other words, the best gift you can give your child is showing them how to live life fully…so they might do the same in return.

Adele Paynter
Head of Lower School 

Charlotte Country Day School
1440 Carmel Rd Road, Charlotte,
NC North Carolina 28226
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