Does Helicopter Parenting Turn Kids into Depressed College Students?

New book argues yes



Julia Lythcott-Haims' pleads with parents to step back and let kids make their own decisions —and mistakes—in this excerpt from her new book, How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, which recently appeared at Slate:

The data emerging confirms the harm done by asking so little of our kids when it comes to life skills, yet so much of them when it comes to academics.

The data is alarming. A survey of college counseling center directors found 95 percent of them believe that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a "growing concern on campus." Lythcott-Haims saw this first-hand when she was dean of freshman at Stanford University. But, she writes:

The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere. The increase in mental health problems among college students may reflect the lengths to which we push kids toward academic achievement, but since they are happening to kids who end up at hundreds of schools in every tier, they appear to stem not from what it takes to get into the most elite schools but from some facet of American childhood itself.

Peter Gray has argued the same thing in his book Free to Learn. When kids don't get a chance to play on their own, they grow fearful and depressed because only during playtime do they get to be the adults—to learn how to make decisions, deal with consequences, solve problems and really be a person instead of a precious possession or pet.

What I hope people don't take away from this research, however, is the idea there is one "right" way to parent. There isn't. There's merely a growing recognition that Free-Ranging is not dangerous or nutty:

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says that there are three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:

  1. When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
  2. When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
  3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.

Levine said that when we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are. In short, it deprives them of the chance to be, well, human. Although we overinvolve ourselves to protect our kids and it may in fact lead to short-term gains, our behavior actually delivers the rather soul-crushing news: Kid, you can't actually do any of this without me.

That has always been the message of Free-Range Kids: Our children are safer and more competent than fear-crazed society tells us they are. It's recent social custom that practically mandates helicopter parenting—in some cases insisting on it from a legal standpoint.

So let's not rag on parents for doing yet another thing wrong. Let's just consider this another valid point Free-Rangers can bring up to help explain why our philosophy is perfectly healthy—more healthy, in fact, than the alternative.