Story by Leslie King
One of the highlights of fall 2020 was the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of Julie Lythcott-Haims not just once, but twice. The New York Times bestselling author of the 2015 anti-helicopter parenting manifesto, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, was slated to visit Durham Academy and host a talk in March 2020, with a return visit in the fall, but the pandemic forced a rescheduling and pivot to virtual events. Conversations to plan Lythcott-Haims’ fall visits affirmed that the DA community could benefit not only from the former Stanford University dean’s parenting insights, but also from her perspective as a Black and biracial woman navigating predominantly white spaces, which she details in her book Real American, published in 2017.
In anticipation of Lythcott-Haims’ first visit, Assistant Head of School Kristen Klein launched Preschool/Lower School and Middle/Upper School parent book clubs in which parents shared childhood experiences and both challenges and strategies encountered while parenting their children. In a September virtual visit, Lythcott-Haims (herself the mother of two young adults) spent an afternoon assembly with Upper School students, answering their questions and sharing her philosophy for equipping children for self-sufficiency as adults.
Later that evening she met with DA parents, advocating for an alternative to a “checklisted childhood.” She cautioned them about the dangers of overparenting and using extrinsic motivators for success, and offered strategies for tamping down anxiety over success metrics.
Step one, she said, is for parents to let go of the idea that they should engineer their children’s future.
“You're not supposed to be getting them those results in life — doing a lot of the planning and fixing and managing to make it happen,” Lythcott-Haims told them. “You’re supposed to be giving them the shelter and the food and the love, and then you’re supposed to get out of their way so they can succeed themselves.”
Step two is for students to ask themselves what they are good at, what they love to do and how they see themselves.
“We need them to be intrinsically motivated to work hard and to pick themselves up when they fall, as they will,” she said. “And the only way they can be intrinsically motivated, according to the work of Dan Pink and Jessica Lahey, is to give them two things ... they need connection with us — loving, unconditional connection with caring adults like parents and guardians — and autonomy.”
During Lythcott-Haims’ return visit in November, she focused on the personal narrative shared in her memoir Real American, a perspective that’s particularly relevant as the nationwide movement for racial justice took center stage over the summer and fall. She painfully recounted how she dealt with microaggressions, discrimination and racism on what she described as a journey from the innocence of childhood, to a place of self-loathing (despite being outwardly successful), to ultimately a place of self-love.
“I’m trying through storytelling in this book … I’m trying to show that racism is agnostic to class, it doesn’t care what class you are,” she said. “That racism doesn’t care what degrees you have — I’m this pretty highly educated person at this point, I have two graduate degrees — and racism doesn’t care who your daddy is. My daddy was assistant surgeon general of the United States of America, and while he was in that role I was being mistreated in my fifth-grade classroom on the basis of my race. … I think my memoir tries to show that even for somebody who’s had all that privilege, someone who was raised after Martin Luther King was alive and doing his work, I’m the post-Martin, post-Loving vs. Virginia generation of Black folk who had so much more offered and available than our ancestors and yet racism has not gone away.”
She also shared strategies about how parents can talk to their children about race, model inclusive behavior and overcome their own biases.
The generosity of a DA family made Lythcott-Haims’ visits possible, and parents and students alike were grateful for her time and expertise. If you missed her talks, recordings of Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult and Real American talks are available on the Veracross Parent Portal.
Her newest book, Your Turn: How to be an Adult, will be available April 6. Described as a guide to being a grown-up, Lythcott-Haims explores how the traditional markers of adulthood — finish your education, get a job, leave home, marry, have children — might not be the definitive, direct path they used to be. She also provides practical strategies for navigating uncertainty that she says can actually make one a better adult over time.