Helicopter Parenting Author/Speaker’s Visit Spurs Schoolwide Book Club
Book Club

Story by Assistant Head of School and Upper School English teacher Kristen Klein

If you watch Julie Lythcott-Haims’ critically acclaimed and wildly popular November 2015 TED Talk (4,597,447 views), her parenting manifesto can be distilled down to this: “There’s a certain style of parenting these days that is messing up kids… where parents feel like a kid can’t be successful unless the parent is protecting and preventing at every turn, and hovering over every happening, and micromanaging every moment, and steering their kid toward some small subset of colleges and careers… our kids end up leading a kind of ‘checklisted childhood’.” 

In her New York Times bestselling book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims draws on her experience as both a dean of freshman at Stanford University and as a parent to examine the modern problem of over [or helicopter] parenting. I first encountered Lythcott-Haims’ work in 2015 and flew through her book, unable to put it down. As a then-director of the upper school at Pittsburgh’s Winchester Thurston School, the tensions and concerns she explored were ones I was all too familiar with — parents who prioritized perfection with their sights firmly fixed on getting their children into the “right college,” and students who measured their self-worth and success through a resume-driven checklist of accomplishments like grades, scores, homework, leadership and service. From her front row seat at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims witnessed the result — first-year college students who were burnt out and riddled with anxiety or depression because they weren’t allowed to develop their own resiliency or resources for success.

Unsurprisingly, our students, parents, faculty and administrative team note those same tensions here at Durham Academy. At our summer administrative team retreat, we decided to devote significant time this year to discussing and addressing the tension between our desire to even more fully align with and live out our mission to prepare students for moral, happy and productive lives and our need to be (ad)mission driven as well, to equip our students to succeed in the college admissions process. We’ve had productive discussions with our full faculty and board of trustees about potential ways to successfully strike that balance. We hope to find an ally and a resource in Lythcott-Haims when she visits DA in March.

Because we knew the concerns raised in Lythcott-Haims’ book would resonate with many parents, we thought a book club might be a creative way to build community and partnership around this common theme. On Nov. 4 a small group of Preschool and Lower School parents gathered for a new DA book discussion group. Co-facilitated by a small team of administrators, participants shared childhood experiences and both challenges and strategies encountered while parenting our own children. Lythcott-Haims’ book spurred our reflections, and her story and approach set the open and reflective tone for our conversation.

Lythcott-Haims begins by reporting how we parent now, and she gives historical context for how we’ve arrived here. In the book’s second section, she presents a sobering set of consequences children experience, explicitly noting that while we can’t show causation between our parenting and teaching choices and student outcomes, the correlation is clear. She shares a plan for how we can move forward to better prepare children to become self-sufficient, resilient and moral and happy adults. Throughout the journey, she reflects upon her own fears and challenges as a parent, and she directly calls out the college admissions “arms race” and her view of its clear impact on young adult mental health.

In addition to hosting two book clubs with Lythcott-Haims’ text (one for Preschool and Lower School families and one for Middle and Upper School families), and thanks to tremendous support from a DA family, we will also host Lythcott-Haims on campus March 19 at 7 p.m. in Kenan Auditorium. She will speak with parents, Upper School students and faculty to advocate for “another way” forward, one that will further aid us in encouraging our students’ developing independence and preparing them to thrive as adults.

We invite you to join us on our journey. Our Preschool and Lower School book club will meet again from 8:15 to 9 a.m. on Dec. 9 and Jan. 23. Our Middle and Upper School book club will have three meetings in January, February and March. In addition, please join us for Julie Lythcott-Haims’ visit in March. Our families are critical partners and advocates for a more mission-driven approach that supports students’ wellness, self-sufficiency and readiness for college and, more importantly, beyond.