This summer, a museum in Washington, D.C. unveiled a new interactive art installation called “The Beach.” Comprised of two massive, white-washed swimming pools filled with white plastic balls and surrounded by beach chairs, one doesn’t just look at “The Beach,” one is encouraged to jump in and play.
That’s right, it’s a ball pit for fully-grown adults.
Vanity Fair, reporting on the “The Beach,” suggested we all “behold its splendor.” Perhaps some will. Others will behold this installation as a depressing emblem of the state of adulthood in America. Sadly a generation of Americans today seems unreservedly averse to adulthood and to attaining the fittings and responsibilities that customarily accompany that status.
In her new book, How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims examines the root of this cultural shift and describes how parents have fundamentally changed in ways that are actually impeding, not helping, their kids’ progress on the healthy and heretofore normal trajectory into adulthood. In the process, parents are making themselves crazy with stress and finding they enjoy parenting less and less.
Lythcott-Haims has unique insights from her experience observing both parents and their offspring on the cusp of adulthood. She’s not a child psychologist or a pediatrician or even an academic researcher conducting studies on the psychological health of young adults. Yet, in her time as freshmen dean at Stanford University, Lythcott-Haims witnessed how young adults and their parents interact. By the time she left her position, Lythcott-Haims felt parent-student relationships “felt, simply, off.”
I began to worry that college “kids” (as college students had become known) were somehow not quite formed fully as humans. They seemed to be scanning the sidelines for Mom or Dad. Under-Construction. Existentially impotent. . . . Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, checklisted childhood that had been commonplace since the mid-1980s and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults?
Before answering that question, consider an excerpt from a recent interview in an online fashion magazine with a ten-year old “rich kid” who fancies himself a “kidult,” (a “kid who acts like an adult”). This “kidult” receives a $350-a-month allowance, has his own Gold American Express credit card (which is paid monthly by his mother) and considers himself “picky” about the high-end clothing designers he chooses to wear. When asked if he had chores, the “kidult” responded, “I don’t have any. I just relax. My nanny does everything.” Lord Fauntleroy also revealed he’s never mowed the lawn and can’t bear to take the garbage out because of the smell.
Does this strike you as a child being set up for a healthy adult existence? Sure, one could say this is just the ramblings of a child of the super rich, but are average moms and dads so different? Lythcott-Haims suggests not and statistical data bears this out. She writes that in the 1960s, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by age 30, achieved the milestones most commonly associated with adulthood: graduating high school, leaving home, financial independence, getting married, and having children. Today, that number has slipped to 50 percent for women and 33 percent for men.
Overbearing parents who do instead of teach are partly responsible for this downward trend. Lythcott-Haims notes that the pattern begins with parents who simply don’t understand that part of their job is to teach their kids how to actually live life. Focused on a checklist of “accomplishments,” many parents forget that teaching children basic life skills—how to cut their own meat, do laundry, and talk to strangers—is just as important as making the traveling soccer team.
Children who lack these coping and life skills often confront larger problems, including mental stress and in some extreme cases, mental disorders. Lythcott-Haims includes some grim statistics in her book:
? A 2013 survey of college counseling center directors: 95 percent said the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus, 70 percent said that the number of students on their campus with severe psychological problems has increased in the past year, and they reported that 24.5 percent of their student clients were taking psychotropic drugs.
? A 2013 American College Health Association survey of 100,000 college students found 84 percent felt overwhelmed, 60 percent felt very sad, 57 percent felt very lonely, 51 percent felt overwhelming anxiety, and 8 percent seriously considered suicide.
What’s striking about these statistics is that these surveys weren’t limited to the young adults attending high-pressure Ivy League universities, where stress and anxiety among the student body are more the norm; these outcomes are happening everywhere. Writing on Slate about her book, Lythcott-Haims describes the problem:
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.
Lythcott-Haims has several suggestions for how society can reverse this trend. She’s not suggesting we all suddenly turn our backs on our kids, cutting them off at 18 with a wave goodbye and a pat on the back. But she urges parents to remember a simple rule about raising kids: do it in a way “that inculcates in them a sense of how to be adult in the world, in age-appropriate ways, beginning in early childhood.”
To do this, Lythcott-Haims suggests parents create a different kind of checklist: age-appropriate chores, lessons in basic grooming, urging the memorization of important names and numbers, teaching basic cooking skills and cleaning techniques, and teaching them to care for their belongings. Lythcott-Haims also urges parents to “Reclaim Your Self” saying, “With all that is on our calendar and on our minds related to our kids’ care…there is little room for us to focus on looking after our own adult selves…[which is] the best way to teach our children how to be an adult.”
I think all parents can remember moments they’ve hovered, intervened, or overprotected their children unnecessarily. Lythcott-Haims admits that she, too, struggles with this. But she advises parents to be aware of the consequences of these actions and to remember that while hyper-parenting might feel good or allay the immediate discomfort we feel for our child, it may eventually lead to lasting disadvantages for the very child we’re trying to protect.
This is a tough paradox all parents deal with when raising kids. But learning to let go may help these future adults much more than protecting them as children.