How to Raise an Adult (And how not to)

In a previous post, we looked at how the fear of what might happen keeps our children from experiencing the world to its fullest right now. The flip side to the coin of fear is the fear of what might not happen to our children in the future.  
We live in a society that is increasingly characterized by parents who feel, not only obligated, but honored, to “help” their children, in order to ensure their future success.  If parents allow their children to make too many of their own decisions, they might accidentally  “mess up”, “get lost”, “flounder” or, God forbid, “fail”.

Someone who has experienced this phenomenon first-hand is Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult, and featured expert in the documentary, Chasing Childhood. She worked for 10 years as dean of students at Stanford University and eventually came up with a “new” checklist based on some of the skills that she saw were lacking in many of the students that she advised. She concluded that an 18-year old should be able to:

  1. Talk to strangers.
  2. Find his way around.
  3. Manage his own assignments, workload, and deadlines.
  4. Contribute to the running of a household.
  5. Handle interpersonal problems.
  6. Be able to cope with ups and down.
  7. Earn and manage money.
  8. Take risks.

She adds this warning: “Remember: our kids must be able to do all of these things without resorting to calling a parent on the phone.  If they’re calling us to ask how, they do not have the life skill.”  


This checklist brought to mind an experience I had at 16, as a brand new driver. I was on my way home from basketball practice and, as I coasted down a hill a couple miles from my house, the car began to chug. By the time I realized what was going on (these were the days before you could see exactly how many gallons were left in the tank) it was too late, and I just managed to pull into a neighborhood. This particular neighborhood had the biggest, most expensive houses in our town (as well as a reputation for snobbery). I felt self-conscious pulling over in front of the first massive house. I had no cell phone (they weren’t around yet either) and considered my options. I could walk home, but it was cold and raining heavily, or I could knock on a door and ask to use their phone. I chose the later and braced myself for a snubbing.

My expectations could not have been more mistaken. Not only did this family welcome me in to use their phone, but when I couldn’t get ahold of my parents, the gentleman of the house offered to go to the gas station for a gallon of gas and put it in my car so I could make it there myself. While waiting, I had a pleasant talk with a mother, whose son (a few years older than me and appeared to be on the autistic spectrum) asked if I wanted to see his baseball card collection. We looked through his cards and chatted a bit. From the appreciative look on his mother’s face, I sensed that social opportunities for this young man were rare. When his father came back in the house, I thanked them all profusely and headed to the gas station to fill up my car.

The whole ordeal couldn’t have lasted more than an hour. But in this short span of time with these “strangers”, I learned important lessons on hospitality, sacrifice, kindness, the patience of a mother, the power of a listening ear, the impact of loneliness, the stereotypes I held about the super-rich, and the value of a neighbor. In short, I was humbled.

Based on Julie Lythcott-Haims’ research, I don’t have to wonder too hard as to what a teen today might do in the same situation. She would call her parents from her mobile phone.  And if, for some reason, they didn’t answer, she would start calling friends until someone could come bail her out.  In the slim chance her phone had died (and she was without her portable charger), it would be paralyzing because she would very likely consider knocking on a stranger’s door as out of the question.  Who knows who could be lurking behind it? Probably someone just waiting to abduct her! (This may also be why we feel increasingly disconnected from our local community, including our neighbors.  But that’s a topic for a later post.)  I’m not saying that it’s wrong for children to call their parents, and would expect my own children to do so, but I also see all the lessons that would be missed. And this is our dilemma in parenting today.

You might think that kids just don’t want, or are not ready for, the responsibilities in the checklist above, but Vicki Hoefle, author of Duct Tape Parenting, found the opposite to be true.  In her research, the children she interviewed stated that they most wanted:

1) To be self-reliant

2) To feel capable

3) To have ownership over aspects of their life.  

So why is it so hard for parents to let go of responsibilities that their children could easily take on by themselves? Hoefle explains that there are underlying beliefs that parents, usually mothers, have about their children. I have to admit that I spotted myself in two of the following categories (numbers 2 & 3). What about you?

  1. Kids just want, and deserve, to have fun”- Here, parents desire an idyllic childhood for their children which involves not making them do anything that might hamper their enjoyment, like chores and other responsibilities.
  2. “I’m faster, better, neater, and a bit of a perfectionist, and it’s just easier if I do everything.”– This is the efficient, probably over-scheduled, mom who doesn’t have time for their children to be involved in the process of chores, cooking, etc.
  3. “If my kids don’t look good, behave politely, play fair, and do the right thing all the time, I’ll look like a slacker parent with loser kids.” My friend, Vaneetha, calls this using our children as billboards.  And it’s not a good practice.  
  4. “I don’t want my child to grow up and not want me around so I’ll just make sure she needs me enough.” This is what I call the “Mommy-needs-to-be-needed” syndrome.

So much of what we do with and for our children boils down to how we define success for them.  If success ultimately means high exam marks, elite university acceptance, and a high-paying job, then there is little room for choice in our child’s life and definitely no time for failure. If, on the other hand, your desire is for your child to be privately happy and publicly responsible, then the definition of success becomes much more broad and it’s a whole lot easier to let go of societal expectations and trappings. Julie Lythcott-Haims defines success like this:

 “If we’re just doing what we’re good at, but we don’t love it, then we are drones in our own life. If we’re doing what we love, but we’re not good at it, we’re not going to get paid. If we’re doing what we’re good at and what we love, but it’s with people who do not value us in our identities, we will wither.  When a human lives at this intersection, that is what it means to lead a successful life.” 

Here are a few things to think about moving forward:

  • What are some things that I do for my child that he is able to do on his own?
  • According to Julie Lythcott-Haims’ checklist, are my children prepared (or on track) for life on their own?
  • Do I bail my children out instead of letting them learn via natural consequences and problem solving?
  • Does my definition of success consider who my child is, including their interests and desires, or is it solely dictated by my own interests and desires for them?

I would love to hear below what you are learning in your journey about how to raise an adult (and maybe even some confessions of how not to)!

Success! You're on the list.

2 thoughts on “How to Raise an Adult (And how not to)

  1. tatanaustin says:

    This article really resonates with me – as it says, “Does my definition of success consider who my child is, including their interests and desires, or is it solely dictated by my own interests and desires for them?”

    I was SO guilty of that as my kids grew up, but very thankful I resisted the urge to “control” them in spite of being the ‘successful corporate career guy’ that knew better for them. My daughter wanted to be a teacher and I argued with her about how that was not a ‘lucrative’ career. Today she is an amazing mom that homeschools her kids in a way I never imagined and is having an impact with others in education. Secondly, one of my sons wanted to go to an art and design school… my thought was “are you kidding me?!” Today, he has used his great gifting to create some awesome videos that are relevant and socially impactful. I’m glad I acquiesced when they insisted they wanted to do what they had a heart desire to do. Everyone is gifted differently and parents need to explore how to maximize that in their kids live. Unfortunately, the traditional education system does not allow that to flourish.

  2. Katya says:

    Thank you for such a great blog!
    I remember as a child I hated doing chores. My mum used to leave me notes “Clean the flat. Your mother”. I grew up with my grandparents and parents and my granny retired the moment I became 6 years old and was always there for me when I came back from school. My mum was not happy that granny did everything for me and they argued. My mum wanted to give me more chores and let me make my own decisions, but my granny was secretly Doug them all! So never underestimate the power of granny!
    Eventually when I was 20 my parents managed to buy a flat (we were very poor all my childhood and teenage years) and my brother and I were left to do stuff and it was actually a great experience and made me more prepared for when I left home country at 22.
    Later on I was grateful to my mum that she gave me all those chores and independence.
    Now being a mother I see how not easy it is to let go of that “I can do it faster” syndrome. I also found another category that I am guilty of – “you will be able to do it later, you are still small now”. But never underestimate the power of a 5 years old. Recently I was struggling with some work deadlines and I had piles of chores. I had to ask my 5 years old for help – she looked at me and just went to the drying rack and collected and folded all the clothes. Yes, not perfect folding but hey! It was in and it was folded. I was proud inside and she felt that she can do it and said to me that she wants to help more. Of course there are things that might be not very easy for them, but I always think about tribes in Africa or indigenous tribes in South America where children as soon as they start walking or maybe even earlier (something I always wanted to learn more about) are getting involved in all the family activities.

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