Julie Lythcott-Haims: On How to Raise an Adult
Lythcott-Haims dives deep into the hearts and minds of young adults, parents, and school leaders.
In this episode, New York Times bestselling author and TED speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims dives deep into the hearts and minds of young adults, parents, and school leaders. Along with host Tyler Vawser, they explore the history and source of overparenting, the many important roles educators play, the concept of fending, and how superintendents can support and talk to the many different stakeholders within a school community to support students as they prepare for adulthood, resilience, and how "to be".
Julie Lythcott-Haims: This is what we're about and that's the question you asked me. What are we actually about? What is our mission? I think we're trying to grow, we're trying to provide a community, a container, a set of experiences in which a young person becomes themselves; acquires skills, not just understanding of English and math and history and, and science and et cetera, but a set of skills around responsibility, accountability, taking, resourcefulness, agency resilience.
And every year they're in our district, these 13 years, they can level up not only their understanding of how to write or how to think, but also how to be in relation to themselves in relation to other humans.
Tyler Vawser: Today's guest on SchoolCEO Conversations is Julie Lythcott-Haims. Julie's a New York Times bestselling author. She's written three books including How to Raise an Adult and her newest book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. Julie's the former Dean of Freshman at Undergraduate advising at Stanford University where she earned her BA before completing a law degree from Harvard and a Master's in Fine Arts and writing from California College of the Arts.
Her TED Talk in 2016 on how to raise successful kids has over 7 million views. Her most recent book is a must read for young adults beginning to shape their own life and starting their life after K-12. For parents, her first book is an essential guide and companion. I found her books to be extremely illuminating, especially for educators as they work both with students and with adults, with the aim of creating kids that become successful, thriving adults.
Together, we discuss what it means to be a successful adult, the root causes of over parenting and helicopter parenting, the importance of thriving versus good grades, and how parents in the larger community can best help children, educators, and our schools succeed. Let's join the conversation.
Tyler Vawser: Well, Julie, I'm so excited to have you on SchoolCEO Conversations. Welcome!
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Tyler. Thanks so much. It's really an honor.
Tyler Vawser: Well, you've written three books, including your memoir, Real American, but the two that I want to dig into today are your first How to Raise an Adult, which is written to parents, and then your most recent book, which I've just finished reading, called Your Turn, How to Be An Adult, and that's written specifically to young adults.
And so, you're prolific, you speak a lot, you talk with a lot of parents and young adults. Your TED talk has over 7 million views, and that's really based on your first book, right, about how to raise successful adults. And so my first question for you might be a bit of an odd one, but I'm curious, what do your readers struggle with putting into practice the most?
So even after they've read your book, they've heard you talk, what do you think they have the hardest time putting into practice, even if they really want to?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: So just focusing on that first book, I think parents struggle the most with their own unexamined emotions that are leading them to perpetuate this over parenting behavior.
If we are micromanaging our children, treating them as if they are little pet projects or actually pets on a leash and we need to steer them down the path and smooth away and control and handle, there's something wrong within us and I will own it. I have been that part, I wrote that book, but I've also been that parent, so I have a lot of empathy for folks.
I think it's unexamined. Why am I so insecure? What am I so afraid of such that I'm staying up all night doing my kids' homework, right? I'm doing that in furtherance of what I need them to get the right grade tomorrow. So I am behaving unethically. I am behaving in ways that damage my kid’s psyche.
I'm implicitly conveying the message. You can't succeed in the fourth grade. Don't worry, I'll help you. Why are we doing this? What are we so afraid of? Why can't we let our kids have their experience in school, develop relationships with teachers, work through the curriculum, learn and grow? Why are we so unwilling to let that happen?
That's an unexamined insecurity and the parent that really must be tackled when we can back our, our own stuff off of our kids. Our kids are then freed up to walk that journey in the school system, learn and grow, et cetera.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I love that answer. Is it in your case, you're usually talking to people that have read the book, they have some curiosity or doubt about how they're raising their kids.
Is there anything that you have found that helps parents that maybe feel like they're doing fine or being over-involved in their kids' lives? There's nothing wrong with that. Is there anything that you've found that kind of opens the door, plants a seed of doubt and gets them to be more open to questioning that fear or those controlling instincts?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Good stories. When this book came out, seven and a half years ago, I developed a keynote and it was very analytical. I'm a former lawyer, I'm a former Stanford dean. I was trying to convince people with data and analysis. I was trying to convince them, show them the linkage between these behaviors and a lack of skills and mental health problems and kids.
And I got some great feedback, which is, you know, humans really learn from stories. And so I switched up my keynote and began. Stories that illustrated the points that I felt needed to be made, and that's what resonates when I tell the story about how my own kid was in a high achieving public high school in Palo Alto, smart kid doing well, but five hours of homework a night in the sophomore year, which was starting to crush the light. out of my child's eyes. When I tell the excruciating, painful story of me not seeing it, and then finally seeing it and finally approaching my kid and asking if he needed relief and telling the story of how he looked up at me and what he said.
You know, I almost cry each time I tell it. People in the audience are moved, and then when they're coming into the book line to buy the book. They look at me with a little wetness in their own eyes and they say, “I needed to hear that story about Sawyer.” Or maybe it was a story about Avery, my daughter, who's an artist, but I could not value that when she was little, I did not value it.
Again, I was at Stanford. I'm a product of brand name schools. I had this sense of, well, that's not gonna get you into, you know, the right college kid. So I did not see my daughter for who she is from age 3 to probably age 10, I was poo-pooing the artist in her. It wasn't until I was working with someone else's kid as a dean, I'm in my office hours, someone else's kid being steered toward medicine even though she wanted something else and she is trying not to cry in my office and I feel all this compassion for her.
That was my aha moment, like, oh shoot, this is the grownup version of my daughter. And you hear in my voice right now just on a podcast, I'm getting a little emotional. I tell that story to an auditorium. People come up to me in line like, You know, “I have an Avery, I have a kid. Thank you for telling that story.”
So it's storytelling, it's that, you know, people wanna feel not judged, but seen. So when I'm willing to open up about the ways in which I have stumbled in my journey as a parent, I show up there as an expert, but not with judgment. It's like, yeah, I've got a book, but I'm on this parenting journey with you.
I've done these very things and if I can be vulnerable and you can hear this expert acknowledging things that I regret . Then maybe you don't feel judged. Instead, you feel brought into this conversation and you're willing to kind of examine yourself a little bit more clearly.
Tyler Vawser: Fantastic. One of the things I thought was really smart in Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, your third book, was that you had these stories at the end of each chapter and it said like, don't take my word for it, and then you gave voice to people to, in this case, young adults and their story and their situation, and I thought it just made such an impact on me. The advice you're looking through, the how to, and then you get to these stories where like the rubber really meets the road and the journey that people are on, right?
It's not like day one, this happened. Day two, everything was better. But this, in a lot of cases, right, the stories took place over months or even years. But to be able to see that, you know, in brief was really powerful.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I'm glad, you know, when we write books, non-fiction books, self-help books, we have to ask ourselves, how am I going to convey all of this content meaningfully and your turn? How to be an Adult is essentially a guide to living your best adult life. It's pitched at 18 to 34, or maybe 15 to 34, but it's really for anybody who's looking to level up or retool. And so it's massive. It's a massive set of content and I had to figure out how to deliver it in ways that would potentially reach the most readers.
So the stories at the end are a way of me being humble and saying like, I don't have all the answers, see, I'm one person. You know, no one's got a PhD on how to live your best life. It's not something that, you know, academicians have greater insight into than regular humans.
So let me deliver some regular humans at the end of each chapter in a storytelling fashion. And maybe you will resonate with this person's journey in some way. Each chapter also has self-help. I mean a list of tips, cuz some people learn that way. Some people want the 10 step list or the 15 point list.
And then each chapter also has some narrative, some memoir from my life. So it's this genre mashup, different ways of trying to connect with the reader that I hope ultimately leads each reader at some point to say, wow, you know, she wrote that piece for me. Cuz that was really spot on for what I needed.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. The structure really stood out to me. I think a lot of times books are either a recipe and that can get frustrating cuz you don't understand why it's working. And then other books are so philosophical that you say, this sounds fantastic. I don't know where to begin. And so what you just walked through was actually really meaningful to me.
And, if I ever write a book, right, I think I'll, I'll go to yours first to figure out how does one structure a lot of information and content in a useful way.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Let me just say one thing, which is the index for a book that's as long as this is. We had to come up with a good index and I'm proud of the fact that one of the index items is pets that show up on page 19, 306, 397, and it says underneath it, see also cat semicolon dogs.
And that's because if there are 35, 36 storytellers in this book, at the end of each chapter in the aggregate, three or four of them have a dog or a cat, and those pets become relevant, there's a story of somebody who's got twin babies, you know, in their young adulthood and how the dog lays its lovely head on one of the twins on the bed, like, I've got this twin while you hold the other and there's someone else who has these fabulous conversations at a dog park across political differences. And he's like, I'm a raging liberal. I live in a town of raging conservatives, but at the dog park, we're all good humans. And maybe there's some insight there about what dog parks could do to save America.
So, you know, I wanted, if someone was like, oh, there was that great story about that dog. I wanted them to be able to flip to the index and find Yeah, that's good. The dog stories.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I even love that there's a study guide in the back. I thought that was smart, those are for the high achieving students that are still recovering from their identity.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well, in the paperback, we moved the study guide to the end of each chapter because we didn't want you to have to wait until the end and that was an important fix. Yeah.
Tyler Vawser: Good. Well, SchoolCEO Magazine and SchoolCEO Conversations, this podcast, are really about helping superintendents better market their districts and their schools.
One of the greatest challenges of running a school district, and there are many, is that there are so many different stakeholders. The big four are really the students, the parents, the teachers and staff, and then the larger community around the school district. So what I'd love to do in the rest of this conversation is really dig into this challenge and look at the different perspectives from different stakeholders and bring your experience and your research into it.
And so to kind of oversimplify this, what I mean is, you know, not all the stakeholders can agree on what the quote-unquote product is for a school district, right? So if we're thinking about students and young adults, parents are gonna have something different in mind, perhaps than a teacher, which is different from the community.
And then you have of course, the students themselves and figuring out who they want to be. And so I'm curious, if you want to just dig into that idea and that intersection where all those stakeholders are meeting. And I think to turn it into a question, it's what is a successful adult and what does that mean?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Gee, whizz, that is an enormous question, and I'm going to invert it. I'm gonna go out of, I'm gonna take the enormity of that question: What is a successful adult? And try to imagine it at the level of the individual human, who wants to ultimately be that successful adult? I'm gonna back up and say I think it's problematic to talk about product when what we're actually talking about is humans.
This is why marketing language can really fail us when we're at the work of growing people. Okay, so what are the metrics and deliverables for helping a human thrive? That is ultimately what we're trying to achieve, and I think we have to get away from it. I appreciate that superintendents need to and want to market their districts and their schools, but I want you to always be thinking, this is not a commodity.
I am not producing widgets or gadgets. I am tasked with the humble joy of helping young humans become their adult selves. My God, what a task. My God, what a gift. How can I bring myself to be of service to these young who are counting on me to get it right? Okay. That I'm getting chills as I say that, and I think every superintendent has to examine the work, ultimately, with that humility at having been given or having taken on this awesome task. Okay. So that's sort of a philosophical thing.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I think that's a great comment. Thank you.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: My God. And then I wanna say that private schools, independence, have a leg up in that they often have a mission statement.
And when I talk to those communities, I go back to your mission statement. What is it telling you you intend to do on behalf of these kids? And ask yourself, are we still doing it? In the face of parental over encroachment into the daily lives of teachers and kids and schools, are we still honoring our mission for public schools?
We often don't have a mission and we've gotta figure out a different mission, you know, a way to sort of craft that overarching statement that becomes our North Star. Okay. I think when you have that kind, like this is what we're about, and that's the question you asked me, what are we actually about? What is our mission?
I think we're trying to grow, we're trying to provide a community, a container, a set of experiences in which a young person becomes themselves, acquires skills, not just understanding of English and math and history and, science and et cetera, but a set of skills around responsibility, accountability taking, resourcefulness, agency, resilience.
And every year they're in our district, these 13 years, they can level up not only their understanding of how to write or how to analyze or how to think, but also how to be in relation to themselves in relation to other humans. So, you know, that's, it's this sort of lockstep process. Every year is an opportunity to build on the last, but I think being profoundly interested in, in each individual kid as a human, not as a test score, knowing that your job, Tyler, is to cherish every single kid in your district. And I think leaders must ask, who do I cherish and who am I not cherishing? And how do I know every teacher should be asking this? And the answer there for teachers is who comes back and visits you and who doesn't? What are the subset of kids you seem to sort of have a relationship with such that they come back when they don't have to.
They darken your doorstep cuz they wanna see you, which kids are not coming back? Who are you there for, not as connected to? And what are you gonna do to work on whatever within you is failing to connect with those kids. And hey, those kids tend to be the kids who inhabit the greatest number of intersections in their identity.
And a school leader must care about that and must go to their queer, poor kids, they're trans kids of color, the kids who inhabit the greatest intersections and say, “Hey, I don't wanna ask you to do any more work than you're already doing, but I want you to know it's my job to ensure you can thrive in this school. You can thrive in our district. And I can't know what it's like to be you, but it's my job to care. So if you ever feel like opening up to me about where in this school, where in this district you can be yourself and where you cannot. I will be all ears cuz it, cuz it's my job to ensure that every child can thrive here. And so I want you to know that your thriving is my mission.”
Tyler Vawser: It's really powerful.
[Break Music Intro]
Tyler Vawser: I wanna take a quick break to tell you about the next SchoolCEO conference happening on March 6th and 7th, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. This is a great opportunity to take some of what you're hearing right now and begin experiencing it with others.
We love the content that we put out in the magazine and in our podcast, but it's nothing compared to experiencing great speakers firsthand and hearing them cover concepts like brand and culture and influence in an environment that's really dedicated to help you do your best learning with no vendor booths, no crowds, no breakout sessions.
You get the opportunity to hear directly from keynote speakers over an entire day, and to do that with other school leaders that care deeply about shaping a culture within their schools that help their teachers and staff do their best work, that want to see their brand as a school district, improve and change the experience of their community members and their parents.
And ultimately what we want to help you do is do all of that so that you can reach the goals and the outcomes that you have for your students. We'd love to have you join. You can visit schoolceo.com/conference to learn more, and if you have questions, You can email me firstname.lastname@example.org and we'd love to see you in Memphis in March.
[Break Music Outro]
Tyler Vawser: You talk about this concept in the book about fending, and I think that's a really central piece to becoming an adult. And I'm curious, you know, how do you think about fending and just to keep going on that idea of, you know, where at that individual level, right? What does success look like? And I think fending is a key part of that. What else beyond fending is there to being yourself and being successful and being able to adult well.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: So fending is the basic things: getting up, knowing you can take care of business on behalf of yourself, and that's different in kindergarten than it is in 5th grade versus 8th grade versus 12th and life afterwards.
But fending is that most basic sense of, I am capable and I am responsible. It's on me all of,even those of us with significant disabilities of one kind or another, we all want to be able to do to the degree we are most capable. So even if we need someone to push a wheelchair for us, we don't want them over helping.
We want to do everything we are capable of, up to the point where we can't. There's a profound need within us psychologically to do stuff. It's called having agency. And we wither when our agency is taken away by the over help of others. In addition to fending, fending it being the most basic, we need to be in charge of what am I gonna do with my life?
So, chapter five of Your Turn is: stop pleasing others. They have no idea who you are. And this is about both your work and school pursuits, but also your identity. Okay, this is sort of pro, it's the, it's chapter 5 of 13, but it is probably the most fundamental mashup of life, philosophy and guidance for you on your path.
Like you are not someone else's pet. Go figure yourself out and be that person and, you know, there's a whole lot of other things you gotta know in order to successfully adult perfectionism is in here. Don't be a perfectionist. That's gonna make you miserable. And everyone else, instead of measuring your success by, was I perfect at the last thing I did?
No. Ask yourself, am I continually learning and growing? Can I take that snafu? Can I take that outright, mess up and learn from it? Have a little bit of worry, you know, shame. Have a little bit of discomfort, have a little of embarrassment. Fine, fine, fine. Learn from it. What will I do differently next time to achieve an outcome I am more satisfied with?
If we could all switch from being perfectionist to people who embrace a growth mindset, we would all be able to walk through this life with greater ease. Cuz we're giving ourselves a loving break. Like, okay, I screwed up. It's all right. I'm gonna keep going, and I'll be stronger because of it. If I was willing to examine it and learn and grow.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I love that there seems to be just so much uncomfortability with not knowing. And I think when we have our kids, I have four kids of my own, when they come with a question and they don't know, right? The instinct is to help them learn and then if they really struggle to just fill in the blank.
And I think identity is the same thing, right? Like not knowing who you are is a really hard question for all of us, wherever you are in your journey, and so I think we kind of take the little questions, right? The math questions. And we apply that same strategy as something as big as identity, which is like, well, if you really don't know, I'll start feeding you ideas instead of just teaching ourselves and especially our kids, to be able to sit back and let the ambiguity kind of wash over us and be okay with that for a while.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Beautifully put, and the problem is in today's childhood, in many of the communities in which, your constituents reside and lead, there is no time for ambiguity because we've got this sort of college admissions industrial complex that has duped us all into believing that the whole purpose of childhood is to get into college, and you better not waste a single moment.
The trouble is if a child doesn't have free time, everyday, including adolescents and teenagers, if they don't have downtime to just be by themselves, not on a device, but just allowing their brain to reflect on stuff. They lose the capacity to dream. They lose the capacity to be creative.
I've had Stanford engineering professors. I don't need the person with the 800 on the math and the 800 on the science. I need someone who tinkered in their garage and took stuff apart with curiosity and ingenuity, built something new; that's the engineering mindset, which we seem to not allow for anymore cuz they're so busy being enriched in their math and science.
They can't actually invent and create and so we've gotta build back into childhood and into schooling spaces and places for a human to be contemplative to, instead of saying, you're wasting time, like children today and young adults today will say, I don't know what to do when I don't, you know, when I have free time, I feel unproductive.
I feel like I'm wasting my time. They literally don't know what to do. We've scolded them for it and we haven't allowed them to sort of luxuriate, in downtime, but we must bring that back in order to foster and foment the kinds of thinking that ultimately will lead them to be well mentally and successful in their pursuits.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. My seven year old, just two nights ago, of course, I'm reading the book while this is happening and, we're coloring like a Christmas picture or something and she goes, what color should I make this part? I said, it's up to you. Like there. It's whatever you want. And it took her a few minutes to like really decide she really wanted to get that color right and know what, what is the right color in this picture.
And like Nora, it's up to you. You can decide. And she's the oldest, right? So that's hard for her to accept that, you know, there is not a checklist to do, right? This thing, or there's not a right or a wrong way: it's up to me. And just in the, I mean, she's only seven, right? But you start to see how that grows over time and becomes kind of debilitating in everyday life.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, so this reminds me of going into my own kids' public elementary school, you know, I don't know, third grade, second grade. And you go in for back to school night and the teacher has proudly displayed the 20 identical. drawings or paintings that the children have made, and you can't find your kid all, all you.
You have to look for the name because they're all identical because the art teacher decided that he or she was going to tell the kids, no, this is red, this is blue, this is how it goes. Right? So instead of art of all things, which should be. You know, the place where a person can really be outside the box, instead they're told to conform and, and stay within the lines, very ironic.
So yeah, a beautiful example of how you resisted the urge to tell Nora what color this should be. I really applaud that. It speaks to the imperative that we adults be able to take a deep breath and, you know, let me not control this. This is Nora's, you know, if Nora's, you know, running with scissors, you've gotta say, Nora, we don't run with scissors.
That's dangerous, right? But if Nora is using scissors and cutting something and making something weird, it's not on you to curtail that and say, Nora, what are you doing? That's not the way you know, you should be cutting this Christmas tree this way. Let Nora try to cut a Christmas tree the way Nora wants to cut a Christmas.
What's the harm? Again, back to your original question, to me, what are we so afraid of that makes us unable to let our kids proceed down the path of their life, taking the twists and turns that they will?
Tyler Vawser: So that gets to a really interesting question for superintendents, right? Because parents are, you know, they are the ones that are ultimately in charge of their kids, especially up until they're 18, but, educators, superintendents, play a really interesting role within that.
And so what advice would you give to a superintendent or a principal or even a teacher about how do they coach and guide and help their parents when it comes to raising their kids and helping them deal with a lot of the things that you're addressing in your book, right? How do they help them fend? How do they help them get away from perfectionism or worrying about what everyone else is?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well, tongue in cheek. I have a great book to recommend, How to Raise an Adult, that's all. And the thing is, I go to districts and they're like, we're assigning this district, you know, like we're, and you don't just assign it, you don't just, you know, recommend that people read a book or watch a webinar or listen to a TED talk: you engage.
And so community, let's step back. We parents adore our kids and are trying to do right by them. They want to know how to, don't wanna cause harm, and yet, as it turns out, this encroachment style of parenting is causing harm. So I recommend a couple of things: at back to school night, at the start of the year, I would encourage every department, every, there are a couple ways to do it, every teacher of English throughout the district, you know, K-12 or the elementary, the middle, the high, however you wanna group it discipline wise or age group or both. You have that subset of teachers sit down with each other and say, parental involvement is good. We want it, but at some point it crosses a line.
So let's create a piece of paper or a slide PowerPoint where we say, you know, call on the column on the left side, the heading is parental involvement, on the left side, draw a line; bad on the right side. And we're trying to tell parents don't cross the line. List examples of what good parental involvement in fourth grade English is or high school science is, right.
And then put the absurd examples that cross the line right outright doing your kids' science project crosses the line. Don't do that, you know, cleaning, doing the math for your kid is not, it crosses the line, right? Rewriting the essay crosses the line, and then also around skills building, right? Don't bring like rescuing kids by bringing their homework.
Don't have the desk at the school for all the things kids have forgotten. All your teaching kids is affluent. Kids can have their parents bring their things they forgot. It's an equity issue because what working class families can't. But also all your teaching kids is, “hey, my parents will always handle everything for me.”
Instead of I'm supposed to remember to bring my stuff, let them experience those consequences when they're young. That's how they develop the executive function slowly over time where they'll ultimately remember and be able to do it. So you can have all these things in your PowerPoint and your handouts to partner with parents like, “Hey, we want your kid to ultimately know how to do this stuff, so this is where we need you to help and this is where we need to be.”
Sure you don't cross the line. I would do that at the beginning and in digesting a book like mine or somebody else's, I would have coffees, I would have superintendent coffees. We're gonna have a community conversation. We're gonna read some stuff together. Ask ourselves with curiosity and humility, where do we see our community?
You know, in this, in this book, what are we, what do we wanna grasp as the low hanging fruit of what collectively we can agree to, or some changes we can make with ease and grace. You know, things like, are we letting kids walk to school? Are we encouraging it? Are we letting them bike to school? Are we encouraging?
Or do we have lines and lines of parents in the drop off? You know, cuz everybody's gotta microbus their kids straight to the door of school. Like, what is happening? You know, let's return school to children. Let's return school to children to the extent you're, you know, in a place that has buses or is walkable or bikeable.
They're all kinds of ways in which the school setting is a really important pivotal gear that can really sort of, when we can really bring greater, you know, ease and sort of a smoothly flowing childhood experience to children.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it's really interesting. I know from your TED talk you talk about chores and the value that plays, especially at home.
Very early in my career, I taught English in Japan, and I don't necessarily think we should cherry pick one idea from a country and try to transplant it into another. But one of the things that stood out in Japanese culture, and specifically in Japanese schools, students were responsible for cleaning the classrooms.
And so before and after each class in high schools at least, right? They are setting things up, they're taking them down. They're sweeping those types of moments. And I think, you know, American schools look very different. Right. And it's just, I'm curious how you think about chores at home, which I know you've talked about, but is there a place for that within the classroom and within the school as well?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: You know, I think Montessori also takes that, which of course we have, across America here in different communities. Look, I didn't know chores were important until I began doing the research that led to the book How to Raise an Adult and I was mortified cuz I wasn't giving my own kids chores cuz I was prioritizing their academic life and their extracurricular life and their social life and family harmony and not realizing that chores are are absolutely foundational. Foundational.
As Michaeline du Clef has written in Hunt Gather Parent, she's an NPR investigative journalist. She says, “chores give a kid a membership card in the family.” Chores are a way to participate in doing the work of the family, which leads to the sense of membership or a more common term belonging and belonging is so essential for our mental health and wellness.
So chores turn out to create the sense of belonging within the family. But also develop a work ethic like, oh, it takes work to make this place run. I'm expected to help. It gives me a sense of belonging. It also teaches me things.
The literal task of doing the chore teaches me things. It teaches me accountability. If I haven't done my task, there are consequences. And ultimately, work ethic blooms. So kids who have, this is why I think parents will be like, oh, I better do it. Right. Kids who have done chores turn out to be more professionally successful because they developed a work ethic.
So when they have that first job, whether it's in high school or after, you know, after high school or after college, they know not to just sit around and wait for good things to come to them. They know I gotta pitch in to make this thing work. I gotta pitch in to be useful.
I gotta pitch in to feel a sense of belonging. The boss looks at that and it's like, I appreciate you taking the initiative. I appreciate your stepping up. I appreciate your being useful. That person is a very valued young employee in the context of many young employees who are, because of how they've been raised, they're sort of sitting around and waiting to be served.
So it's a way to help your kid level up in the workforce ultimately.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That ability to take initiative. Right. To see and act and without permission at times. Right. I'm curious around teachers and students, if, especially thinking about high school students, what are ways that teachers can help the students while they're in the building, while they're in the classroom, prepare for adulting and prepare for, to put it in your words, right, for being like, after school is over, how do they better help them prepare to.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well, I think first and foremost, every adult in the life of a child is a role model, and you wanna be a terrific role model. So you want to be speaking in ways, using a tone, using body language, using actual language that is good role modeling, they're looking to you and they're looking up to you.
Don't let them down, which also requires looking after your own self as an educator, educators have been through so much, and our mental health as grownups is the core to our ability to function and let alone serve a child. So look after your own needs and, and for superintendents, I would say, and, and for school leaders, you gotta be fostering some kind of belonging to your own situ.
Like, what are you doing to ensure the container in which your teachers are expected to serve children is healthy for teachers in the pandemic? I had a group of educators I met with every two weeks for an hour and 15 minutes because we were being tapped as experts while, but while we were simultaneously struggling and we became a lifeline for each, a place to check in, a place to share what's going on, a place to be heard valued, supported in our struggles.
We take a deep breath and get back out there and serve others. I think every school should be doing that, you know, how are you handling staff meetings such that they are places where your teachers and staff feel nourished? Not whatever the opposite of nourish would be. You know, so looking after teachers so that they can be what children need is sort of step one.
I think there's a, there's a person in your turn whom I profile in chapter four. She. In the chapter called, Be Good, it's the character chapter, I profile a teacher named Dr. Kirsten Milks, who teaches in Bloomington, Indiana, and she's got a method of working with kids. to develop greater, content knowledge and mastery, but also to develop resilience that I think is brilliant.
Look, I'm not a K-12 educator. I'm not trying to get into the weeds of pedagogy, but I do have an example of someone I admire in this book. And basically she says, look, you can turn in your work and I will give you feedback. And if it's not, you know, if you didn't perform at the level you feel proud of or you ultimately wanna have, on your transcript, you can resubmit and I'll give you more feedback.
And you can resubmit as often as you want. And ultimately you decide when you're done. In other words, I'm here for you to learn and grow, and I will let you resubmit five times if you wanna move from an A minus to an A plus. And that's five times is what it takes. If you wanna move from a D to an A minus, I'm here for that.
You know? And it obviously takes a tremendous amount of time for her to, I guess, regrade and regrade, but what she's implicitly signaling to kids, You are here to learn and grow. I am here to be your guide and I will be with you every step of the way. She refuses to grade inflate, to just give kids the grades.
The parents are demanding, right? She is holding to standards and deeply valuing the process of time, the time that it takes for a human to get better and better through persistence, perseverance, and being rooted. She is ultimately rooted. She's believing that every child can get to a place of mastery, and it may take a long time for some kids, but that kid feels cherished, that kid feels believed in by Dr. Kirsten Milks. So that's why I put her in this book.
Tyler Vawser: I love that. I think part of it, we sometimes misunderstand schools as a place to learn subject matter and there's so much more happening. I had heard you talk about an experience where you went to France, and I don't know if we have time to get into it, but it reminded me of every class trip that's ever happened is we think we're going to Washington, DC or Boston to find out about, you know, the history.
But what you're actually finding out is what do you do? Like in your case, when you lose a wallet or or missed the bus you were supposed to be on, or Yeah. Your wallet's stolen even worse. Yeah, but you missed the bus you were supposed to be on.
Like those are the actual experiences that are teaching you. And I think there's something there that needs to be uncovered or understood by parents and educators, which is like the experience is actually happening like six or seven layers deeper than what we see at the surface. And, as I read your book, I kept thinking, what are those memories for myself that I look back on and that were transformative?
And it was never about a fact or a figure, it was always about a conversation with a teacher. Or a moment of panic and how I had to handle that by myself or how someone else came into it. Right. And I think it's almost like schools are this grand experiment. Not to necessarily just figure out how we'd learn, but how we can be and how do we kind of fail safely.
So I guess to turn that into a question is how do we teach our kids to fail? Well, not at the subject matter, but all the other experiences.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well, number one, we have to stop being afraid of failure. And this brings me back to the college admissions industrial complex, which says, ah, you got a zero in the fourth grade. You're not gonna get into the right math class in the fifth grade. You're not gonna get into the right college. And we have to just throw that thinking out the window. It's turning childhood into sort of a greyhound dog race, you know, where they just have to win every leg in order to get to the next leg.
You know, we're turning kids into little robots and it’s so unhealthy, so we have to believe that. We have to believe that there are plenty of college options, that there are plenty of options besides college. And that the learning and growing, which entails implicitly failure, in childhood and throughout life, frankly, is how we get better and better and stronger and stronger.
So, not to court failure, although here in Silicon Valley, the engineers and designers say Failure is your way forward. Like try to learn from it. You know, iterate, make it better. Try again. Keep iterating. If we could build more of that, if we could embrace that philosophy in K-12 schooling, childhood would be a place of growth.
And ultimately greater success for kids, but parents have to be convinced that not, you know, that every little moment of life is not a judgment, which is why frankly we gotta take these parent portals where parents can see the grades in the moment. Some software genius down the road from me in Silicon Valley invented that without regard to whether this is developmentally appropriate for children to have their every moment, you know, revealed to parents in the form of grades in the hour in which it happened, or the day in which it happened, or the week in which it happened.
We need to get back to report cards coming to parents at the end of a term or maybe monthly, you know, but not in the moment. It's creating. absolute hysteria and anxiety in children and in parents, so that's one practical thing. Turn off that, you know, open grade book. It's just harming kids.
The other thing I wanna say is when I do workshops in, you know, faculty meetings and staff meetings around the country, I'd say to folks, you know, you think your subject is math or science, or English or soccer, whatever it is, how you interact with kids. You. That's your expertise. The subject is, and the Latin root of educate is educare, which means to bring forth.
You are meant to bring forth a young person over the course of this semester or this year or however long you've got 'em. You're bringing this person, the subject is a kid. You're bringing them forth with this expertise. That is your passion. You're using chemistry to put young people forth to greater understanding, not of chemistry.
Yes, chemistry, but also of how to think and how to show up and how to be accountable and how to be never lose sight that your kid, that the children are your subject. Okay. Center them. Not the chemistry periodic table. You're using that periodic table to teach them about themselves. Okay? The greatest teachers get that.
And finally, I would say these, right the, the 16 year old trip, I was a 15 year old in France on a school trip, had my wallet stolen. My first morning there I was in the subway and these little kids stole from me. I'll never forget it. I learned I'll be okay when that stuff happens. There are helpers, but also there will be loss.
I will never recover that photo of my boyfriend. You know, I'll never recover the money that was. and learning that I was able to survive. That was such an important life lesson. And this is why I would say one of the greatest things we could do to kids is get them out of their comfort zone, cuz that's where they learn and grow.
They don't grow in their comfort zone. Comfort zone is by definition the place of safety and ease. It's your home, it's your couch. With Netflix, you know, we've gotta get them out into these life experiences, not where their life is threatened, but where they miss a train and they have to figure out what to, you know, parents are like, oh, we're gonna follow along on the sixth grade overnight trip, just in case. Like, what are you doing? You're depriving your kid of the learning that will happen when the bus breaks down and everyone has to get off the bus and be, you know, frustrated for three hours and wait for the next bus.
Like stop depriving your kid of the very life experiences that grow them up to be a successful human.
Tyler Vawser: It's interesting when we watch movies, right? That those are actually the stories that kids love to see, right? They love these movies. You see someone on the screen that is having that experience without mom or dad parachuting in, but we're not letting them have that experience on their own.
Right. I would like you to, if you can go kind of into the history of over-parenting, like what's your perspective on how that began and how that started? ,
Julie Lythcott-Haims: The introduction to How to Raise an Adult is where I summarize this and I'll try to do it in short. Basically, a whole lot changed in the mid 1980s.
We have been at this over parenting for two generations now. Both millennials and now Gen Zs have been subjected to it. And here's what happened. I think we became very enamored in the eighties with our ability to really leverage technology, control our environment. So we began being more safe in cars, seat belts, bike helmet laws, car seat laws went into effect across every state in the mid 1980s.
It led to this sense of we have to bubble wrap childhood. The three things I just mentioned are important for life or death. Right. All of those things, but it led to this sort of bubble wrap childhood, which doesn't help kids. We simultaneously, in those years, we created the play date so kids no longer found kids to play with after school.
Frankly, this was a judgment of mothers who were now in the workforce. Used to be moms who stay at home all month by the 80s. A lot of moms are working. Then there's the scrutiny of kids can't be home alone and we created the sense of you can't just go find a kid to play with. You have to have parents arrange it in advance with a playdate.
We began giving ribbons and trophies and certificates and awards just for participation in soccer or whatever the sport was. And, we started showing up on the sidelines of all those activities. Good parenting became, go to every practice as a Gen X-er. My parents didn't come to championship games, you know, as modern parenting – the most mundane practice and you show up and you support and you yell. We became more concerned about teaching to the test in the 80s. We were looking at our scores vis-a-vis international counterparts, and seeing American kids weren't faring very well. So we had to do more testing and more teaching to the test.
We just began hovering over. Homework and after school activities and play itself and watching their every move. We became afraid of strangers in the mid 1980s, stranger danger became really publicized so childhood went from this sort of wide open landscape controlled by children to really being watched and observed in every moment.
And the first kids to have the first play date in 1984, which has been documented, were the first to come to college in the late 90s, who were still holding their hands metaphorically. And when I discovered that, I was like, oh my God, light bulb. This is the connection. And of course, it was a small set of parents in the late 90s, but it became a bigger set in the mid 2000s.
By the time I left Stanford in 2012, college administrators were saying, this is what parents do now. They wanna register their air quotes, child for class. They wanna argue about roommate problems. They wanna get involved in, you know, I need an orientation session before I'll let my child go abroad.
Like, what are you talking about in Gen X? We were abroad before our parents knew we were out of the country. You know? What has happened? Why do we find our children so incapable? And of course, this sort of constantly being handheld and hovered over makes them less capable. So it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Like, my kid can't register for class. Why? Because you've always registered them for class K-12. So of course they don't know how to, at some point you gotta realize, parent, you'll be dead and gone and your kid was supposed to have learned all this stuff that you were very conveniently handling for them.
No, take a step back. Teach your job is to teach them everything. . Let them learn by failing. Okay. Ultimately step back so your kid can step forward.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's a really, yeah, that's a good way to remember it. Step back so they can step forward. I love that. What about the community as we are – and I wanna be sensitive to time here, but as we think about these different stakeholders that are in the life of a school,, the community plays an interesting role, right?
Not a daily role, but it is a key role to funding. Obviously superintendents have seen shifts around school boards and the community getting more involved sometimes, that's helpful. Other times more recently and maybe not as helpful, right? More kind of activist board members that have a particular agenda.
So, what questions do you think a superintendent can ask of a community to get them to think differently on these topics that we're talking about right now? If the community thinks of schools for one thing like for jobs or for scoring well on SATs, what can we do or what questions can we ask of them to help them think differently about what schools are for and how to better support younger generations?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well, you're alluding to something in the setup of this question that isn't embedded in the answer, but I wanna name it, which is, we're in a terribly divisive moment, and I know superintendents and teachers are really in the crosshairs, and I have a lot of compassion for them. And I just want anyone listening who's facing that to just know that I see you and I care, and collectively we've got to move this America back together.
We've got to come back together and be less divisive. And that's not gonna happen anytime soon. But take a deep breath and remember why you got into this work. Work on developing your own character and integrity and trust so that when you can show up in these divisive moments, you behave with grace, you behave with kind your character ultimately is what you carry with you. And in the face of challenge, in the face of vitriol, knowing that you behaved with good character is probably the proudest thing you'll be able to say. In terms of how to get a community to think differently about outcomes.
I think a great exercise would be: let's all as grownups in the community ask ourselves, what were the skills I realized I needed when I got into the workforce and my first job and my second job and my third job? What were my big oops moments? My big, ouch moments, and what were my like, yeah, I know how to do this and this feels good. In other words, let's summon the memory from our own journey about what works and what doesn't.
That hasn't changed. Okay. And then let's dial back and say, what are the opportunities in childhood for our kids to be learning these things and what is impeding that learning and growth? A reframe is if your Gen X or Boomer, you know, Gen X is still raising kids and, and now older millennials are too, and even younger balloons.
Do you wanna be sure what felt good as a child? What were those “Oh yay” moments – like the first time you went into a store alone and bought something. See if you can sum the memories of when you had agency as a child. You got to do something for the first time. And now I'm tapping into the work of Lenore Skenazy, who wrote Free Range Kids. Our kids no longer get to buy things in stores alone because we don't let them be alone. They no longer get to bike to a kid friend's house in certain communities because we're afraid, like, how can we collectively, as a community, say kids have to develop the agency. That includes buying things, it includes going places, it includes making food, it includes making decisions.
What are the three things our district can commit to? Children are going to learn this year, you know.All agree the beauty of being a school superintendent is you're in charge of a whole ecosystem and if you can build buy-in around the three things our community's gonna do, we're gonna say, you know, as of X grade and whatever, I don't, I'm not gonna prescribe it.
But at a certain grade or certain age level, kids can walk alone to school. And we wanna promote that. We wanna be enthusiastic about that, and we wanna be excited, and we're gonna all be on the same page about returning our community to a place of normalcy around what's developmentally necessary for kids to develop the skills.
So I think pick the low hanging fruits, summon people's memories of what they did as a kid. Get excited, get on board, read a few books that tell you why this is right and important andn build a marketing campaign around. Our district is gonna be one where it's colleges and employers, like the kids who come out of there, they know how to do stuff.
They're self-reliant, they're accountable, they behave with grace and good character. Oh, and they're really smart too.
Tyler Vawser: I love it. That's a great place to end it. Thank you so much, Julie. I really appreciate your time. I love your passion and I'm excited as a parent to practice these things, but also to continue this conversation with the superintendents that we talk to and that we work with.
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