At 5 a.m. on the morning of the first day of school, I wake with a start. It feels like I am the one starting middle school today, but it’s the anxiety of launching my daughters into fifth and seventh grades that’s roiling my stomach and making my head spin. And what do I have to be so worried about? My kids are lucky to attend a nurturing, warm-hearted school where they get a luxurious amount of individual attention and are supported in ways many parents can only dream of. They are happy there, for the most part, and have been there already for many years—the only big change this fall is the start of middle school for my younger daughter, a transition her sister has already weathered.
Yet here I lie, sick to my stomach with worry, totally unable to sleep. My mind spins through all the things that could go wrong for my girls this year and then takes a few turns through everything I haven’t done to smooth their paths. I have purchased the school supplies, the new backpacks, the sneakers and sports equipment they might need. I have helped choose outfits for the first two days (picture day!) and made sure they have appropriate school shoes after a summer of flip-flops and crocs. Their favorite breakfast foods are waiting in the kitchen, their phones are charged and we’ve reviewed the bus schedule. I am, by most measures, a good parent who’s prepared my children well.
But I haven’t contacted the seventh-grade learning specialist about my older daughter, as we’ve done in the past. I don’t even know who that is this year, I suddenly realize. Will he or she be aware of her dyslexia and the challenges it poses? Also, at orientation day yesterday, I went to the fifth grade meeting because the simultaneous seventh grade orientation was for students and “new parents”—but I already knew all the fifth grade information, and now I’m in the dark about the seventh grade teachers. Oh, and we didn’t buy either child a smartphone—will they be outcasts? On and on my mind races, imagining every possible bad outcome of this day, until finally I give up and reach wearily for my bedside table, hoping I’ll find something there to distract me.
It’s my lucky day. The first book on the stack is How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. I can’t even recall where I heard about this book, but I couldn’t have chosen a better morning to begin reading it. Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford who is raising two children in the so-called “high-stakes” environment of Palo Alto, has a lucid vantage point on the current state of parenting. She candidly describes how parents have become increasingly involved in children’s lives, progressing from “helicopter”—always hovering—to “lawnmower”—removing every obstacle from their paths—as well as the detrimental effects this over-parenting has on children as they enter adulthood. Her argument is both persuasive and well-supported by research; by holding on too tightly and by valuing the wrong things in our children, she says, we run the risk of raising future generations who lack the independence and confidence to succeed without us. In other words, we’re working at cross-purposes with ourselves.
In my dark bedroom, my stomach starts to unclench. I remind myself that my parents never spoke with teachers before the school year began, nor did they always know all their names and faces. They probably remembered (most of the time) what grade I was in that year, and they certainly nagged me about homework, but they didn’t involve themselves on a granular level with my day-to-day schoolwork and activities. I know they had anxious nights over me and my sister, that they cared deeply about our successes and failures, but I don’t believe they held themselves emotionally accountable for our feelings the way we parents do now. In fact, every time I write about some adolescent trauma, my father is cheerfully astonished: “I had no idea you felt like that!” he invariably reports. And truly, that’s how I wanted it—I cherished my growing independence, both actual and emotional. It was the best thing, by far, about that turbulent time, and many of my generation recall that nascent freedom with similar feelings of nostalgia and pleasure. Why, then, are we having such a hard time allowing our children to grow apart from us?
Lythcott-Haims’ most salient point is how many poor parenting choices arise from fear, albeit fear rooted in love: we are afraid our children will suffer, fail or fall apart without our intervention and support. And yet, parenting from a place of fear and anxiety encourages the growth of the very flaws we long to avoid. By lovingly smoothing their way through each difficult moment (and middle school is essentially a four-year-long difficult moment, I seem to recall), we inhibit them from developing their own coping strategies and ultimately hamper their self-confidence rather than building it. We need to encourage independence even when it brings failure or unhappiness—only by experiencing those emotions on a smaller scale can they learn to handle them as adults.
In my daughters’ middle school, one of the new things is receiving letter grades for the first time. Early in my older daughter’s first semester of fifth grade, she had a Mandarin quiz: one of the first graded assessments she’d ever had, and in a brand-new language to boot. She put in a cursory amount of study time and then moved on. I asked whether she’d done enough, and she said she had, but I couldn’t let it go. “You won’t do very well if you don’t study harder,” I berated her. “Mommy. I’ll live,” she replied.
I’ve told that story many times as a self-deprecating comment about how my anxiety about grades exceeded hers. But when it happened, I was worried. I mentioned it to other parents, adding that I thought she should be to be little more concerned with her academic performance. Several other mothers immediately told me to be careful what I wished for; their fifth-graders were crying almost nightly over the stress of grades and trying to hew to a near-impossible standard of perfection.
I now try to remind myself about that exchange frequently, and how I would prefer to have a child who steers a course by her own ambitions, not by mine or by some abstract idea of achievement. After all, we don’t want our children to get bad grades, but when they do, do we want them fall apart or to regroup and try again? Finding the right balance between letting go—or at least loosening the reins—while remaining supportive and engaged may be the greatest lesson of parenting tweens and teens. For parents like me, it’s definitely the biggest challenge.
So when my alarm rings at 6:30, I put down my book and go to wake my daughters. After they’re on the bus, I post about my morning revelation and instantly get messages from five other friends: they’ve also been awake since dawn, fretting about the new academic year. Next September, we decide, we’re going out for coffee at 5am on the first morning of school—maybe the kids can make their own breakfasts.