Raising Adults (Children are not Bonsais!)—August 2018

Parenting is never easy. Even in the best of times, parents must balance carefully their child’s desires and expectations with the reality of the world’s desires and expectations. However, some would argue that our society’s current devotion to scheduling virtually every minute of our kids’ lives, collecting and analyzing as much data as possible about their abilities and trying to save them from making their own mistakes is resulting in children who have a difficult time being equal to life’s challenges and having the proven skills to know they can accomplish whatever they wish to.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford Dean of Admissions, has both spoken and written a book entitled “How to Raise an Adult.” Among her common-sense (yet increasingly rarely heard) ideas regarding child-rearing, we find such specifics as:

  1. Allow kids to have unstructured time
  2. Keep them safe while providing the opportunity to grow
  3. Be there for them, not in place of them
  4. Teach to work hard and to understand that struggling is normal

Unstructured Time

Ms. Lythcott-Haims states that in today’s world “There’s no time for free play. There’s no room in the afternoons, because everything has to be enriching…” Of course kids should be active, but it’s neither healthy nor necessary to plan out every minute of every day. We need to allow them time to explore, ponder and try new things in an unstructured manner.

Keep Them Safe (but not too safe)

All parents instinctively feel the need to make sure their children are safe. I can’t imagine any parent who has seen their big, bruising 11th-grader get hit on the football field without experiencing a quick intake of breath and the subsequent relaxation when he disentangles himself from the pile, unhurt. However, inherent in that moment is the parent’s acceptance of some element of risk. We must do no less when it comes to non-physical risk. Our children need to know we love them regardless of their successes or failures; indeed, the price of worthwhile success is often many moments of failure.

Be There for Them, Not in Place of Them

Our kids need to know they depend on us to love them, but not depend on us to save them from themselves. When they make a mistake, they will learn from that mistake only if they pay the consequence for that mistake. If you accept responsibility for their failure, they never will. If they didn’t study for the test and, as a result, failed the test, please don’t blame the teacher or the coach, or their friends. Allow them the growth they are entitled to by holding them accountable.

Teach Them How to Work Hard and to Expect to Struggle

Life is hard, but it’s much better than the alternative. We do our children a disservice if we teach them (consciously or unconsciously) that they have a right to whatever they want, without having to make difficult choices or compromises. Even when we make all the right choices, we will find we still have to struggle. I will never forget the 9th-grader that complained to the teacher with whom I was team-teaching that the requirement that the assignment be turned in on time was “not fair” because he’d been up late at the game the night before. The teacher replied that the student was told the week before when the assignment was due and that he should have made allowances for his extracurricular schedule. He once again complained that it wasn’t fair. She then looked him in the eye and said, “Oh, my poor child. You have apparently been lied to; who told you that life is always fair?” We do our children a disservice if we don’t teach them to expect to have to make sacrifices to succeed.

Not a Bonsai

Ms. Lythcott-Haims made the point in her TED talk that she originally thought of her children as “Bonsai trees” that she was “going to carefully clip and prune and shape into some perfect form of a human that might just be perfect enough to warrant them admission to one of the most highly selective colleges. But I’ve come to realize, after working with thousands of other people’s kids, and raising two kids of my own, my kids aren’t bonsai trees. They’re wildflowers of an unknown genus and species; it’s my job to provide a nourishing environment, to strengthen them through chores and to love them so they can love others and receive love…My job is not to make them become what I would have them become, but to support them in becoming their glorious selves.” Wise words indeed!


1) How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

2) http://bit.ly/RSDbonsai

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Raymond School District