S1: You know, I remember he was seven and he was going over to a friend’s house and I knew they were going to make sausages on the grill and I knew my kid wasn’t gonna eat that. And so I made a little baggie. I’m so embarrassed to say that. I made a little baggie of pasta with butter and parmesan cheese because I don’t want my son to be hungry. Right.
S2: And now he’s a 20 year old who’s really outside of his comfort zone. And things are a little scary out there.
S3: Welcome to How To. I’m Charles.
S4: Each week on this show, we help folks work through life’s challenges, like preparing for a big audition or deciding whether to have a baby. And on today’s episode, we’ve a problem that’s very close to my own heart. How much should you force your kids to finally grow up? Our listener is a mom from Maryland who wants to know the best way to push her son into adulthood.
S5: My name is Lisa. I’m Owen’s mom. I’m a retired engineer. And now I study ceramics at a local community college.
S4: Oh, in 79. And he’s just about to graduate from high school to start the rest of his life. But he doesn’t really seem to know what that should look like.
S6: And we just don’t know what to do next. What do you mean? Well, he’s a good student. He’s good at everything, but he’s really not that excited about any of it. And he hasn’t really made any plans for himself. And I’d like to know as a parent how I can help him.
S7: And so you guys have probably been talking him about college for at least a year now. What does he say when when you say like college is coming up?
S6: Not much, is he? Is he planning on applying for college? I’m not sure. And, you know, I mean, I don’t really mind if he stays home and hangs out with us or goes off to school and then comes back home for graduate school or something like that. That that’s actually fine. But, you know, I I believe that, you know, he should be driving his own bus a little bit, and I’m just not sure how to help him get started.
S8: Lisa’s grappling with what a lot of parents encounter at some point. How do you help her kids leave the nest when it seems like they’re not all that interested in flying away? Do you like forced them out of the house? And then what do you do if they fall flat on their face to help? We decided to bring in a former Stanford dean, a freshman and a mom who has faced very similar questions herself. More on that after this quick break.
S7: We’re back with Lisa. Who wants to help her son Owen find his way in the world and tell me a little bit about Irwin and has he? Like what? What does he like?
S6: He’s kind of a laid back kid. He’s a good student. He’s athlete. He plays soccer and lacrosse. And I. He works it out back at the restaurant here. Yes. OK. But he’s really not passionate about a particular subject. And I don’t know how to help him pick a major and pick a school.
S9: Lisa is already thinking about how to help. Oh, and find a good college and a reliable career path, which makes sense. She herself is a retired electrical engineer with a p._h._d. And because of that, she’s been able to provide for her family. But even though owned as well in school and he plays soccer and he seems happy. Lisa’s worried. She’s worried that Owen isn’t concerned enough about his future and what comes next.
S6: Well, as a parent, should I be encouraging him more to go off to a Four-Year school? Should I be taking Hamline College trips to see different universities? I’m just not really sure how hard I should be pushing. If he’s not himself driven. Yeah. I don’t want him to, you know, come out with a four year degree of something that I pick for him to help Lisa.
S10: We sought out an expert who has seen thousands of high school seniors and their parents go through this exact situation.
S2: I’m Julie Lythcott-Haims and I’m the author of How to Raise an Adult An Anti Helicopter Parenting Manifesto.
S7: And you were previously at Stanford?
S2: Yes, I was the dean of freshman and undergraduate advising position I held for 10 years, 2002 to 2012.
S11: Wow. So you probably saw a lot of students and parents in various states of distress and euphoria during that period.
S12: I did. I would say there was a tremendous amount of achievement on the part of students with a tremendous amount of assistance on the part of parents.
S2: And my concern was when are they going to hunger to have agency in their own lives, to make their own choices, to solve their own problems, cope with setbacks.
S7: Julia’s kids herself, who are now out of the house, they’re young adults, but getting them over the hump to that adulthood, it wasn’t easy.
S13: Lisa, I have been there. My kids are 20 and 18. My 18 year old is a freshman on a campus 3000 miles away from me. And my 20 year old has decided to take a year off of college after two years. And it’s really my experience parenting him. His name is Sawyer. That is what’s filling me with compassion for you and Owen. Because if I could go back to where you are now to speak to my younger self of three years ago, I would say do not drag him down the path to college if he’s not ready to really grasp that opportunity by the horns and run with it himself. In hindsight, I realized I was the one more excited about college at the point you’re at with O-N. And I think if I had kind of put it to him to make the decisions about whether to make visits or where to apply and all of that, he might have owned the process more than he did.
S9: The issue, according to Julie, is that when your kids are Owen’s age, when they’re potentially moving out of the house and maybe going to college, that’s when they’re also learning how to become adults. And if you try and guide that too much, even if you’re just trying to help, you can delay the process of self-discovery.
S1: If you were to say to him, hey, oh, and it’s an exciting time, it’s your senior year. Whoa, how’s that going? And the college process is upon you. And, son, we want you to know your dad and I, we want you to know this is entirely your process. If you’d like to see if you can get a better score on that standardized test, we’re pretty sure you can, because you’re you’re you’ve accomplished so much. But whether you want to try for that is up to you. We’re here to support you around that, if that’s what you want. And ultimately, you know, whether you apply to college this year or not is up to you. And if you’re not feeling it right now, maybe continuing to work and going to community college for a year will be the right next step for you after high school. So when we want to just put those out there as as the options, honestly, I think that’s pretty much what we’ve said to him.
S6: You know, I said, well, maybe you can just go to community college. Yeah. And how did he respond? He’s like, okay. Yeah. And does that worry you? I guess I want to make sure that that’s the right thing to do. I mean, every night everybody else is moving on and going to college. But a lot of people are in a lot of people seem to have a plan and something that they’re excited about him and like. And I just want him to want something.
S7: Julie White, why do you think we feel this anxiety for our kids?
S14: Well, I’m not going to put this on Lisa, but I’ll own it for myself. I, too, am. You know, I have two graduate degrees, a college degree, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that, you know, I had a lot of ego invested in my kids outcomes. I wanted people to know my kids were smart and successful and I wanted, you know, that to be evident. And I realized the problem that I was so frustrated about working with other people’s kids was a problem I embodied in my own life and house with my own children. If we need our kids to be the evidence of our success, it kind of means we’re insecure and fearful and not feeling, you know, that we have worth intrinsically regardless of our kids. And so I joke when I’m talking to parents around the country, you know, get a life and your kid can get one, too. You know? Another is invest in things beyond your children and you’ll make room for your children then to inhabit their own lives instead of you hovering over their life.
S15: Yeah. I mean, I definitely since I since I retired, definitely my focus is so on them instead of letting them, you know, have a lot more independence and freedom.
S1: Yeah. And do you check in with them about their do you say like how’d you do on the science tests? How’d you do on the math tests and what happened in school today when they get home from school?
S6: Oh, yeah, I always do that.
S14: Yeah. When we have the ego need that is tied up in our kids performance, then we need to know how they didn’t school today because we need to know if we’re okay and if we’re accustomed to them being a 3.8 student. But then they’ve got a B on something. We might be worried. And you know, all of that can really get in the way of a seeing a kid as they are and demonstrating like I love you unconditionally. I’m not just interested in your math test.
S16: OK, so here’s the first rule stop confusing good parenting for ego maintenance. Our kids are not mini me versions of ourselves. You have to let go of conflating their success with your success.
S17: I’m reminded of a parent very similar to you who I profile in my book, How to raise an Adult who’s got a p._h._d. Both she and her husband of pitches. And they’re at the University of Michigan. So highly educated parents, they’ve got three kids. They’re great kids. But their eldest son just did not at this juncture, at age 17, follow a senior year, just didn’t have a sense at all about what he wanted next. And they panic. They’re like, he’s smarter than both of us put together, like, what is going on? And they learn from talking to colleagues that a number of their colleagues, who by definition are now people with p_h_d_ who teach young humans various subjects. Many of them hadn’t blossomed intellectually until their mid 20s. And so they didn’t know what they wanted to do right after high school. So they went into the workforce or they went into the military, or maybe they took a couple of classes at community college and the blossoming happened later. And I just want to put that out there, because, you know, there’s this sort of inevitability and this this sort of onramp feel or an arms race feel like no one’s going to college. We’ve got to go because we’ve got to keep up. But in reality, college will always be there. It’ll be there next fall. It’ll be there in the fall after and in five years and in 10 years. You know, he’s just not at the place where he is ready to make a good choice, frankly, about which college would be right for him because he’s not engaging around that conversation or that process.
S18: You’re going to end up making the choice for him. You might end up choosing his major for him. And all of that kind of leads to a pretty unrewarding undergraduate experience and a lot of dollars spent. I would like to avoid that.
S9: OK. So if Owen isn’t ready to go to college yet, what’s the alternative? It turns out that one possible answer is hiding in Lisa’s own past. And we’ll learn more about that after the break. We’re back with other Julie Lythcott-Haims and our listener Lisa, who wants to help her son Owen figure out what to do after graduation. Hey, Lisa, let me ask you something.
S7: When you graduated from high school, did you know exactly what you wanted to do?
S6: Oh, absolutely not. I actually didn’t go to college. I was 24.
S7: Oh, really? Yes. And. And why is that?
S6: Oh, well, no one in my family went to college. So it wasn’t an option.
S19: Instead of going to college, Lisa got a job, she was a typist for the U.S. Army, and then one day her boss said he was having trouble finding enough electrical engineers and this lightbulb went off and Lisa found a college program that would accept her. And one thing led to another and eventually she had a p._h._d in electrical engineering. It almost sounds like the best thing that ever happened to you was not going to college right away, right. That you like that you learned about this whole field. You didn’t even know existed. But I’ll see you learned that you could do it. Which it sounds like you didn’t know that after graduating from high school.
S5: Is that. That’s very true. Very true. I mean, if somebody went you said you have to get a math, a minor in math. I would’ve said, huh, that’s not going to happen.
S19: Here’s the next rule. It’s useful, particularly when we are freaked out that our kids might be ruining their lives to remember how unexpected our own lives were. If for no other reason than it reminds us that honestly, no one ever plots out the perfect existence when they’re 18 years old.
S1: Fundamentally, I know my job as a parent is to make sure my kid can fend for themselves when I’m gone. And so I said to my kid, Hey, kid, you know, there are five options when you graduate from this high school. There’s a two year college. There’s a four year college. There’s the military. There’s a full time job in the workplace. And there’s a structured gap year program. And I want you to choose one of them rather than let one of them happen to you by default because you didn’t actually choose another rule.
S7: Ask your kid where they see themselves in the next few years and feel free to help them sort out their options and then get out of the way.
S1: Like if you make it clear that there are five options. In other words, there isn’t a six option if you do nothing or you know, you kind of continue sort of bumping along. You know, he works part time now since he’s in school. Right. At at a minimum, ramping up to full time work would have to be required if you kind of let him know and you can sort of emotionally back this up that you’re not wedded to a particular path. You might be creating a little bit more of that distance toward autonomy that he needs in order to then show up in his own life and say, actually, if I could be honest with you, all what I’m thinking is blah, blah, blah, whatever it is, we’re trying to make room for o.n. to, like, show up. And sometimes it can be hard for a kid to do that if we seem to have a lot of ideas and we’re always the one doing the asking.
S7: Julie, let me ask you, because you probably I mean, when you’re at Stanford, I imagine you’ve got lots of parents coming and saying that exact same thing. Right. Like, I don’t care what my kid does, but I want them to be passionate about that. I want them to to work hard. I want them to fulfill their potential.
S1: Yeah, I think all of us parents feel that way. I certainly have contended with those feelings pretty frequently myself. And so as excruciating as it is, if they don’t seem to be blossoming right away or don’t seem to making the most of their talents, what we’ve kind of got to trust here. And it does require trust and a baby, a leap of faith about, you know, one’s journey over time. We’ve kind of got to trust that our kid, who is kind, hardworking, smart, as you’ve described, Ohan, is going to find a stirring in himself at 20 or 25 or 23 or 27. I’m not sure when it may just be that Olwen needs a little bit more time. And frankly, this is where gap year comes in, a structured gap here. In other words, like, you know, apply for a program that’s going to take you somewhere into an experience that’s going to be challenging, but a great opportunity to learn, you know, maybe being outside of his familiar zone, his comfort zone, where he’ll be jarred and jostled a little bit just by the new environment, maybe that’ll help awaken him to what he really wants out of life.
S16: What are their situations when Owen has sort of put himself outside of his comfort zone before?
S20: I don’t think he’s had very many. Really. What about you? I mean, he sounds like he sounds like a sort of sweet, easygoing kid, but but every life has its ups and downs. Right. Like, if I was talking to him and I asked him, Owen, what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?
S16: What do you think he would say?
S20: Oh, my goodness. I don’t know what he would say. I honestly can’t. You know, compared to my life, he’s got a pretty sweet deal. I really can’t think of like anything that would be like the worst thing that ever happened to him. I’m not really sure.
S17: It sounds like Owen’s had a life that has been relatively free of difficulty and things have gone well. And he’s been happy and everything’s fine. And I see that a lot in and I saw that a lot with students I worked with at Stanford.
S12: And I see in Silicon Valley the more affluent kids. When they encountered a problem, I would I would see them text a parent. Tell them what the problem was, knowing that a solution was coming. And I thought, wow, OK. All of this. Growing up with with parents who kind of always there, always responsive. He had left something at home. They brought it to you at school. You didn’t turn in your homework. They argued with the teacher. You know, they they told you which activities to do. They filled out your forms. You know, they kind of handled it. They were there as your concierge. Always. You know, that feels really wonderful. Except when you realize it can deprive the kid of having that hunger to figure things out for themselves and do for themselves. And that only happens when the parent is willing to pull back.
S7: Get in that truly make sense to me, because, you know, when my kids I mean, my kids are younger. But but even when they come in, they have a problem. I want to solve it for the right look. Like Natalie is kind of my job as a parent, but. But it’s fun for me. It makes me feel useful and like it feels like I show them that I love them by by taking away this thing that’s hurting them. But it sounds like what you’re saying is like, actually what I should do is I should just let them get hurt and figure out how to solve it on their own.
S1: Yeah, and that sounds horrible, Charles. Nobody listening to this really wants you to have said that. And they certainly don’t want me to endorse that as the so-called expert on the show. But you’re you’re exactly right. I mean, we don’t want them to hurt themselves irreparably. We want them to. We don’t want them to drown or fall off a cliff. But when a woman has something that goes wrong, like a snafu, a deadline, not met or something, he’s forgot to do that he’s got to do by tomorrow or he left something behind instead of stepping up and handling it or helping him handle it. To adopt an empathetic response, which is. Wow, that does you know, that’s unfortunate or sorry that happened to you, son. Something of empathy. But then you want to empower by saying that sounds like a problem a 17 year old can solve. And that’s a way of signaling. I know it’s a problem, but it isn’t my problem. Oh, and by the way, I’m pretty sure you can handle it. And when we’ve always been there to handle fixed manage the stuff for them, we’re sort of signaling, hey, kid, I don’t think you can handle it. Don’t worry, I’ll handle it for you. And that really undermines that sense of agency that we want them to have so that they are motivated to get out there and do what they need to do.
S15: I think when I was working, I definitely followed. I followed that. I mean, I would purposely step over bookbags and get in the car and drive them to school. And they would say, oh, no, I forgot my book bag. And I would say, up, that’s gonna be a tough day for you. Right. I would never turn around. And they knew it. But I retired a couple years ago. And and since I retired, if if he does forget his uniform, I do bring it to him. Yeah. Oh, of course. I have definitely shortchanged him on those learning opportunities.
S8: This is the last rule and it’s one that we’ve heard in other episodes in different forms. One of the best gifts you can give your kids is to let them experience hardship because we discover our passions and we finally grow up when life gets harder rather than easier. And when we learn how to deal with that.
S2: So I want to kind of offer the concept of intrinsic motivation. The opposite of intrinsic motivation is extrinsic. Think carrots and sticks. We often try to motivate humans, including our own children, with a carrot. You know, you get a reward. If you do X, where’s the or a stick? You get poked in the butt if you don’t do X, Y or Z. Right. And research shows, according to Dan Pink and just he and others, that extrinsic motivation only gets a person so far. Even if it’s an amazing reward, it doesn’t turn out over time to be very motivating. What we really want humans to develop is intrinsic motivation to care about their life, their wellness, their pursuits, their profession, their relationships.
S1: And so the best conversations to have with teenagers are not about college, but rather conversations that demonstrate that you care about them as a human. And so, you know, to be able to say like, hey, kid, what are the things in the world that are harder for you? And you try to say it in a chill way. So they’re not like moms trying to fix me. You’re trying to say it almost with the distance of I just really care about supporting you along the way as you lead this life.
S7: And Lisa, you you’ve reached out to us because you wanted some help on helping O-N figure out how to go to college or what to do next and to find his passion and to be fulfilled in life. And I’m not certain that we’ve actually answered that for you. Right. It seems like, actually, that the resolution we’ve got, too, is that maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking for and that maybe as a mom and as parents, the best things we can do is to actually not solve that for our kids.
S15: Absolutely. I really feel. Actually, I feel a lot better. I thought, oh, my God, am I not doing all the things I’m supposed to do? Why should I be pushing him hard or should I be, you know, what should I be doing? How can I help? How can I help? And it’s kind of good to know that I can just support him. And eventually he’ll find his way.
S7: I’m sure he will. I mean, and particularly with with a caring mom like you who cares enough to come on a podcast. That’s a good thing.
S21: I agree. I had a said.
S22: Thank you to Lisa for sharing her story with us and to author Julie Lythcott-Haims.
S11: You should definitely pick up her book, How to Raise an Adults. According to Lisa, she read the whole thing after we talked. And then she sent us this voice memo with an update.
S23: Hello, Charles. This is Lisa. My husband and I sat down and talked to our son about his options as Julie had listed, and we let him know that he had to start driving his own bus. So as of right now, he has decided to stay home with us for another year or two and attend the local community college. He’s planning to take general study classes until he decides what to pursue. I really feel like we are now off the hamster wheel and more focused on what is good for Owen and his supportive role versus pushing or even dragging.
S11: And as a total aside, Lisa, it turns out, is a member of Slate Plus, which is Slate’s membership program. Slate plus members get benefits like ad free versions of all the Slate podcast, including this one in exclusive episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence and Trump Cast. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you’ll be helping to support all the work we do here at Slate. If you’re interested, you can sign up at slate.com. Slash how to plus. Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a notice how to add Slate.com and we might be able to help. That’s how to at Slate.com. Finally, if you like what you’re hearing, please tell a friend and give us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. How TOS executive producer is Derek John? Rachel Allen is our production assistant in Merrett. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hani’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts, and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Asha Soldier and Jaclyn Sophia. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.