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Dean Julie stresses independence as key for kids


“Once upon a time, a child came across a butterfly, struggling to emerge from its chrysalis, and filled with compassion, the child helped by peeling back the paper shell,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89, Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at TEDxStanford on Saturday. “Soon, the butterfly emerged, but it could not fly. As it turns out, the butterfly needs the process of struggling on its own, in order to be able to fly.”

During her talk, Lycott-Haims warned against the dangers of what she calls the “padded cell of childhood.”

“What worries me and my colleagues nationwide is the steady decline in the number of [undergraduate students] that are capable in going out into the world as adults,” Lythcott-Haims said.

According to her, this behavior is a symptom of the increasing tendency of parents to overprotect their children.

“We hover, we hover over them to ensure their success, hoist and intervene when needed,” Lythcott-Haims said. “But do you know what the message we send them is when we do that?”

“We are sending the message: ‘Hey kid, I do not trust that you can do this without me,’” she said.

As a result, Lythcott-Haims noted that there are more and more “adult children” that emerge into the world who are happy when their parents take care of them and who cannot tackle problems and face failures alone. However, she finished her talk on a positive note.

“I still think there is time for us to do right by these amazing young people in our midst — our children, our future,” she said.

To do so, Lythcott-Haims proposed letting the rising generation explore and experience on their own.

“We need to back off,” Lythcott-Haims said. “It is our job as parents to put ourselves out of the job.”

Acknowledging that parents want to see their offspring succeed, Lythcott-Haims nevertheless concluded that the main burden should be on the child.

“Sure, we want to see that our offspring has emerged from that chrysalis, but it is their job to do so,” she finished. “It is their job to fly.”

In an interview with The Daily after the talk, Lythcott-Haims explained why she chose this topic for TEDxStanford.

“I am making my way out into the world by the end of June to write about the things that concern me,” she said. “Chief among them is the topic that I chose today. It was an opportunity for me to test-drive the ideas and see how the metaphors worked.”

Lythcott-Haims is stepping down in June to pursue a master of fine arts in writing with an emphasis in poetry from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

According to Lythcott-Haims, Stanford tries to foster this idea of independence through several methods.

“When parents seek to behave in ways that are overinvolved, we explain that we would really like to have this conversation with the student only,” she said. “More proactively with students, we work on this notion of reflections, small group conversations with freshman students and advisors where the students can get to know themselves better.”

Lythcott-Haims said she saw the TEDxStanford event as a tremendous success.

“I loved it,” she said. “When I heard that TED was coming here, I was really excited for Stanford. The event was incredibly well-produced, very professionally organized and an immense pleasure to be part of.”