27 Apr 2021

How to 'adult' a guide from Julie Lythcott-Haims

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 27 April 2021

Adulting is a new verb with a new list of challenges. It used to be, get an education, a job, get married have children. It’s more complicated now says former dean of undergraduate advising at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims.

She’s the author of the New York Times bestselling book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success.

And after years of working with young people she’s come up with a sequel focussed on young people that urges them to stop pleasing people, find a purpose and grow up. It’s called Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.

Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims Photo: supplied

The term ‘adulting’ is often used by millennials and is defined as behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, particularly accomplishing necessary but mundane tasks. Lythcott-Haims says there seems to be a millennial affliction and it’s unclear whether they don’t know how to be an adult, or they don’t want to.

“I don’t put the blame for those things at their feet. I think there’s been something about the way we’ve raised them, at least here in the US, that has made them afraid of a stage of life that prior generations naturally entered, if not gleefully entered.

“I think it’s a responsibility of parents to make sure kids are leaving home with practical skills, but also the mindset and will to look after oneself.”

Lythcott-Haims has no issue or impatience with young people struggling to find their feet as adults and describes the book as her trying to shine a warm light to younger people.

“I’ve lived 53 years, I know a little bit more, let me try to help you based on what I’ve learned and based on the stories of close to three dozen other humans who are in these pages alongside me.”

While she acknowledges the book has landed at a good time with the global Covid-19 pandemic putting paid to many people’s plans, she says every generation has had to contend with very serious issues well beyond their control.

“That’s a central message of this book: bad things will happen and it’s on each of us as individuals to try and assess what we are in charge of… going through difficult things actually makes us stronger. That’s how we build skills and it’s how we build resilience.”

As a black woman, Lythcott-Haims wanted to include a diverse range of people in the book and managed to tell the stories of people from different ethnic groups, different sexualities, and from different socio-economic backgrounds to broaden the application of what she’s trying to impart.

“There are so many different human stories in this book and each reader, I hope, will see themselves in some of these stories but they’re also going to learn from others who’re very different and I hope that ends up expanding people’s minds.”

While the book is aimed at younger people, she’s heard from readers in their 50s and 60s who’ve told her they’ve changed careers or committed to a relationship after reading it.

“Basically, people of all ages are seeing in the book permission to go in the direction of what they’ve always known they wanted. Whether it’s to join something, leaving something, pivot in a new direction, this book is challenging you to get unstuck from whatever’s in your way. It’s asking you whose judgement you’re afraid of, whose approval do you seek, how can you start to listen to your own voice, hear it better and have the courage to follow it.”

The most satisfying feedback she’s had is from parents who tell her that they are reading the book with their teenager and it’s acting as a third-party facilitator for conversations they might not have otherwise had.

Lythcott-Haims says parents need to back off slightly from their kids while they’re still at home so that they can learn coping mechanisms and self-reliance. If not, they risk enforcing an anxious adulthood.

“There are a number of studies that have come out in the last ten years that are correlating an over-involved parenting style with a greater likelihood of anxiety in children. We’re essentially robbing them by doing too much. We rob them of agency and self-efficacy.”

Fifteen years ago, Lythcott- Haims says it was unusual for an adult to contact a university professor about a grade their child had received or get involved with a roommate dispute. These days, it’s commonplace.

“That’s really what made me want to write the first book. The carry-over for this book is for the young adult to say, what do you do with this? You’re grateful that your parents have been so lovingly involved but maybe you should be involved in negotiating the rent with your landlord, maybe you should have the skill to work out a compromise with another human.

“This book is speaking directly to that young adult who might be thinking they’re a little under-baked as an adult but want to be a fully-fledged adult.”