Author Julie Lythcott-Haims Talks Parenting and Navigating Mixed-Heritage American Identities

Julie Lythcott-Haims, New York Times Bestselling Author and recipient of multiple literary awards, presented “How to Raise an Adult” and “Real American” on January 17 and 18. Her presentations both took place in Kemper Auditorium, and addressed the effects of “helicopter parenting” and racism in American society, respectively.

Before fully dedicating herself to writing, Haims served as Stanford University’s Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising for ten years. According to Haims, the content of her first presentation, “How to Raise an Adult,” came from her experience of noticing changes in the incoming freshmen class every year.

Haims said, “From asking the freshmen questions about what they wish to do in the future over the years, I grew concerned, certainly concerned enough to write a book. Every year, the students who got admitted were somehow more accomplished on paper than the last. The bar for admittance is continuing to rise. But what I noticed from face-to-face interaction was that they were less familiar with their own selves. They could say what they have done, but not why they have done it. I couldn’t see that it actually mattered to them.”

Haims said she believes that the development of technology contributes to the increased number of helicopter parents. She also argued that parents who provide direct advice via smartphones every day negatively impact children in the long term.

“The creation of smartphones changed parents talking to students from once a week to being able to be in touch multiple times a day. More parents are present online, behaving in ways that are accustomed to be done in childhood. They try to put a styrofoam wrap around everything surrounding over their children, and help out whatever they can. Although giving such direct guidance may bring short-term benefits, that disables the child’s ability of finding meaning in their own life,” said Haims.

According to Haims, helicopter parenting is widespread within the society. As a way of opposing this phenomenon, Haims listed certain ways that may potentially stop over-parenting.

Haims said, “My advice for such over-parenting narrows down to a few things. Trust your children. They have what it takes to thrive at the school they are in, because they truly earned the opportunity. Another is trusting the institution, because the schools are not trying to get away with doing as little as possible. Lastly, leaving the children alone by the time they are teenagers is more than a good idea.”

“Real American,” the second presentation by Haims, was based on her memoir that examines racism through her experience as a black and biracial person. Born to a black father and a white British mother, Haims said that insults were often targeted toward her.   

Haims said, “This is a memoir of a biracial girl living in a country where non-white lives were never meant to matter. I was raised middle class, and my parent’s educational status provided tremendous privileges compared to many others. But racism and hatred is agnostic to social class. My dad was an assistant surgeon general under former President Jimmy Carter, but none of that prevented me from being called the n-word at my high school.”

Haims also stressed the importance of empathizing with smaller events in order to empathize with the lives of marginalized citizens as a whole.

Haims continued, “If people can feel passion for the relatively minor things that I have been through, it is my hope that they feel a whole lot more compassion for the things that marginalized citizens experience in their daily lives. I have seen it with my own eyes countless times. I want people to know that everyone has a universal desire to belong. The American society makes people of color and other marginalized citizens feel like we don’t belong, don’t deserve a chance, don’t deserve to be here.”

Zar Cordova-Potter ’20, who introduced the presentation, resonated with Haims as a person of mixed heritage. Potter explained that it is rare for people of mixed heritage to experience the positive sides of both cultures.

“A lot of the times, people assume that those with mixed heritage get the best of both worlds, and they are universally included. Unfortunately, that is usually not what happens. I think she spoke very well to the feeling of being isolated from part of your identity. I hope that I was able to speak to that in my poetry as well, since I face my own personal dilemmas as a person of mixed heritage,” said Cordova-Potter.

According to Erica Nam ’19, an audience member at Haims’s presentation on Friday, the talk helped her realize the significance of an individual’s past. Nam found that listening to different stories exposed her to a wider range of viewpoints.

Nam said, “I think Julie Lythcott-Haims’s story was powerful. It reminded me of the importance of narratives, and at such a diverse place like Andover, we should be willing to listen and share such stories. I also think that Andover [students] should learn from Julie’s story of her learning to grow mindful and controlling her emotions.”

Aya Murata, Associate Director of College Counseling and Empathy, Balance, and Inclusion Course Head, regarded Haims’s decision to reveal her past as a way to inform others as a truly motivational act.

Murata said, “Since I am from the same generation [as Haims], I understood her in many ways. She talked about being one of the few people of color in her community, which was the same for me. I always felt like the other too. But what I really appreciated from her talk was having a sense of a time when one felt shame, yet coming to acceptance and trying to move on for a brighter and changed future.”