Millennials’ Parents Can’t Stop Meddling. How Big a Problem Is That?

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Mature couple and son sitting on lawn swing.
Mature couple and son sitting on lawn swingPhoto: Biggie Productions/(c) Biggie Productions

Here, roughly, is what we know so far about today’s middle-class children: They seldom walk or bike to school, as generations did before them; they rarely work steady after-school jobs (their new work is strictly of the academic and extracurricular variety, one that doesn’t involve a wage); their time is rigidly structured (play dates, cello lessons, summer internships); their mothers spend more time with them than mothers did with their children in the 1960s, even though most women in the 1960s didn’t work.

When confronted with these facts, it is therefore reasonable to ask: What effect does all this involvement and insulation and scrupulous (some might call it psychoneurotic) programming have on our kids? Is it compromising their resilience in some way, or the firmness of their convictions, or their self-efficacy? Are the very things we view as horizon-stretching in fact resulting in a more circumscribed life?

Whenever I’m asked this question, my instinct is always to hesitate. Over-engagement in the lives of others is, of course, treacherous in any context. Then again, every generation tends to calamity-howl about the generation succeeding it. The Greatest Generation was disgusted with the Boomers, but they grew up. The Boomers were disgusted by Generation Xers — of whom I’m one, by the way — but we moved out of our group houses and graduated from our temp jobs. Each cohort eventually manages to make its own way.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, however, has a definite point of view on this subject. As the former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford, she’s seen plenty of young men and women pass through her field of vision. “They seemed to be scanning the sidelines for Mom or Dad,” she writes in her new book, How to Raise an Adult. “Under-constructed. Existentially impotent.”

Her book then goes on to cover an enormous amount of ground, some familiar and some less so, about what this under-constructed state looks like, and how we got here. You may or may not be persuaded by what she has to say — her book often relies on anecdotes, which has both its virtues and its weaknesses. But if you’re like me, there’s one part of her book you won’t be able to shake: The chapters in which she examines how parents have inserted themselves into their children’s first jobs.

I should have known about this phenomenon. It’s been the subject of the occasional trend story. Lythcott-Haims starts her discussion, in fact, with a fellow named Phil Gardner, head of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute. He’d read enough media reports about parental over-involvement in post-university job hunting that he decided to do some research of his own, tossing questions into CERI’s annual survey about just how frequently companies saw their applicants’ moms and dads. Nearly a quarter of his sample, or 725 employers, “reported seeing parents ‘sometimes’ to ‘very often’ when hiring a college senior,” she writes. (And this was when the economy was still booming, in 2006 and 2007.) Among the things parents did: negotiate salaries; complain if their child wasn’t hired; arrange the interview; attend the interview itself.

Because of her former position at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims was able to get a lot of people on the horn for this portion of her book — or so it seems to me — and she thought to speak to a wider variety of potential employers than another writer might. In the world of business and finance, she chats with Hope Hardison, director of HR at Wells Fargo, who recalls getting an irate letter from a parent that challenged her kid’s performance review. In the do-gooder sector, she talks to the Bay Area head of Teach for America, and discovers parents are now calling with complaints about the management and challenging environments their 22- and 23-year-olds are contending with — when the whole point of Teach for America is to dispatch our nation’s best and brightest to struggling schools.

But the most memorable conversation Lythcott-Haims had, to my mind, was with a woman in central Ohio who hires emergency medical technicians for a densely networked ambulance service. By definition, EMTs have to be resourceful, autonomous, and focused in high-stakes situations. Yet in recent years, young applicants have apparently been bringing along their parents even to these job interviews. (Lythcott-Haims then directly quotes the astonished HR director, who says, “It’s clear their parents don’t realize we can overhear them in the waiting area.”)

Is this itself an emergency? No. But it’s a sobering development. If kids need their parents to make the case that they’re reliable in a crisis — or if parents feel like it’s their job to say as much, fearing their kids can’t make this case on their own — then something has plainly gone awry. The problem is surmountable, I suspect. But for parents who are inclined to over-meddle, Lythcott-Haims’s book has a warning for you. Those phone calls you’re placing? They could cost your kid a job.