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Why Millennials Can’t Handle Adversity

Stanford’s former dean of freshmen says helicopter parents have raised a generation of ‘existentially impotent’ adults

It’s not easy being a millennial. Just ask Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris, whose demand to be traded was met with generational shade from his 54-year-old boss, Suns owner Robert Sarver. “My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example,” Sarver said in his eyebrow-singeing take.

While Sarver was justifiably mocked for using this tired millennial stereotype, the shitty part is there’s actually some truth to his generalization about those of us born after 1980. A “tough time dealing with setbacks” is something that Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed often at Stanford, where she served as dean of freshman for 10 years.

Rather than spending their college years expanding their intellectual, sexual and chemical horizons, millennials spent theirs wracked with anxiety and struggling to develop identities, Lythcott-Haims says. The students she counseled over that period had such weak senses of self that she refers to them as “existentially impotent.” They were often so reliant on their “helicopter parents” that they suffered full-blown crises once they were thrust into the world and forced to think for themselves.

Her experience at Stanford is the basis of her recent book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, which the New York Times called “the Black Hawk Down of helicopter parenting.”

So if helicopter parents are the problem, how do millennials emotionally, at least, emancipate themselves?
The solution is staring your problem in the face and saying, “I’m not allowing this to happen anymore. I’m going to be in charge of my own life.”

There’s a guy in my book, Tyler, who lost it one day at Harvard Law School. He realized his mother’s voice was the only voice in his head; he started screaming, “I need to hear my own voice!” Afterward, he went into intensive therapy and emerged thinking, The only way I’m going to live a meaningful, fulfilling life is if I tune into my sense of self and stop letting my parents control me.

So you’re saying it’s the child’s responsibility to tell his helicopter parents to back off?
A middle schooler isn’t going to be aware his mom and dad are too controlling and providing too much direction. By eighth and ninth grade he might be, but it still takes a tremendous sense of self to stand up to controlling parents.

The beauty of humans, however, is that we carry ourselves with us at all times. We can become that true version of ourselves at any moment. We just have to have the courage to say, “I know what I’m about” — to our parents and to ourselves.

What happened to good, old-fashioned rebellion against your parents?Adolescent rebellion is healthy, psychologists say. But for many of today’s young adults, their parents were seemingly so knowledgeable, smart, kind and connected that it felt good listening to them. So what might have been a natural state of rebellion was superseded by the feeling of Wait a minute, I don’t have to rebel against these people. They’re helping me out, and they seem to have my best interests in mind.

Why did this form of parenting become so prevalent among Baby Boomers?
Four things happened in the early 1980s. First, in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report called Nation at Risk which said, “American teenagers don’t know as much as their international counterparts, so we need more testing and to teach to those tests.”

Second and third, the fear of “stranger danger” and the self-esteem movement were born. Finally, the playdate started.

What’s wrong with playdates?
It seems great in the moment, but kids aren’t learning to construct play out of thin air. They’re not learning how to design their way out of boredom. Instead, it’s, John, here’s your friend Mike. You guys are going to play now. And we’re going to set up the time and set up the activities, and we’re gonna hover and make sure you’re getting along and everything is fair.

What’s a healthy balance between instilling self-esteem and subjecting your child to failure?
You always want to praise actual achievement. And when they don’t achieve something, you can praise the effort: “You worked hard at that. You put a lot of effort into it.” When you praise someone as smart or talented, they won’t want to try hard or take a challenge. What you want to do is praise the effort behind something, which is something they can always improve upon.

Your experience with millennials was mainly with how they adjusted to college life. What happens when they get into the workplace?
Kids today lead a “check-listed childhood.” Their parents make sure they have the schooling, classes and extracurricular activities to make them attractive to the “right” colleges. But when they get to the wide-open landscape of adulthood, where there is no checklist, they’re bewildered.

For 25 years, Teach for America has been placing top college graduates in some of the nation’s most challenging school districts. Lately, they’ve been meeting more and more corps members who, if you tell them, “Do A, B, C and D,” they will excel. But if you say, “We’re trying to get to D. Here’s A and part of C,” they’re lost. They don’t know how to think outside the box.

How should a boss handle an employee who was raised by helicopter parents?
A great boss would sit down with the millennials on his team and say, “I’m going to challenge you to think creatively. I want you to take risks. I’m going to let you fail.” Failure is probably the most crucial thing young adults and kids today have been deprived of experiencing.