Lisa Heffernan is cofounder of Grown and Flown, a website and online community for parents of teens and college-age students, which has reached millions since it was founded in 2012. Heffernan and her writing partner, Mary Dell Harrington, wrote the book, Grown and Flown, published by Flatiron Books. Like the website, the book includes personal essays and parenting advice. Heffernan is also the author of three New York Times bestsellers: Be The Change: Candid Conversations with the World’s Most Successful Philanthropists, Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success, and Optical Illusions: Lucent and the Crash of Telecom. Marianne Lonsdale talked with Heffernan about how Grown and Flown got started, what topics are of most interest to parents of teenagers, and what she looks for in submissions to the website.
Marianne Lonsdale: How did you and Mary Dell Harrington start working together?
Lisa Heffernan: Our kids went to school together. I have three boys and Mary Dell has two children, a son and a daughter. When our youngest kids were in third grade together, we worked the same shifts twice a month in the school snack shop. We talked about parenting a lot; often we'd be so involved in our conversations that we'd realize we were ignoring the kids.
ML: How was Grown and Flown birthed?
LH: About eight years ago, when Mary Dell and I had kids in high school and in college, we could not find support online or really anywhere that addressed the challenges of those years. So we started a personal blog, but our focus changed pretty quickly because we recognized that we wanted to touch on broader experiences than ours in Connecticut and New York. We started reaching out to writers in other parts of the country, and to date we have had 540 paid writers. We focus on personal essays by parents as well as articles by experts such as psychiatrists, college professors, therapists, physicians, high school teachers, and college coaches.
ML: Why have the teen years become more difficult for kids and parents? It wasn't this complicated when we were growing up.
LH: The teen years are a more confusing and consequential time than other ages. When your child is five and learning to ride a bike, you get to the point that you can take the training wheels off—what to do when they are teens is not that straightforward. We were concerned about the increase in anxiety and depression among teens, and that continues to be a leading topic and issue. And Mary Dell and I recognized that we and other parents have entirely different relationships with our teens and young adults than our parents did with us—we talk more, they want to spend more time with us, they share more. This can leave us feeling lost because we naturally think back to our own experiences, to look back to our memories for help, and that does not always work because things have changed so much. We can end up feeling off-balance and isolated.
Sometimes people view this shift as negative, and we should not—it's a positive that our kids turn to us. For example, when we were growing up, if we had a problem with a boss or coworker, we'd turn to another twenty-year-old who had no more experience than we did. As parents, we have a lot more experience to offer, and we are better listeners. It's headline grabbing to say that parents are too involved with their children or to mention helicopter parenting over and over—most parents are not. Data shows that kids who remain close to their parents do better.
ML: What were the big topics in the beginning? What are the big topics now?
LH: The issues of anxiety and depression have crystallized. These were big topics when we started Grown and Flown and remain key topics. Little seems to be understood about why our children are so prone to anxiety and depression. There's lots of conjecture but not many answers. But at least we are discussing and helping each other.
Another big topic is how to parent without overparenting. Many of us feel like we are overparenting, and we are not. Four points to consider:
- Are you teaching them an adulting skill?
- Our goal is to be a mentor—someone to seek advice from, someone to come to when they get into challenging situations.
- One big thing kids need us to do is to listen. We don't always need to tell them what to do, and they often feel better once they've talked. So be a safe place for them without repercussions.
- When trying to decide if you're doing too much or too little, ask yourself if what you are thinking about is what you would do for another child? A child of a friend or relative.
ML: How does an online community such as Grown and Flown provide support?
LH: Two key support measures provided by our community are answers to questions that parents could not find anywhere else, and finding out that we are not alone. The Grown and Flown community provides answers on so many topics—from FAFSA to vaping. Every day parents have questions. We have about 137,000 members.
The number one thing that parents get is that they are not alone. A big topic recently was moms who are estranged from their daughters, and many moms commented, and you could feel the support and concern. And I figure for all the moms commenting, there are many more who are reading. You can almost feel that moment of deep exhale when you hear from others what you are going through and that you are not the only one.
ML: What’s the book promotion period been like?
LH: Great. We've gone all over the country and will continue to do so. We've focused on schools, PTAs, and book clubs. The book clubs, both in person and via Skype, have been great fun, and we've had terrific discussions. Usually there are 10 to 20 people at each book club event.
ML: What are you looking for in submissions to your website?
LH: Honesty and good writing. The story or topic can be something already covered that needs to be covered in a different way. What will have readers nodding their heads in recognition? The word count is 500 to 1,000 words.
ML: What do your kids think of your work and your success?
LH: We sometimes use our kids as examples. I had three boys in four years and the book starts with my kids fighting in a restaurant and knocking four meals off the table including dishes, glasses, and cutlery. We wanted readers to understand that we are in the same boat as they are, and we make mistakes. That said, we don't use our families a lot.
When we started the website one of our children said: "What? A blog for old mommies? No one is going to read that." That comment motivated me even more to do well. Our kids are helpful with technical advice and support of the website.
ML: What's in the website’s future?
LH: We hope to continue to grow our community and readership, but perhaps most importantly we want to find new voices to share. The range of experiences in parenting teens and young adults is so vast, we want to continue to find new experts and writers to share on the site.