March 19, 2012

10 Things Your Parents Could Tell You About Parenting Adults.

Photo: Bradley P. Johnson

But, You Probably Wouldn’t Have Listened to Them.

Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
~ Oscar Wilde

In the past few weeks, I have heard the following sentences, more or less, come from the mouths of people I know in regard to their adult children (names changed for the protection of… well, really, me):

We are butting heads with Fred right now about college choice.  Frustrating!

Stuart is out of work and he has two little ones to support.  I don’t know what to do.

I found out that he had been in a serious accident when he posted a picture on Facebook.

I thought I was all done with that, but now I’m raising my granddaughter.

Louise continues to make bad decisions.  I could shake her.

These sentences (only one of which was uttered by me) point to the complexity and uncertainty of parenting adult children. It’s a tough task, because everything you think you know about parenting gets turned on its head by one big milestone day. And, if you accidentally bought into the myth that “in 18 years, they will be on their own,” it can be even more of a shock when you realize that it does not work like that (at all) and that you really don’t want it to.

As I only have two adult children, and the oldest is 23, I’m still trying to figure this out. But, with some experience, a lot of reading behind me, and much reflection on what I want/need from my parental figures, here are my top ten recommendations.

1. Get to know them as adults.

Photo: Jennifer Bassett

You feel like you know your children well by the time they reach 18. But, the reality of life is that we are different people in different relationships. You are not exactly the same you with your friends as with your parents. The people that your adult children become will be, in some ways, brand new relational partners for you. And, you’ll have to get to know them as adults.

This will mean biting back some of the parenting urge when you talk. So, when your son tells you that he has accepted a new job, instead of asking parent questions (“How much does it pay?  Isn’t that dangerous?  Is this what you went to all that college for?”), you’ll have to ask get-to-know-you questions (“What drew you to that position?  Is it what you hoped it would be?  Are you excited about the opportunity?”).

Through this process of asking and really listening, without judgment, you’ll get to know your adult children in a new way. You’ll find that they have interests that you never realized, opinions that  you never would have predicted, and thoughts that astound you. You won’t like everything that you learn,  but that’s how getting to know people works.

2. Let them get to know you in new ways.

As parents, we sometimes hold back pieces of ourselves from our children. Sometimes we hold things back because we are trying to protect them from unpleasant information. Sometimes, it is because we don’t want to lose face in the eyes of our children. And, sometimes, it’s because we just feel like that part of us is not theirs to know.

When the children become adults, there are new possibilities for what can be shared. I’m not suggesting that you take the 18 year old right out to the strip club and tie one on (you know, if you like that sort of thing). But, perhaps you have interests or hobbies that you have never really offered up to them. Or maybe now it is safe to tell them stories about some of the transgressions of your youth.

Creating a new relationship, with a friend, a romantic partner, or your adult child, is a two way street. You have to be willing and able to share pieces of yourself as well as really hearing what is shared with you.

3. Respect their boundaries.

Photo: Lisa Jenks

As I talked about with regard to teenagers, the world of social media has sometimes made it seem that the boundaries between people are dissolving. But, they are only changing. Adults still have an expectation of privacy, and that holds true with parents as much (or sometimes more) as with other adults.

What does this mean practically? Don’t stalk your adult child’s friends on Facebook or Twitter. If your adult children have let you into their social media sphere, appreciate the boundaries that they have set and don’t try to get around those boundaries for additional information.

Don’t ask questions about their personal lives that you would not ask another adult. Don’t show up at their houses without calling first (or in their rooms without knocking, if they still live at home). Don’t insist on getting information that they don’t wish to share. Don’t open their mail. Don’t ask others for personal information about them.

Our motivations for boundary violations may well be pure. It could be that we just want to be sure that they are safe. It might be that we just want reassurance, so that we can sleep at night. But pure motives don’t make the behavior okay.

4. Remember that all relationships have rules.

Just because you are observing the boundaries of your adult children, that doesn’t mean that you have to let them walk all over you. All relationships have rules. With peers, we rarely state the rules out loud (though, now and then, we do), but they are there.

It’s fine to have some rules for your relationships with your adult child, just the way you do for anyone else. They may be more outwardly stated in some cases. Some areas where you need to think about rules include:

Are there types of information that you don’t want this child to share with you (drinking escapades, sexual encounters)? Conversely, are there types of information that you are unwilling to share (financial information, your sexual encounters)? You may never have to actually say what these rules are, because they may just become clear in interaction. But, if that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to speak up.

What sort of policies should you have for money lending? It’s a good idea to articulate them to yourself, and then to your adult children as needed. Limits, uses, repayment expectations – all should be clearly specified.

What financial obligations will you cover for your adult children, and what are their responsibilities?

If your child lives at home, what sort of arrangements will you be comfortable with in regard to house guests, smoking, alcohol use, and household chores?

It may seem odd to be establishing rules for your adult child, but you have rules in your romantic relationships (likely some stated and some not), your friendships (maybe mostly unstated), for any roommates you might have, for business partners, and so on. It’s the way relationships work.

5. Know that advice should be requested.

Photo: Emily Thorson

One of the most annoying thing a friend or colleague can do is to constantly offer you advice when you are not requesting it.

Think about that person you know, who, if you express the slightest unhappiness regarding a situation, launches into a lecture on what you should be doing and how you should handle the situation. It’s annoying at best, and sometimes it’s infuriating. Don’t be that person for your adult children.

This is a hard one; I’m not going to lie. I struggle with it constantly in my relationships with my adult children, because I really want the best for them and I think I can help with that. But, really, offering advice that is not wanted is not going to have a positive result (as it won’t likely be utilized) and it may well have a negative result.

There is a caveat here. If your adult child is engaging in behavior or choices that are truly dangerous, then you do what you have to do to get him or her to see it. This is what you would do with a close friend or a sibling and it applies here as well. But, you do it with the knowledge that it could ruin the relationship, so make sure the issue really is that important.

6. Realize that it’s not your problem; it’s theirs.

Sometimes, your adult children will make bad decisions and create a mess for themselves. The same can be said for you. When they do, it’s not your problem. It doesn’t mean you were a bad parent. It doesn’t mean that they are bad people. We all make mistakes. We all create messes and then we all have to clean them up.

Sometimes your children may ask for your help, and then you have a decision to make about whether or not to give it, the same way that you would if it was a friend or a colleague. It’s ok to say yes, when you are comfortable doing so. It’s also reasonable to say no, and sometimes, if the asking comes too often, it’s the best thing you can do. But, regardless of whether you end up helping your adult children through their issues, understand that the problems don’t belong to you.

7. Expect that their “new families” will supersede the old.

When you become an adult yourself, and you find a romantic partner and settle down, it makes perfect sense that you would spend your holidays with your partner and not, necessarily, your parents. You feel a little baffled and put upon if your parents insist that you stick to family traditions. Maybe you have even felt torn between your loved one and your parents, and been angry that they were making you chose.

Then you have adult children, and you hit the first holiday where they tell you that they aren’t coming home but going to their partners’ parents’ homes for the holiday instead and you are very hurt. It’s normal and natural. Now, get over it.

The way of life in most mammal forms, including humans, is that the family of cohabitation or procreation eventually becomes the focal point of the adult life, rather than the family of origin. It hurts, sometimes, to see that the person you have cared for from infancy is now putting someone else first, but it is how it should be so that he or she can head into the future.

Photo: Jen DeVere Warner

8. Understand that you don’t get to parent their children.

Awww, babies.  And, as the parent of an adult child, you’ve been through it all. You know about the mistakes you made and now you get this new chance to do it right. Belay that. It isn’t your chance. You have to leave the parenting to the parents.

On the other hand, you get to be a grandparent, and that’s a pretty cool gig. True, you have to abide by the parents’ rules about things like food, bed-time, and media, but within those rules there is plenty of leeway for you to be the most outrageously fabulous grandparent ever. And then you get to send them home!

Photo: Rosie O'Beirne

9. Prepare for ongoing changes in your relationships.

Just like parenting a two-year-old is not the same as parenting a ten-year-old, so too will your relationship with your adult children shift and change over time. As they get older, and maybe begin to raise children of their own, they will become more understanding of the choices (and mistakes) you made. You may even become more like friends than a parent and children.

Those relationships will continue to evolve over time. Perhaps, someday, your children will have a more active role in caring for you, which is simply another phase in the life-cycle of the relationship.

Change can be hard, for all of us. But, if you expect change and watch it, rather than fighting it, it should be less difficult.

10. Believe that they will always be your children.

All of these changes and all of this difference does not erase what you have had with them, your love, or the memory of that infant with round cheeks and chubby hands. That is always there, and it will be a part of your relationship always. When you really need to violate some of the ideas above, and there are times that you will, you can call upon it: “I understand that you don’t want to let me help, but I am your mother and I love you.”  It won’t always work, but it’s a perfectly reasonable claim (she tells herself).

Even when you are hugging that 6’1″ tall man, with his face all whiskery and shoulders broad, you’ll still be able to see the little boy who hugged you so hard and said, “I LOVE you, mommy!”  And it will fill your heart.


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