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Q & A
Q&A: Tips on being a parent to adult children Mary Jacobs, Apr 12, 2012
When children are young, their parents parent them. But what’s the parents’ role after children grow up? The Rev. Ronald J. Greer, director of the Pastoral Counseling Service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, tackles that question in his new book, Now That They Are Grown: Successfully Parenting Your Adult Children (Abingdon Press). He spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
How does our relationship change once our children become adults? First, we relinquish the reins, as we have been doing bit-by-bit over the years, and they assume the full responsibility for their lives. We affirm our belief in their ability to be the adults they now are. We let go of power or control over their lives. We don’t let go of the relationship with them but of taking responsibility for them. “Letting go” doesn’t imply less of a relationship but a change in the relationship that allows us to enjoy them as fellow adults. We let go of who they were in order to embrace who they are.
Is there yet another transition when a child marries? Yes. There is an important moment in the wedding service that is rarely noticed. After the bride’s father says his traditional “Her mother and I do” and gives her a kiss on the cheek, he takes a back seat to the marriage. As the “two become one” we parents take a back seat to their new marriage. Our daughter was married in March, so I’m walking the talk.
What mistakes do parents most often make in these transitions? The biggest mistake is not showing adult children the respect they deserve. We still want to tell them how to run their lives. Our motivations are good, but we have this fantasy that, with our help, they can avoid learning by trial and error the way we did. Not all adult children are alike. Some want advice, some don’t. But all want to hear that tone of respect from their parents that honors them as independent adults.
We parents have to draw and maintain our boundaries between what is supportive and helpful from what is intrusive and pushy. I once heard it said, “The only difference between a river and a swamp is the river has boundaries.” We maintain our respectful boundaries to keep the relationship flowing.
Why doesn’t it work to continue to treat a grown child as a child? It is an insult. It invalidates who they have worked and grown to become and treats them as something less than the woman or man who now stands before you. If I want to have a loving relationship with who they are today, I can’t treat them as the children they were yesterday. It won’t work. It will never work.
Our adult children will bristle every time they hear the first hint of a lecture. Make it a conversation. The shift is from being a parent to being a peer. How would I talk with a close friend? I have often prefaced advice I’ve had for our adult son and daughter with the words, “May I make a suggestion about that?” instead of intruding.
You talk about Generation Y, young people born between 1981-1995. Realizing the limitations of generalizations—what are some distinguishing characteristics of this generation? Gen-Yers are impressive young adults. They are optimistic, positive, achievement-oriented, and confident. Like Gen-X before them, they love family and relationships—and use technology to stay connected to their family and relationships. Thanks to that desire for connection we have the potential of maintaining close lifelong relationships with our adult children like no generation of parents before us.
The downside to this confidence and desire for achievement is, as many managers point out, they can be a little cocky and pushy.
Many Gen-Yers were raised by parents focused on their self-esteem. Can you talk about the negative and positive results of that? In the past few decades, out of a concern for our children’s self-esteem, momentum grew to heap praise on them whether they had done anything worthy of praise or not. Studies show it did nothing to increase their sense of self-esteem or self-worth. What it increased was their narcissism, their sense of inflated grandiosity and self-importance. That is the clear downside.
The upside of this is, though the effort was misguided, they were getting a lot of parental interaction, nurture and caring. This is surely the basis of much of their positive, optimistic spirit. And their confidence surely finds some of its origin in the fact that, though their parents’ affirmation was exaggerated, they knew they were affirmed.
I liked your line: “Self-esteem is a result of a life of character and integrity.” How can parents who raised their children with a different understanding of “self-esteem” turn that around? It’s never a mistake to acknowledge a mistake. If you dropped the ball—and what parent hasn’t—tell them. Then, respectfully, tell them about values. If you over-did the cheerleader routine and fostered narcissism instead of genuine self-esteem, tell them that a genuine foundation of self-regard and self-confidence is based on living with the kind of values that build character. No hollow repetition of “I am wonderful” is going to be the foundation of anything lasting. If they would develop a life of values and integrity, they’ll have all the self-esteem they can handle.
I liked your idea of “touchstones,” basic concepts we can refer to as parents as we deal with our adult children. Can you elaborate on those? Touchstones are the goals, the reference points to which we can refer as parents of adults to keep our decisions congruent with our intentions. The first two focus on our hopes for them: to help them move forward into this new chapter of their lives and help them achieve their full maturity as adults. The third involves our relationship with them: to establish a new, loving relationship with them as adult to adult. And the final touchstone is totally about us: to become more focused on this new chapter of our lives.
Many parents are experiencing “boomerang” children who come home after leaving for college or a job. Your tips for handling that situation? Begin with a plan. What do they hope to achieve and how does moving back in help them get there? As I heard it phrased, home is “a net, not a nest.” This is a time of preparation for their lives of independence and maturity. It is temporary. This time back at home serves as a launching pad to that future.
Remember they left as kids, but they return as adults. That was then and this is now. When they move back in, it is a household of adults all responsible for themselves. Everyone pulls his or her own weight. Do not return to taking care of them as in the days of yore. Consult with your children about the “rules of the house.” But remember that it is your house. When they lived there the first time, it was your responsibility. This time it is your gift. These mutual agreements should include household duties, hours, music, and having guests over.
Does “boomeranging” make some parents feel as if they’ve failed? It does, and that is unfortunate. There are two important factors resulting in the boomerang. One is the economy. A lot of our adult children are moving back home out of economic necessity. Many are looking for jobs. Thank goodness they have home as a safety net.
Secondly, our children of Generation Y are taking longer to get lift-off into independent lives. It’s not good or bad; it’s just true. There are some advantages to this. It gives us more time to have a positive impact on them as they continue to learn the skills they need for adulthood. They likely will go into their independent adult life, following this “overtime,” as we called it at our house, with a more solid identity and a clearer sense of direction.
Many parents end up supporting their children financially well into their 20s. Any guidelines for that? This one is harder to generalize since the financial circumstances of parents and the needs of their children vary so much. Let me simply say to remember our goal of facilitating our children’s maturity and independence. Base your financial decisions on what is ultimately going to help them grow, become responsible, and support themselves.
And do not do anything that will make you vulnerable financially. Do not cosign anything you cannot easily afford to pay off. Every parent wants to be responsive each time their children turn to them for help, but sometimes guidance and wisdom can be a better response than money.
You make the distinction between “caring for” a grown child without “taking care of” the child. Can you explain that? “Caring for” our adult children is doing for them what they cannot do for themselves. This is healthy and caring. “Taking care of” them is doing for them what they can do—or have the capacity to learn to do—for themselves. This enables dependency and discourages anything resembling maturity or growth.
My children are 19 and 22. I sometimes feel as if I “missed stuff”—failed to cover important material or even just small, practical lessons—like how to scramble an egg. Me, too. I think we all feel that way because it’s true. We overlooked teaching them a lot. As to what to do—be honest with them. Say to them what you just said to me, and then ask if they would mind if you went over what you feel you left out. I think they’ll smile and say, “Sure, Mom.” They know it’s more our need than theirs. In reality, they will learn those lessons elsewhere in life, or they’ll turn to us when the need arises. One morning they’ll be in their kitchen wanting to scramble an egg. Your phone will ring.