We search with rapt interest for parenting advice to help us help our children grow into evolved, assertive adults. But does active parenting really end after our kids reach adult age? It doesn’t, but it should resemble little of what it looked like before they turned 18.
Whether we consider “full adulthood” graduation from high school or finishing college, I believe mothers are the worst at letting go and permitting their daughters to flop while finding their own way. I think daughters are tougher for us in this respect, since we identify with them, realizing how girls will face a different set of problems out there in the world than boys do. Many moms (like me) believed unconditional adult love still translated into responding instantaneously to her, as if she would fall to her death without me. Now that my daughter is in her 30s, however, I am finding that less is more when it comes to “saving” her.
For many years, I worked hard to compensate for the dysfunction my only child may have experienced both during and after my marriage to her dad, showering her with attention in an attempt to fill in all the gaps that existed and wounds that may have been inflicted by our conflict. Little did I know it at the time, but I developed a bad habit of co-dependently "helicoptering" her. In essence, I was doing precisely what I tell other parents NOT to do. Even throughout her 20s, I could be sitting at a restaurant with friends or lying flat on my back in the middle of a facial when I’d hear the buzz of my cell phone indicating I was receiving a text (our most efficient way of communicating). And like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I would drop everything to take my phone, walk away, and deal with even the most trivial of dramas my adult child presented. Most of the time, she simply needed to vent, and any advice I offered was not taken in the way I had hoped, making me feel patently useless for even trying. Of course, I wanted to “fix” whatever problem she had, as if she were still 8 years old and someone had been mean to her at school.
So when do moms like me realize this over-parenting (co-dependency) needs to stop, and what can we do to change behaviors that have become ingrained in us? After interviewing 70 parents and adult children for her book Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, Jane Isay advises parents to "keep their mouth shut and their door open.” That door does not include an invitation to move back in, except perhaps in cases of a child being developmentally or physically disabled. In all other cases, I believe this semi-tough-love approach is warranted especially in today’s world, where many kids graduate with college educations they decide not to finish or don’t use, where doing menial work seems beneath them while striving to find more meaningful employment, and where high living costs may require them to change locales or share rentals with multiple roommates. All those commencement speeches about finding dreams paired with the tough road ahead are true, but I think few kids sitting there in caps and gowns with flip-flops on their feet truly listen. How can our children appreciate reaching those dreams if they haven’t earned them? What message do we send them by over-protecting them? That they can't be trusted to figure things out on their own? I think the road to success is often given legs by their seeing what the other side of life looks like so they can work their bottoms off to avoid it.
The first rule, according to Isay, is to keep your advice to yourself. "Many of us have kids who are graduating to full-blown adulthood later than we did," she says. "So when we see them struggle through their 20s, we feel compelled, out of love, to help them. But they may perceive any advice we give as being critical of their slow start." If you can remember back that far, try to recall when your own mom may have barked at you over the phone about your relationships, handling bosses, or making bad decisions. How did that make you feel? Like a child again? It’s a matter of biting our tongues and showing our adult children that we believe in their ability to right their own ships when they find themselves in the middle of a storm. This is where “big picture” words and scenarios can be offered, but only when asked for them. Use general statements to illustrate wisdom most commonly held. Even if you’ve had personal experience dealing with what your child is going through, ask permission to tell them about it before launching into it. Chances are good that your adult child draws no parallels between your life and their own anyway.
Rule #2 is to be crystal clear about the terms under which you would offer help. Isay warns that monetary generosity should be about wise giving — just enough to make a reasonable wish possible while allowing your child to make good choices. That does not mean throwing money at them just because you want your children to share in your own good fortune. In my daughter’s case, she half-heartedly made the decision to go to college and then chose an out-of-state college her dad and I could not afford. The year she spent earning her residency in that state in order to attend college there resulted in her realizing she was not disciplined enough to follow through with college anyway. But she stayed, spending the next three years experimenting with life, jobs, and living situations, sometimes leaving out the shocking details of them in her conversations with me until well after the fact. Looking back, what I did help with during that period was an occasional round trip ticket home, deposit money for a new apartment, or the cost of a moving truck.
Was all of this painful for me to watch? You bet. I hated seeing my daughter put herself through some of the scenarios she did, but the geographic distance also offered us each autonomy when we were both going through tremendous life shifts (it was also at a time when I was finding my own path after ending a 20-year marriage). In this situation, my penchant to over-parent took a hiatus for a while. And believe it or not, I felt abject guilt over it for a good, long time. The result, however, was a child who not only succeeded on her own, but began to give back. Today her generosity knows no bounds.
Michael Segell, in his Today.com article Still Advising Your Grown Kids? Time to Stop, illustrates rule #3: Don’t take it personally. This is a tough one for most moms, especially. Where fathers seem to be able to compartmentalize, women’s emotions often take center stage. “If your child is not living up to your expectations—yet—you have to recognize that you're not a failure as a parent,” says Segell. “Once you do that, you won't be so judgmental of him. Keep in mind: They may not think you're perfect, either. So the best you can do is accept each other for who you are. You're basically saying: ‘Welcome to the adult world, honey. I love you even though you're not what I prayed you would be.’ And they're saying: ‘Thanks, Mom and Dad. You're a little annoying but you're my parents. And I love you, too.’”
I believe the key in parenting adult children so that both parents and kids look back on this period of posturing is to put thought into it well ahead of time — perhaps as early as their freshman year of high school. Don’t wait for high school or college commencement speeches to offer the kind of advice you should have been offering all along. Begin talking to your kids about the choices they will have to face, what the consequences might be for making those choices, and then follow through when the time comes to push your chick (who now has fully-grown wings) out of the nest with confidence, hope, and the usual amount of fear — which is normal. While doing so, carefully but gradually transform your tone and delivery of all this to that of an adult speaking to another adult. Draw boundaries for yourself while offering the same intense love you did when they were small. After all, your perception of them has changed. It’s healthy for their perception of you to change as well.
We never stop learning. And as my daughter now says, “Restraint is athletic.”