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Parenting

When to Stop Parenting and Just Be a Parent

When to step back and let your kids become adults.

Key points

  • The word "parent" is both a noun and a verb.
  • When a person is neurophysiologically mature its best to let them make their own decisions.
  • Unsolicited advice usually goes over poorly.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Parenting is perhaps the toughest, most demanding, challenging, responsible, and high-stakes job anyone can ever have. But there are no schools for it and no competency exams are required. It is strictly “learn by doing.“

A huge irony indeed because to practice in most any profession where one provides services to the public, most states require a license or certification that can only be obtained by completing an appropriate amount of schooling and passing a competency test. Even marriage requires a license (unfortunately, however, a competency test is not a prerequisite!). Yet bringing another human being into the world requires nothing more than a pair of functional reproductive systems—no schooling, training, competency, or license required! Obviously, legislating and regulating who and under what circumstances one can procreate is grotesquely fascistic and an abhorrent infringement of human rights. Nevertheless, I noted the above irony to merely underscore the fact that the most awesome responsibility a person can ever have is one very few people in our modern world are innately equipped to manage.

Learning the crucial skills of parenting enables parents to be truly effective, increasing the chances that their children will be able to navigate the labyrinth of life successfully. One of the most valuable gifts you can give your children is a working compass (skills and facts) that can help them succeed in school and work, play and fun, love and intimacy.

Unfortunately, most schools do not include specific courses on how to acquire social skills, how to think rationally, how to control unwanted emotions, and how to be a truly effective parent. People must learn on their own how to teach their children to resolve conflict, be assertive, manage stress, and regulate their moods. And often, they need to discard the poor parenting techniques they may have learned from their own parents.

Of course, all children are unique individuals and possess their own temperament, needs, and personalities, and there is no absolutely correct way to parent. What’s more, experts disagree on just what constitutes good parenting styles. There is some consensus, however, about what the essential ingredients of basic parenting are such as providing children with a sense of safety, protection, love, support, encouragement, kindness, and consistency—but also limits, boundaries, and appropriate consequences.

Parenting adult children, though, involves its own set of challenges. Because being a parent is a lifelong commitment that does not stop simply because a child is of full legal age, or even an independent adult with children of their own. But while being a parent is a lifetime commitment, actively parenting one’s adult children is usually unhelpful. This is because “parent“ is both a noun and a verb. To be a parent, at base, means to give unconditional love and emotional support to one’s child or children; that is being a “mom” or a “dad.” To parent, however, means to actively instruct, direct and control a child because people are not born with a complete repertoire of social and self-care skills and need to be taught how to successfully function in the world.

Hence, as mentioned above, it is vital for parents to provide their children with as much helpful information and useful life skills as possible, as well as set beneficial limits and boundaries and impose appropriate consequences on their behavior. Thereby, as they grow and develop into adulthood, they will be better adjusted and more able to make their way in the world as independent and self-reliant individuals. But to actively parent one’s adult children is usually unproductive and often fosters anger and resentment. This is because most adults don’t like being told what to do and what not to do. So offering unsolicited advice, giving specific directions, making strong recommendations, and offering even constructively intended criticism will often backfire when foisted on one’s adult children.

Therefore, unless one’s adult child is about to make a stupendously poor, potentially reckless, or criminal decision, it is better to simply validate them without interjecting any strong opinions to the contrary. So if one’s adult child is making a decision that one does not approve of, rather than raising objections it is better to simply say something like, “I hope that works out for you.“ And if an adult child complains of specific hassles, stress, or hardship, instead of immediately offering advice it is usually best to simply say something like, “That sounds tough. Is there anything I can do to help?“ Again, this is because unsolicited advice usually lands on people—especially one’s adult children—unpleasantly. Consider that as a clinical psychologist people seek me out for my advice, pay me for my advice, and still often don’t follow it.

The upshot is simple. Unless one has a child or children with specific needs, disabilities, or other developmental challenges, as soon as one’s children are fully-fledged adults, it is time to transition from active parenting to simply being a loving and supportive parent. And for most people, full adulthood usually occurs in their mid-20s when the brain has undergone its final maturational process called pre-frontal myelination. This is when the brain's frontal lobes, the seat of so-called executive functioning, become insulated with tissues that enhance neurotransmission. When this happens, peoples’ impulse control, social judgment, and deep emotional capacities like empathy come online.

So, metaphorically speaking, people in their mid-20s are usually “fully cooked“ and trying to add more ingredients to the mix will often detract from rather than enhance the final product.

But if one’s adult children actively solicit advice or suggestions, go ahead and give them parental guidance. Otherwise, just be their unconditionally loving and supportive parent.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2021 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.

Dear Reader: The advertisements contained in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me. —Clifford

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