This month, in their continuing series on all the relationships in our lives, Karen and Jim will discuss our evolving relationships with our adult children.
Way back in 1984 when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I went to the bookstore and bought almost every single book they had on childbirth and parenting. After reading them all, cover-to-cover, I felt I was all set and ready to go as a parent. Of course, as anyone can tell you, there is so much that happens that you will never find in a book. Parenting is a learn-as-you-go process. Even if you have it figured out for one child, another one comes along that is completely and entirely different and you have to start all over again.
The same process is true for parenting adult children, or what I like to call un-parenting! I call it un-parenting because it really is learning to let go, figuring out how to stop doing all the things that you have been doing for the last 18-20 years. Parenting is worrying, planning, directing, disciplining. Un-parenting is learning to trust them with their own problems and not let the worry consume you anymore. It is learning to stop planning for them, directing them, and giving them advice that isn’t asked for. It also means when they do the opposite of what you had hoped for them, there is no recourse, you can’t ground them or take away TV, you just have to stand by helplessly and hope for the best.
And the stakes are so much higher now. You move from worrying about your child’s ear infection, to sitting in an ER with them when they’ve had a major car accident. Instead of worrying about the first time they walk to school without you, you have to figure out how to deal with the first time they get on a plane and leave the country without you. Instead of driving them to the movies on a first date, you help them plan a wedding to someone you pray will never break their heart. You go from wondering if they remembered to put on their seat belt the first time they take out your car alone, to wondering if they are safe in the tank they are riding in, in a war zone.
The stakes are so much higher and you are now powerless. You are no longer in control. You can’t pick out their clothes, or plan their meals, or make sure they get to bed on time. You can’t chose their playgroup or supervise the things they are exposed to. You can’t tell them what to do, or give consequences when they mess up. All you can do is sit by and watch and hope and pray.
This is actually our last duty as parents, to LET GO, but it is just as important as all the others. The time to teach, to preach and to insist on them doing things your way is over. If you fail at this, the last assigned task, you not only risk ruining your relationship with your young adult children but you risk stunting their growth. You risk having them forever dependent on you. After all, your most important job as a parent is to raise responsible humans who can take care of themselves long after you are gone.
You need to let them go, you need to let them try, and when they fail you need to let them learn from that failure. You can still be there for support, you can still be there for emergencies and advice IF they ask for it, but you’ve got to let them figure it out on their own. There is no other way for them to finish the process, to grown into the amazing adults you raised them to be. There is no other way to prove all the lessons you taught them when they were young.
This is not a quick process for either of you and it varies from child to child, situation to situation. Some kids are ready to leave home at 18, and some may need to stick around another year or two. Sometimes, they will leave home, try their wings, and maybe have to come back for a bit to regroup. They might encounter a life crisis for which you will need to be their support and that’s okay, but you can’t do it for them, and you can’t try to fix it for them.
I can’t say I’ve always been good at this myself. It’s taken me a long time to get the hang of it. It has also varied among my children. My oldest daughter left home once and never looked back and if I ever offered advice she was quick to say “I’ve got this Mom.” Some of the other kids, however, have had some stuff go on that they needed a little more help with, times when they needed to come home for a bit before they were ready to give independence another shot. That’s okay too, as long as we are all working towards the same goal.
What was hard for me was when they came back, to not take on the role with a twenty-something that I had with a fifteen year old, to let them still figure it out on their own but be there for support if needed. After all, I made these people; I have a vested interest in their success! Sometimes, the hardest part is when they want your help and you have to say no, because you know that they need to do this on their own, they just haven’t figured that out yet themselves.
There aren’t as many books out there about un-parenting as there are about parenting. I guess it’s hard to write a book that tells you that the thing you need to do is often nothing. The good news is that if you can figure out this process, if you can re-negotiate this new relationship, the benefits are tremendous.
In this new relationship we help each other out because we are family, not because one of us is dependent on the other. Today, we have a relationship based on mutual respect. The fact that they don’t need a full time parent anymore means I now have the opportunity to be their friend, their confidant, even one of their co-workers. It means I get to know them as adults and to watch their accomplishments with a newfound sense of awe. I can rest, satisfied with a job well done, knowing that even when they run into bumps along the way, they have the tools to figure it out.
And the biggest and most wonderful surprise of all has been that sometimes, when I’ve needed someone, this group of amazing, wonderful, wise adults, is actually there, for me!
Watch for the next edition of Get a Life when Jim offers his insights into our changing relationships with out adult children.