When our children were young we were on the frontlines: Hyper-vigilant when it came to keeping them safe and confrontational when we feared others posed a threat. Even as our children grow into young adults, we have our super-protective swords at the ready.
But it's time to back off. At least that's what Philip Galanes in his Social Qscolumn advised a distraught mother. The column's headline and deck spells out her dilemma:
My Ex Risked Our Daughter’s Health for … a Photo Op?
A reader asks for permission to scold her former husband (and his current wife).
Galanes did not go down the scold road. (The dad behaved badly: He took his asthmatic daughter on a vigorous hiking vacation without telling her that's where they were going; the daughter became ill.) What Galanes advised the mom applies not only to her situation but is a reminder to all of us:
Your role is to prepare your daughter for the world, not to fight her battles for her.
Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and for some parents, that means more than turkey: The freshman they dropped off at college just a few months ago will be returning home for a few days. Probably for the first time since they left in September. My experience with this happened years ago and yet I still remember the poignancy of that "first Thanksgiving." How stunning and joyful it was to be reunited with our eldest child and to have her sleeping in her room on the third floor again. I also remember how excited she was to be off to visit her friends. A reminder, if we needed one, of how our adult children are moving away from us.
More recently, Kelly Corrigan wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times of the emotional experience of dropping off her daughter at college and of her excruciating awareness of the split path. Corrigan tells us that before she drove her child to campus she (and all other parents of incoming freshmen at her daughter's college) received an email from the campus psychologist. The message: limit contact with your child, including texts; this is a time for your child to "individuate and separate."
In grappling with this dictum--and coming to terms with her sudden awareness that she doesn't "own" her child--Corrigan writes that even though shegave birth to her child and she could trace many of her daughter's features to parents and grandparents, "I didn't have any ownership over her. Wherever she came out of and whomever she looked like and however much she needed from me, she didn't belong to me."
Corrigan turns to psychologists to square this realization. Here is what she says she learned from Ariel Trost about "letting go":
“If we can let go of this notion of ownership and see us as our own and them as their own, it can create a space to marvel,” she said. “Ownership is not closeness.”
Borrowing from Buddhism, Dr. Trost suggested aiming for a compassionate detachment. Not detachment from our children but from the outcome of who they are becoming. “We are working toward a place where we can enjoy each other,” she said.
We here at Parenting Grown Children central--I use the editorial we since there's no one here but me--have long counseled that we can offer our grown children advice, but should do so only when asked. (See Notes to Self.) Yes, we have much life experience to share--wisdom born of experience that could help our grown children avoid mistakes. But we have to let them figure stuff out for themselves. If they want our good counsel--and sometimes they do--they'll ask for it. Otherwise, bite that lip; walk gently on those eggshells.
Not an easy direction to follow. Sometimes the temptation can be too much; the stakes too high. Carolyn Hax recently advised a dad--she was asked for her counsel. The dad was concerned about his 27-year-old son who graduated college with honors in his field but was working at a low-pressure, low-wage job and living with and off his girlfriend. The dad's wife--the stepmother--has been pressuring him to have a "serious father-son talk" with his son about the son's future. The dad is clearly of two minds. He is worried about his son but he also has faith that "he'll eventually find his direction in life. And not everyone needs to be a CEO, right?" And so he turns to Hax to ask, "Should I talk with him or not?"
So hard to step back and take Hax's advice. And yet, needs must. If we brought them up right, they will find their true north--though it may not be the one we would choose for them. Cheers and show the love of support, dad.
Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed, authors of books and books that have been turned into movies, are co-advisers on a love and life podcast/column, Dear Sugars.
A recent call for their help came from a mom who worried that her daughter wanted marriage and children while the boyfriend of five years was making decisions that moved the young couple away from that goal. Was the relationship one-sided? Were her daughter's wishes being subsumed by the boyfriend? The mom's question: "Should I share my concerns with my daughter or stay out of it. What are the boundaries with adult children?"
Here are two nuggets from their fuller discussion that hold for any parent of grown children.
Cheryl: The best thing you can do is to stop seeing yourself as someone who should intervene in your daughter’s romantic life, but rather as the person who will support her and be there for her when she needs a sounding board as she navigates this relationship.
Steve: It’s important to remember that your daughter is an adult. You have to trust her capacity to make wise decisions, and to survive her less wise ones. Just as crucially, you have to trust yourself and the work you’ve already done as a mom in helping your daughter develop the wherewithal to stand up for herself.
In a TED talk she gave recently, Annie Lamott served up some advice for parents of grown children. I wish I could capture the plaintive quality of her voice--and the slyness of her humor--when she recited her "12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing." You can listen here but I'm stuck with delivering the words I transcribed as she spoke.
There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way unless you're way inside an organ. You can't buy, achieve or date serenity or peace of mind. This is the most horrible truth and I still resent it. Faith is an inside job. We can't arrange peace or lasting improvement for those we love most in the world. They have to find their own way, their own answers. You can't run alongside your grown children with sun screen and chap stick on their hero's journey. You have to release them. It's disrespectful not to.
And if it's someone else's problem you probably don't have the answer anyway. Our help is not very helpful. It's often toxic. Help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don't get your helping business all over everybody.
That was rule number 3. Rule number 2 was more succinct but also lands a punch:
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.
Her younger son was the better athlete, the more gifted musician, the smarter of her two sons. Where the older son--through trial, error and diligent study--is now on a successful career path, her younger son has failed to launch. So far. After a post-college year of living at home and delivering pizza, he went off to Europe for a one-year graduate school program. But now he's back and once again, living at home and delivering pizza. He won't take his mother's advice about job hunting--at least that is the face he shows his mother. In fact, he won't talk to her about it at all. When he applied for and won an internship at a prestigious non-profit, she hoped it would be an intellectual trigger for possible careers or a jumping off place for a more remunerative job. She was wrong. He quit after a month--he found the chores he was asked to do distasteful, low-tech and stodgy.
So now my friend C sits at lunch and says she is "finished" with him. She says she is going to leave it to her husband to deal with his son and the son's uncertain path forward.
This of course is how she sees it--her son is secretive and unwilling to share what is going on his life.
For all she knows, however, he may be diligently networking and checking out every lead he comes across--not necessarily her leads but those of his peers and mentors. Who knows what's really going on.
I am not unsympathetic to her plight and point of view. It is very hard on us moms and dads when we have to sit and watch our children struggle to find a footing in the grown-up world of careers and work. I tell C to have faith, that her son is smart and talented; she instilled good values when he was growing up. He will find his way. Her problem, I suggest, is that she sees too much.
My children are older than hers---launched by now into careers, growing families and home-ownership. But back in the day when they were recent college graduates, they headed out for points unknown--she went to California; he went to New England. They were seeking respite from the stress of competitive college courses and wondering what they would do with their lives. Their way forward was far from clear. They had their trials and many errors, some of which we learned about--from a distance. And that's the point I was trying to make to C: We didn't live through their day to day decisions, distractions and disillusion. We didn't, in fact, see too much, the way we would have had they lived at home.
When grown-up children are trying to figure out where they fit into the adult world of work and career, watching it up close and personally is anxiety provoking. Why aren't they going down this road rather than that one? Why do they make decisions that seem wrong-headed and counter productive?. And what kind of help or advice do we have that is relevant and meaningful in today's online, social media world--a world in which we may not be literate?
For C, the situation is too fraught to think much about the larger questions. She says--but doesn't quite mean--that she's "throwing up her hands" and giving up on Son #2. If only her son bunked in with friends--was out of sight and less on her mind-- things would be a lot easier on her and on him. He'll get there, but the sausage-making is unnerving.
"Set no expectations for others." That's the gist of what Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun with a gift for expressing Buddhist teachings simply, says about our desires -- and natural inclination -- to set goals for others. In my little Pocket Pema Chodron (ideal for a quick thought-provoker before meditating) she writes about her experience working with a drug addict. After weeks of progress, he relapsed and went on a binge. Chodron was angry at him and frustrated. Her teacher, Trongpa Rinpoche, set her on on a different path. That path, it seems to me, applies to our dealings with our goals for our grown children.
"You should never have expectations for other people," he told her. "Just be kind to them." Rather than have big goals for someone, invite them for dinner, give them little gifts, and do anything to bring a little happiness into their lives.
Rinpoche told her that setting goals for others can be aggressive--really wanting a success story for ourselves. When we do this to others, we are asking them to live up to our ideals. Instead, we should just be kind.
Could this be any more relevant to our relationship with our grown children, especially when they choose a path that's different from the one we envisioned for them--whether its in their life goals and career or just the way they choose to dress.
When actor Don Johnson's daughter Dakota (who stars in Fifty Shades of Grey) told him she wanted to be an actress, Johnson (Miami Vice) reacted with neither alarm nor excitement. He holds--according to an interview in Parade Magazine--a hands-off view of parenting grown children:
"I learned a long time ago that your children have their own journey, separate from yours, and even though you want to live their lives for them, you can't. So, I tell them--to quote Joseph Campbell--'Follow your bliss,' and I don't care what it is. It's about their happiness."
Despite the anecdotal data--the stories about parents setting up job interviews for their grown kids or, worse, accompanying them to the interview; of parents calling their kid's college professor and making a case for a higher grade--we are not as overly involved as we're made out to be.
Writing in Salon a few months back, Alfie Kohn went beyond the tales of outrageous helicoptering to see what the research says. It shows that, yes, we're in touch with our kids at a higher rate than the pre-cell phone, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era. But communicating--even at a "hovering" rate--isn’t the same as intervening, which, it turns out, is fairly rare (but makes great blog posts). Kohn points to the National Survey of Student Engagement, which asked some 9,000 college students about parental intervention issues. Only 13 percent of college freshmen and 8 percent of seniors said a parent had frequently intervened to help them solve problems.
As to the workplace, Michigan State University researchers found that 77 percent of the 725 employers they surveyed “hardly ever witnessed a parent while hiring a college senior.” But the Michigan study had this interesting aside:
Several employers could not resist adding comments on their experiences with involved parents. One employer had advice for parents submitting resumes, “Please tell your student that you have submitted a resume to a company. We have called a student from our resume pool only to find they did not know anything about our company and were not interested in a position with us.” Another talked of a lengthy discussion with a mother on why the company could not arrange a special interview for her son who could not make the scheduled on-campus interview. Employers acknowledged that they were more likely to see mothers collecting company information and making arrangements for interviews, company visits, and other contacts with the company. Fathers usually appeared during negotiations, when the hiring decision did not favor their child.
No one said there's a sudden moment when we go from controlling parent to advisory parent, from being in charge to letting go, but the gradual easing of the reins does eventually take place--though not necessarily the many ways of keeping in close and almost constant touch.
One of the arts of parenting grown children--particularly emerging adults who are just getting their independence-footing--is to keep from interfering in their lives, to practice detachment parenting, to become an advisory parent instead of one involved in their everyday decisions.
When a child becomes seriously ill, how do we walk that line: making sure they are getting appropriate care and still letting them be in charge of their lives? Writing in the first person, Janet Singer addresses these issues in "Overcoming OCD." While it was written to be a helpful tool for other parents whose children or loved ones are ill with OCD, the book is also about the struggle between child and parent, for the adult child's need for independence and the parent's obligation to know and act on what's best for their child.
Singer is frank about the emotional roller-coaster of parenting a 19-year-old child whose illness could curtail his lifelong dreams and ambitions (since childhood, her son has wanted to be an animator; the art college he was attending did not allow for a break in the course series) and his ability to live a fulfilling and independent life--to say nothing of enjoying the pleasurable socializing of college life.
One issue that runs through her narrative applies to any parent of an adult child who's ill: Who makes decisions about his future. Is it the young man under the influence of his therapists, or his parents? In Janet's case, the therapists specializing in her son's OCD condition (at a residential facility), recommended he not return to art college, arguing that returning to school would take away from the continuity of his recovery--even though not returning meant he would have to give up on his ambition to be an animator.
Her son had voluntarily entered the residential facility during the summer to undergo intensive therapy so he could return to college in the fall. Wavering on that goal when under the care (and influence) of his therapists, he told his parents he was dropping out of college--he wanted to relieve himself of the pressure to keep up with the course work and concentrate on recovery. At the same time, though, he wanted to go back to the college town and live with his friends and roommates in a house they had all rented. "I need to be independent," he told his parents. "I want my freedom."
A good chunk of the book revolves around the role of the parents in this decision ("who knows the whole person better?" a psychologist-adviser reminds Singer.), the emotional ups and downs of deciding whether to intervene and how.
It's her honesty about the struggle with her ill son and her belief in his future that hit home. In one way or another, we have all been there.
(Full disclosure: Author Janet Singer is a friend of a friend, and I received a free copy of Overcoming OCD from the publisher Rowman & Littlefield)