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Don't Bite Your Tongue
How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children
By Ruth Nemzoff
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2008 Ruth Nemzoff
All rights reserved.
DON'T LET GO, DON'T BITE YOUR TONGUE
In some ways parenting an adult child is like parenting a first child. We have never done either before and have to learn a lot over many years. We learn to be flexible as our infants' needs differ from those of our toddlers. Infants need feeding and hugging; toddlers need to exercise their newfound skills of walking, running, and jumping. We stop holding them all the time and let them run. You could say we let go, but actually we modify our behaviors to accommodate their new skills. They lead, we follow. They feel our support and are encouraged to take the next step. And so it goes.
When they are old enough to walk to the school bus, we accompany them and teach them the route. We practice with them. Then, our hearts in our mouths, we let them walk on their own. Gradually we extend the routes they are allowed to travel alone. First the smaller, less-traveled streets, and then the wider, busier ones. You could say we let go, but, in fact, we use incremental learning to teach skills and then let the child apply them. They lead, we follow. They watch our reactions, feel encouraged, and take the next step. And so it goes.
During the teenage years, we bolster them, try to reinforce their strengths, and encourage them to build new skills and overcome weaknesses. We no longer do everything for them. They make their own friends and choose their own activities. You could say we let go. More accurately, they show us where they want to go and we try to give them a guiding hand, sometimes even on paths we wouldn't choose ourselves. Both parties in these interactions have to be sensitive to each other's moves, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. When done well, both parent and child contribute equally to the interactive choreography of their relationship. But, as we have learned from years of parenting, things don't always go well. There are plenty of tears. We could not then and cannot now control the behavior of our children. We can only change our own behavior, the situations we create, and our expectations. Of course, the successes, failures, and rough spots in any relationship depend on both parties. The recognition that children, too, contribute to building a relationship relieves parents of total responsibility for the outcomes. But it does not prevent parents from exploring their own contributions to the emotional ups and downs of any interaction.
Our most important task as new parents is to help our children develop the competencies they need to cope with what life will bring. It is not our job to have all the right answers. Our generation is not the source of all wisdom. Each of us has complex emotional reactions to social, economic, and even spiritual happenings. We, too, are changing and we, too, need new competencies. Sharing reactions as equals can lead to intimacy; believing that our own vision is correct will not. Listening is key because it is part of any good communication. We cannot "make" our children share; some are just not the sharing sort. We can offer thoughts, ideas, and set examples, rather than advocate one position or another. Drawing on accumulated experiences, we can work to craft relationships with our adult children that will meet their current needs as well as ours. Instead of letting go, we can call upon all the skills we have used in the past. Just as experience with your second (or third or fourth) child is, perhaps surprisingly, quite different from that with the earlier ones, so it is with parenting them as adults. No one set of instructions fits. Parenting is more akin to looking in the fridge and conjuring up a meal from what's in it, than following a recipe. Parents work with what they have; the child's temperament and skills inform our behavior. And as in the past, we need to modify our behaviors to accommodate the changes in our children, in ourselves, and in the circumstances.
Don't Let Go
Parents have been hearing the advice to "let go" since they first dropped little Johnny off at day care. The goal in popular wisdom is to raise a child who is independent, who doesn't need parents anymore. Teachers, camp directors, and scout leaders all repeat these words to parents, and in one sense this is true. But we all need people who care about us, and we all need cheerleaders, people who are interested in our daily lives and our accomplishments and our sorrows. Exhorting parents to let go is only half the story.
The latest version of this advice is the admonishments to parents not to hover after sending their children to college. Like previous versions of the overbearing mother, these parents are demonized as they attempt to find the right degree of separation and connection as their children emerge into adulthood. Caryl Rivers, author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women, hypothesizes that the controlling, obsessive, and overindulgent and overprotective "helicopter parent" is yet another media-fueled invention. A June 2007 Newsday article exhorts parents to leave their children at the college door and let them develop on their own. Note that it is the experts who define what "too much" is, not the parents and children involved in the relationship. Only now are colleges stepping forward to guide parents and to examine their own institutional role change from the protector of students, in locus parentis, that they held until the 1960s.
While we do need to let our children write their own papers and make decisions about personal and professional behavior, we also need to focus on finding new ways for us to be involved in each other's lives—ways in which we teach and learn from each other. The task is not to let go, but to figure out how to be available yet not controlling of each other's lives. We need to let our children know we are interested in their lives, and hopefully they will be interested in ours. Together parents and emerging adults need to craft a way of finding a balance between losing touch and smothering each other. It is a journey into unknown territory and will remain so for the rest of our lives.
Georgia, age forty-six, a community activist who stayed at home when her kids were young, found the experience different with both of her two children. She explained what occurred the first weeks after her oldest child left home: "I waited for my daughter to call, thinking that I was giving her a chance to grow up and to be on her own. Besides, I did not want to be intrusive the way I found my own parents." After several weeks at the university, her daughter called rather upset, "You never call me! Everyone else's parents call them all the time."
I was acting on my own intuitions and my past experience without consulting my child, who had her own opinions, needs, and feelings. I apologized and explained my reasoning. We agreed on a plan where I would call weekly and she would call whenever she felt the need or desire to chat. As these years have gone on, we constantly modify this plan and check in with one another about how we feel about our communications. When my daughter's babies were young she would shoot off an e-mail when she had a free moment, and now she calls more frequently. I thought I understood the rules of communication with adult children until my son left for school. He was different because he called regularly, but was annoyed when I called him. He did not like the interruptions. I don't know why my son's needs were different from my daughter's. But to this day, I find what is satisfying communication with one child is not with the other and I need to constantly ask and listen.
Letting go is not a solution. It is better to craft new ways of connecting, ways that recognize our mutual needs, including our own feelings about being interrupted or being disconnected.
We need to develop ways of relating to our grown-up children at each stage of their maturation. If we are not thoughtful and careful, we can unwittingly and gradually phase our children out of our lives—first with sleepovers, eventually leaving them at college, and finally by creating completely separate lives. The result can be disconnected families. Rather than letting go we need to develop ways to stay appropriately connected, finding ways of communicating over time and distance without actually living our children's lives. The Research and Action Report (Spring/Summer 2007) of the Wellesley Centers for Women featured a piece called "The Human Brain: Hardwired for Connections" in which Amy Banks and Judith Jordan from the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute discuss how, neurologically, social connection directly affects brain development. Jordan says, "We now know that we need [human] connection to grow, and that isolation actually damages our neurobiology." Banks added, "If we can start thinking neurochemically about the way people's brains and bodies work, then we can learn how to interact across differences and find mutuality in relationships."
Here is what Nadine, a fifty-seven-year-old lab technician, has to say about the letting go advice.
LET GO! Are you kidding? You want me to let go of my child? That's worse than telling me to rip up the diploma I worked so hard to earn. It's worse than telling me to walk away from the house into which I put so much love, money, and time. Those efforts are nothing compared to what I put into my kid—I lost sleep, worked myself to exhaustion, and you want me to let go? I don't want to let go. I am tired of professionals and friends telling me to let go and disconnect. I know my children have their own lives, but so what? Does that mean that we can't have a relationship? I don't need to know every gory detail of their lives, but I would like to know some of the big picture.
Not being involved in events, values, hopes, dreams, and not sharing the joys and sorrows of life, makes Nadine reluctant to let go. She reacts against the all-or-nothing term itself—Let Go. She wants some window into her children's lives; some intimacy and acknowledgment of past shared experiences. She, like so many parents, has no desire to live her children's lives, but does not wish to be cut off, either.
Maureen, a former housewife, exemplifies the attitudes of another group of parents. "I hate to admit it, but I don't have much in my own life. I would love to be involved in my children's lives—babysitting, going to school plays, joining them on trips— but I live thousands of miles away and they have so little vacation time, they don't want to waste it on me. I wish I knew how to keep some ties despite the distance and time constraints."
Other parents are busy with careers and friends. Many are enjoying a taste of freedom, absent for twenty or more child-rearing years. They do not want their children to be their main focus, although they enjoy some interaction. Ideally, they want each person to be one piece of the mosaic that is life, to have a connection and a continuing thread. As Ron and Betty, a couple in their fifties with satisfying careers and lots of friends, put it, "We're excited about our daughter's wedding and it is a big marker, but it just doesn't feel like the culmination of our lives. We both have jobs, we have friends, and we have so many other interests. It seems like heresy to say this, but the wedding is just one of many big events in our lives."
In some dyads, it is the child who complains about the lack of intimacy. Kevin, a thirty-seven-year-old laid-off engineer, said it well. "I'm at a real low point now. It would sure be helpful to me if my dad would tell me that he had a wrinkle or two in his career. But he is of the old school. He doesn't tell me anything about himself. He has to maintain himself as an authority figure. My dad is a role, not a person, so I don't tell him much about my feelings now."
Whatever the wishes for a continuing relationship, the notion of letting go is too simplistic to serve the needs of either parent or adult child. Letting-go advice doesn't work because it ignores the intricate and complex ties between parent and child. What happens to one generation affects the other. When your son loses a job, he may ask to borrow money, or vice versa. When your daughter decides not to have a child, your dreams of having biological grandchildren fly out the window. When your parents die, you become an orphan. Letting go does not recognize traditional family bonds nor does it acknowledge that in some countries and some states, required portions of a parent's estate go to the next generation. Although the legal system does not require families to take care of each other, centuries of tradition and great social pressure direct family members to care for one another. For all of its simplistic appeal, just letting go is not a workable prescription for building healthy relationships with our grown children if life-long relationships for both generations are the goal.
Don't Bite Your Tongue
Ten years ago, when our first child, a daughter, became engaged, my husband and I were recipients of another type of folk wisdom. One after another of our friends would give us congratulations, and with it, "Let me give you the same advice I was given. Keep your mouth shut and your pocketbook open!" A knowing laugh always followed. With the engagement of our second child, a son, the advice expanded, "All the mother-of the-groom needs to do is be quiet and wear beige." I was stunned at the consistency of the warnings. Why did this momentous change in our lives and the lives of our children elicit a warning to keep quiet? I had learned over the years that the way to avoid misunderstandings and develop a friendship was to talk. I was curious why no one was suggesting that this new stage of life required creativity in finding new ways of engaging with our children. We too, after all, were about to embark on an entirely new phase of our lives, symbolized by the fact that we would no longer be the next of kin on our children's legal papers.
My dissatisfaction with friends' advice led me to the bookstore. Books by Dr. Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, Selma Fraiberg, and Chaim Ginott had guided me when the kids were young. I figured I could look for wisdom on the bookshelves. There I found little advice for the parent of an adult. I was shocked that a relationship so significant in my life and the lives of my friends received so little attention. It was as if this were an invisible relationship.
In contrast, on planes, trains, and buses and pretty much any place, strangers would talk to me about their adult children, declaring over and over again, "I bite my tongue, I don't say a word, but I have so much to say." I found other parents were as confused as I. Some felt that "parenting is over when they leave home," but most felt that parenting, at least in the sense of a special concern about one's children, continued forever. The discussion sessions I've held over the past few years have been "standing room only," proving that everyone wanted to hear about and talk about dealing with their adult children.
The relief and excitement these people felt as they talked about their relationship concerns with their children reminded me of the 1960s, when women began talking honestly to one another about their thoughts and feelings. Relief stemmed from the recognition that many of the problems, which they thought they had created, were widely shared and were actually societal and political. Parents of adult children often express that same relief when they learn that others are struggling with the ambiguities of the in new status in their families.
Their adult children also expressed confusion about this relationship. For many, the choices seem to regress to childhood or to stay aloof. They have no more clues how to be an adult vis-à-vis their parents than their parents know how to relate to the adults their children have become. Talking about problems allows us to begin solving them. It felt liberating to break the silence, to declare that children are still important to parents and that the relationship with them is constantly changing.
As I talked with more and more people at lectures and workshops, I found that there were many reasons that parents silence themselves. Some like Florence, an administrative secretary at a university, said, "I don't say a word because I might make a mistake. How do I know what's normal now?" Developmental psychologists tend to skip over the intervening years between late adolescence and aging. Parents have long been conditioned for insecurity by parental-advice books that stress the notion that our words can damage our progeny. Advertisers reinforce insecurity by exhorting parents to buy the "right" toys to avoid the risk of putting their children at an intellectual disadvantage, thus inculcating in us a timidity that lasts even after our children are grown.
Excerpted from Don't Bite Your Tongue by Ruth Nemzoff. Copyright © 2008 Ruth Nemzoff. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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