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Now That They are Grown
Successfully Parenting Your Adult Children
By Ronald J. Greer
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
I think of the pages that follow as a conversation between you and me—fellow parents of adult sons and daughters— like my conversation with the mother of the groom. I imagine us, as friends, sitting on the deck of a cabin looking out over the mountains of western North Carolina. A group of us, now empty nesters, have gone up for a relaxing weekend. No agenda. Just hiking, talking, and doing nothing purposeful. It's early morning. You and I are the first two up. We are even ahead of the sun, though it's not far beneath the horizon. We see the silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. Below us, in the valley, is a blanket of thick morning fog.
The air is chilly as we each settle comfortably into our rocking chairs, sipping our coffee and talking. We readily solve the world's problems. Then the talk turns to family. I see some concern on your face as you talk about your children, and I begin asking questions. You seem relieved, almost glad to be invited to talk about it.
You explain that there is no current crisis and that you have wonderful children, but you are struggling with defining the new relationship with them. This new role seems to be part parent, part friend, but when are you which? And how? What is it supposed to look like? Sometimes they ask your opinion—then at other times they seem to resent your giving it. You are still trying to hit your stride.
You pause and mention you are a little embarrassed even to be talking about it, especially with no crisis at hand. But this is too puzzling and too important not to talk it through.
So, with coffee in hand, let's talk.
THE RELATIONSHIPS with our adult children can become truly wonderful. But it takes real effort. It takes being intentional. Our sons and daughters move from childhood to adulthood. We move from being a parent to becoming a peer. It is a transition we may navigate awkwardly, but ultimately it's a relationship we can successfully redefine.
From the moment of our children's births, when they were totally reliant on us, we began a two-decade process from their dependence to their independence, two decades of what was often a turbulent ride. Infancy was followed by childhood, and then came adolescence (God bless us all), with its disconnection, its turmoil, and its breaking away. And one day this disconnection and turmoil subsided (thank you, Jesus) and transformed into a new chapter that we can embrace and enjoy the rest of our lives. This disconnection ends, when it all goes well, with the reconnection of a healthy, mutually respectful relationship as adults to adults. We don't cease to nurture. We don't cease being parents. We redefine parenthood based on our new peer-ship with our adult children.
But how on earth do we get there? Let's start with what I have come to see as the goals of parenting young adults.
GOALS OF PARENTING YOUNG ADULTS
There are four goals we will use as our focus as we parent young adults:
1 To help them move forward into this new chapter of their lives, with new directions, priorities, and loyalties.
2. To help them achieve their full maturity as adults, taking responsibility for their lives, making wise decisions, and living with integrity and character.
3. To establish a new, loving relationship with them—adult to adult—with mutual respect and appropriate boundaries.
4. To become more focused on this new chapter of our lives; with the nest now empty, we spread our wings, too, in new directions with new priorities.
I begin with these goals to serve as anchors, as touchstones to help with our focus and grounding. These goals are reference points to guide us in our thinking and our decisions as parents of young adults. The first two are about them:
To help them move forward into this new chapter of their lives.
To help them achieve their full maturity as adults.
The third involves our relationship with them:
To establish a new, loving relationship with them—adult to adult.
And in the fourth we shift our attention totally to ourselves:
To become more focused on this new chapter of our lives.
As I think of the importance of these touchstones, I remember hearing a story on National Public Radio. It was about a man named James Smith, who at forty-five learned he had early-onset Alzheimer's. He was articulate as he spoke with sadness of his emotional pain.
Then he talked of the abilities he still had. He still could drive around his hometown. Usually he could find his way if he were on familiar streets, but often he would get lost if he were in unfamiliar territory. He said, "The GPS is on my dash, and it's one that speaks to you. It has a button on it that says, 'Go Home.' Any time I find myself totally lost, all I have to do is touch that button."
Whenever he was lost he would hit "Go Home" on his GPS. It would take him home, and he would start over again.
This is how I think of these four goals—as our touchstones for when we get lost. They are for the times we lose our focus and begin parenting in ways that don't fit this new, current chapter. Somehow we know it doesn't fit. We may be treating them as the children they once were or as seasoned adults they are not yet. When we know it isn't working, we hit the "Go Home" button on our GPS, and it takes us back to our four touchstones ... and we start over again.
THIS NEW CHAPTER
We have entered our new chapter with its empty—or at least emptying—nest. It can be delightful and fulfilling, while the relationships with our young adult children become personal and meaningful in a different way. (This is a good thing, since they are the ones who will one day be taking away our car keys and carting us off to some retirement community. We want that to be done by someone who loves us.)
When our first child, Patrick, was born, a pastoral counselor friend of Karen's and mine wrote us a letter. Here is a portion of it:
But try to understand that this child is neither an extension of you nor a propagation of your personality. This child is a "new being," a unique person, and with your loving will develop his own personality. This unique child of God has a right to become who he is. It has been your privilege to participate in this act of creation, yet you had no power to determine what you were creating. What was embedded is now yet fully to emerge. What is now dormant will one day be realized. What is now potential will be actualized, and this becoming needs only your loving support, not your molding. Your task is to accept this child for who he is—to be loving, to be caring, to be supportive, to provide resources, to nurture, to encourage, to educate, and, finally, to let go.
"And, finally, to let go." We often hear and read that this new relationship with our adult children involves "letting go"; and, of course, it does. We let go of all kinds of parental responsibilities and duties. This "letting go" is a process—we are letting go, bit by bit, piece by piece, as the years go by. Our job descriptions get shorter. Our responsibilities as parents lessen. Then, as our children reach adulthood, when it goes well, we have worked ourselves out of a job. We relinquish the reins as we turn over to them the responsibility for their lives. We retire. Oh, we'll be called back into momentary service in those times of crisis or need for counsel, but largely we retire as active parents.
Jesus pointed to that same transition from the other vantage: "... a man shall leave his father and mother ..." (Mark 10:7). The letting go works both ways. It's a big transition, a big change for us all.
It is time for them to move on, so we release them in order to give them the best chance of maturing into the adults they can become. We let go so they can grow. Many colleges formalize this on the day that incoming freshmen arrive. They will have either a "parting ceremony" or at least a designated time for parents to say good-bye to their eighteen-year-olds and leave the campus. This is a significant step in their development. We hand over the baton to them so they can grow into the adults they now are becoming, so they can run their own race. Then we will reconnect with them in a new and meaningful way as one adult to another.
This letting go may go smoothly, as the natural transition from one phase of life to the next. Or it may be more difficult. Parents may struggle with moving on from the responsibilities of active parenthood. They may struggle with redefining how their lives now will look. Or their adult children may resist assuming those responsibilities for themselves, enjoying the freedoms of adulthood without claiming the maturity and duty that come with it. Yes, as we will discuss later, it can be difficult.
Some parents flinch at the phrase "letting go," since it implies less of a relationship. But it isn't. Although there is much less face-to-face time with your adult children, this is not the end of a relationship but the beginning of a new one. It is the ending of the previous chapter, of who they were, so that we might begin the next chapter and connect with who they are.
Two friends of mine learned I was writing this book on being parents of young adults. They are both mothers of fine young adults, and both have excellent relationships with them. In separate conversations, I received two rather different responses from them on the book's topic. One said, "Well, that's going to be a short book. Just tell them, 'Let 'em go.'" The other said something quite different, "You never really let them go, of course." Both are wise women and wonderful mothers. And both are right.
We move from one caring relationship to a different caring relationship—with new boundaries, with different ways of connecting, but with just as much love. With a healthy, mutual respect, parents and their adult daughters and sons can transition into being the best of friends.
In all of this "letting go," we do not cease to be our adult children's parents. They will always be in our awareness and in our hearts. We will always think of their welfare and be supportive in any way we can be. We do, indeed, become friends as fellow adults. Yet it is a unique friendship. They know we've got their back, as the cliché goes these days. We are there for them and always will be. That support will never change, no matter how much they mature or how old we become or how completely they may have outgrown us. But regardless of how much they grow, mature, or achieve, they know we are in the wings. We are there for them, supportively, lovingly. We remain their mothers and their fathers.
Columnist Ellen Goodman put it this way:
What I did next—what we did next—was to reinvent our mother-daughter relationship again and again. We'd already gone from mother and toddler to mother and teenager—a transition that required the flexibility of a Bikram yoga instructor. Gradually, though, we were transformed from mother and college student to mother and mother, woman and woman. I changed from guide to confidante, from safety net to reality check.
I always think of a mobile as the perfect metaphor for a family, a mobile with its delicate pieces hanging in balance from the thinnest lines of filament. Any significant change in the family— a birth or death, a marriage or divorce—and a piece is added or suddenly taken away. Our mobile sways from the sudden shift. It sways as we move from relating with them as children to connecting with them as young adults. It sways as our relationship is in transition, is being redefined. It is a time of uncertainty and some anxiety, for we don't know what this important relationship will look like when our mobile has achieved its new balance.
We live in the present. We look back to savor the memories, learn from the past, or work through any unfinished emotional business, but we live in the present moment. We believe that relationships with those whom we love will endure. They will endure change. They will endure the swinging of our familial mobile. We come out on the far side of these changes as somewhat new families with redefined relationships. We haven't tried to hang on to what used to be. We embrace what is. We are transformed. And it is good.CHAPTER 2
Today's Young Adults
Are you ready for a refill on the coffee?
The time flies. It's now well past sunup. We hear stirring inside as others begin to rally. We watch as the sun begins to burn off the fog in the valley. Our talk is still on the relationships with these adult children of ours. With my incessant questions, I am getting to know yours better than you are getting to know mine. I had never gotten to know you and your family nearly this well. This is good.
I now know something of all of your children. You told me about the struggles of your son and your passion to want to help him, of the strained relationship with your daughter since her marriage and the move to Chicago, and finally of parenting your young "princess" who isn't setting any land speed records at achieving her own personal maturity.
Your concern is obvious—as is how intentional you have been at parenting. Nurture is clearly a part of your soul. You have been attentive. You haven't missed much. You know your children, their friends, and the world in which they grew up. It's not the one we knew, of course. Not even close.
Before the others come out to join us, let's step back for a moment to take in that broader view.
SIR KEN ROBINSON, an authority on education and creativity, was speaking at a conference and asked all in the audience who were older than twenty-five years old to raise their hands. A large percentage did so. Then he asked of the same group how many were wearing watches. The same number of hands went up.
He said the result would be decidedly different with a younger audience. Young adults have a different mind-set on so many things—like carting around a "single-function device," as his daughter called it. (To which he protested, "No, no, it tells the date as well!")
Though watches are beginning to make a comeback with young adults as a matter of style, they remain a symbol of our different worlds. In countless ways, theirs is a different mind-set shaped by living in a different world.
These days we run the danger of stereotyping generations, each with their letter label—X, Y, and even Z—as if every member of that generation would fit in lockstep with its description. They don't, of course. Each member of every generation is unique. Yet there are patterns, and there is value in understanding the patterns of these generations. Members of these different eras are not identical to one another, but they have much in common; their lives are shaped by shared influences and parallel experiences.
Some who write of recent history get quite precise about how to define each of these generations, but for our purposes we'll round it off and include in Generation X those born between 1965 and 1980 and in Generation Y those born between 1981 and 1995. Before that was the Greatest Generation, comprised of those born between 1900 and 1924, the Traditionalists, born between 1925 and 1945, and the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964.
The vast majority of our adult children are considered to be from Generation X or Y. Most of us parents are Baby Boomers, though some of the oldest from Generation X now have adult children.
Why is looking at this important? Because these young whippersnappers have many
different life perspectives,
different lifestyles ... from the rest of us.
Different, and in some ways better—more balanced, relational, and family oriented. Young adults today bring some wonderful qualities. They not only are more available for relationship but also are the kind of people with whom we can enjoy being in relationship.
Let's take this time to get to know our young adults better. I can't love someone I don't know. If I want to love my adult son or daughter meaningfully, then I have to get to know him or her and his or her attitudes, views, and life perspectives.
Naturally, the first and best way to do this is through our personal relationships with our adult children. There is but one of each of them—they are each unique, and they are the best teachers of who they are. "But I already know my own kids," we want to say. Well, yes and no. There is indeed so much we do know from those two decades of rearing them, but they are at a new place now—with new aspirations, new challenges, new anxieties, and new hopes.
We do know them, but do we know them now? Have they made transitions with which we need to catch up?
Take the time. Sit down. No distractions. Catch up. Not only do you get to know them better—and they get to know you—but also, in the course of this intimate conversation, an already rich relationship is enhanced and deepened.
There is no substitute for getting to know our daughters and sons face-to-face, up close and personal. Yet I also find it useful to get to know them as a generation. It's like remaining focused on the same subject but switching to a wide-angle lens. Understanding their generations can lead to a deeper respect and connection. Not understanding can lead to unnecessary consternation.
Excerpted from Now That They are Grown by Ronald J. Greer. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Letting Go 1
2 Today's Young Adults 11
3 Resetting the Sails 27
4 Respecting Their Need for Respect 47
5 Good-bye, Hello 61
6 Supporting Their New Lives 81
7 Dealing with the Difficult Times 97
8 Empty Nest 121