Family is (hopefully) forever, but in some ways parenting is a job like any other. We work, we put in our hours, and then we retire. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.
Admittedly, few of us can bring ourselves to pull back when the time comes, or even recognize this shift as a happy, natural thing. In subtle, usually accidental, ways, parents punish their children for growing up. We butt against their political autonomy, their sexual maturity, and their admiral lack of blind obedience. We struggle to forfeit control over the culture of the family unit and allow those growing pains to live as guilt on their shoulders.
But let’s not judge ourselves too harshly. After all, we’re still growing up, too. And it’s hard to go from being the person who knows best – the one in control – to a person who, once again, must focus on themselves and all the work there is to do within.
On top of that, the concept of paternal retirement is decidedly abstract. Hardly surprising for an era that equates involved parenting with hovering helicopters and growling tigers! Not to mention, we become parents with much fanfare and an undeniable point of entry – a tiny person is put in our arms. However, the punctuation to our term of service is much less obvious, which is perhaps why we rarely talk about parenthood as a phase of life with an achievable goal. There is one: to keep our offspring safe until they know how to figure things out on their own.
This is not a hard finish line, of course. More often it feels like a landing strip, a period of rest followed by another bout of effort. At some point, after so many hours of supervised practice, we must turn over the cockpit and accept the validity of our apprentices’ expertise.
When we fail to pivot out of the parent-child dynamic, the upcoming and outgoing generations get locked into mutually exclusive roles, roles that can’t collaborate or teach each other. The younger adults get a signal from us that they’re still not quite grown up and so they still can’t quite trust themselves. They then hold onto that imposter syndrome and sabotage their independence. Or they get annoyed and push us away, outright rebel, or simply allow the relationship to be strained and shallow. Either way, by insisting on our superior authority, we insist on their submissiveness. That does not by any definition count as “raising” a child.
So how can we prepare to welcome our offspring into the arena of adulthood, and show them that we indeed expect they’ll come to equal our good judgment?
Shift your attitude early
Remember that your job is not to protect your kid from ever making a mistake, but to model how to learn from mistakes and how to cautiously test their own boundaries so they can make wise choices. No matter what you do, they won’t have you forever, so it’s really best you both feel confident in their self-awareness.
Accept your own age
If your kid is dragging their feet toward the world of functional adulthood, perhaps that’s because they’re bombarded with messages that all the life worth living happens in the first half. Are you reinforcing this with your own behavior? Do you go to great lengths to deny your own phase of life, or curse it often? Do you shelter your kids from witnessing the passage of time as it pertains to your looks? Hey, it’s not the worst thing in the world, and everyone deals with getting older in different ways. Be aware that it sends mixed signals to pressure young adults to act their age while you openly defy your own. Find a way to show them that there is plenty to be proud of and excited about in any phase of life, if you are willing to embrace it.
Forgive yourself if they think you’re turning away
Parents and adult children should be able to express points of view that conflict without anyone feeling assaulted. Sometimes you will be pained by what seems like defiance, and you’re a human who’s allowed to feel hurt, disappointment, and confusion. If you turn your back to them for a moment, it’s okay. That’s their chance to be the big spoon. That’s their chance to let go of the need to win your approval and manage your emotions. You can take turns helping each other through difficult feelings.
Only offer advice when they ask for it
Once your kid is grown enough to be out of the house and strapping a life together, assume they’ve accumulated enough personal experience to posses valid theories and opinions, even if they contradict yours. Your job now is to be a willing mentor, a confidante, a role model, and an enlightened friend. I’m sure you have great advice, but if you turn every conversation into a lecture or even a pep talk, you’ll be shutting down the richness of the rapport between peers, and robbing them the pleasure of discovering life’s epiphanies for themselves.
If you find what they’re doing embarrassing, just laugh
Remember when your kid was two years old, and she would grab the side of the coffee table and make a poop squat right next to your guest sipping coffee? Hopefully you laughed, even if it was a bit embarrassing. Young adults also need to test out lots of “selves” in order to know who they are. They’ll try on fashion styles, vocabulary, relationship preferences, and career paths that may alarm you, but this is what it is to watch a human being grow up.
It’s not a tightly choreographed performance. It’s expressive, expansive, and non-linear. When worry comes without clear direction, don’t feed it with paranoid thoughts. Check in if it feels right, but let your first medicine be the magical cocktail of a laugh and shrug. If more action is needed, your heart will let you know. Your confidence will strengthen them and give comfort and inspiration to other nervous parents.
Don’t call them “kids”
At a certain age, addressing your kids as “kids” becomes condescending. Say, “Hey family,” or use their names. Lay down that verbal barrier with grace. They will thank you.
Look to learn from them
There is no greater vitamin you can give a relationship than asking to know someone better and showing their opinions respect. We parents may have been on Earth longer, but we’re also attached to versions of it that have passed away, and as those old worlds take up space in our head, along come these alert young people furiously gathering all the data they can on How Things Actually Are. Learn from them! Know that it’s wonderful you get to be close with such a different person, who’s felt the truth of different points in space and time. We truly need each other to get the fullest picture. So swap stories. Pose questions. Praise honesty. Share.
Don’t tell them who they are
Yes, you once knew your child best. However, you do not know them better than they know themselves by the time they’re 25. Everyone has blind spots (us too!), so there’s no need to harp on that. It’s important to realize that a lot of what we think we “know” about our kids’ character is how they behave when they’re around us. Young children develop behaviors early on to protect their relationship to their parents. Unconsciously, they cultivate traits that jive best with our values and also our wounds.
After they leave the nest, adulthood confronts them with the question of who they really are when their parents aren’t looking over their shoulder. Some of what we considered essential to their personality may be dismantled before our eyes. Our kids will seem to “change.” Although it’s difficult for us to watch them choose loyalty to their path over loyalty to our needs, we should be relieved and proud. It takes courage to disappoint your parents for the right reasons.
Cash your paycheck
Parents don’t get paid in a perfectly obedient adult child. We don’t get paid with a squire to parrot back our worldview or tell us that we made no mistakes (all parents do – with so much guesswork, how could we not!). We get paid with an opportunity: the opportunity to witness the unfolding of consciousness up close – as close as any other human can get – and hopefully we use that opportunity to learn something about human nature, about ourselves, and about the world, its potential, and its mystery. Revel in that. Grow from that. Never, ever stop growing.