I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who mostly withheld their opinions unless asked. As a child it was different of course, and lessons concerning right and wrong occurred on a daily bases. “Share with each other!” “Stop teasing your brother.” “Play fair.” “Take all you want to eat, but eat all you take.” “Don’t waste.” “Respect your elders.” “If you start something, finish it.” The list of family norms was long, but good.
When I tripped and skidded into adulthood my parents were willing to help out—to a point. Mostly they stood aside with the loving attitude that I was responsible for my mistakes. Messing up is a great way to learn, and they were not going protect me from hurt. Looking back now, I believe their approach made me much stronger and more self-reliant.
Twice, in my single-mom years, I asked my mom for financial help. Even though the amounts were not large, it wasn’t easy for me to appear incapable or needy. My head kept screaming that I had brought my troubles on myself and therefore shouldn’t go running “home” for help. I agonized about approaching her, but eventually did. To my surprise, Mom was more understanding than judgmental. Instead of a lecture, she listened. Afterwards she made up a loan agreement with a schedule for repayment. Mom didn’t believe in charging family interest, but I always paid her back more than I borrowed.
I bring up these musings because at my age I, and most of my friends, have adult children. During coffee break conversations we admit we’re not sure how best to be there for our forever-children who look suspiciously like adults.
Should we let them come home if life gets tough, or should we help them just enough to keep going on their own? Should we dole out tough love by saying, “ Guess what kiddo, life comes with scrapes and bruises, deal with it?” Or should we scurry to protect them from mistakes we faced at their age? How do we explain, from our phase of life, that all is not fair; that not everyone gets the happy ending? Assuming we do step in, what, if anything, do we expect in return? Repayment, gratitude, both? AND, where the heck is the Parental Guidebook? You know, the one with instructions that tell us when we are helping too much or too little? Sigh. All we want is for our children to be their best possible selves. From day one to infinity.
Considering how often my friends with adult children talk about these issues, we’re all in a very big boat. We look at each other with a bit of bewilderment and ask, “What did you do when Brenda’s husband cheated?” Or, “What advice did you give when Andrew lost his job for the third time?” Or, “How did it work out for you when Johnny intended to come home for two weeks and stayed for three years?
Parent to adult-children relationships are complex, to say the least. As I said, I’m grateful that my parents didn’t hover. My somewhat spectacular mistakes left few major scars as I found my way in the world, and I want to give my adult-children the same hover-free environment. My kids can call me on this if they choose…Bryce and Sasha, how do you think I’m doing? Do I stay quiet unless asked? How can I be the best possible parent at this phase of your lives?
And to you other parents out there…what has been working in your situations? I’d love to hear your positive stories!