Letting Go and the Art of Parenting Adult Children
Have you held a baby lately? I recently held little Ezra, a 10-month-old who had recently learned how to do a high five. Once he got the hang of it, he did over and over. How juicy and delicious.
My babies are David, 28, Melania, 33 and Priscilla, 38. Holding Ezra brought back that wonderful feeling that comes at the start of motherhood.
While I am hoping to be a grandma one day soon, holding Ezra made me think about the stages of being a parent. I realized that parenting adult children is actually another stage. So I did what any modern parent does, I googled it.
Where’s the Advice for Parenting Adult Children?
What did I find? Next to nothing. There are so many books about parenting kids at all stages, especially toddler and teens. As for parenting adults, I only saw one or two links including a CNBC investment blog: “When to cut off children who aren’t financial grownups.” I have included the link, just in case this is your issue.
3 Ways We Need to “Let Go” of Our Adult Kids
As I began to reflect on my own role as a parent of adult children, I realized that parenting adults is all about loving and accepting, while letting go. I want to share what came up during this thought process and ask you about your thoughts on the topic. As far as I can see, letting go requires us to face three important challenges:
Letting go of worry – We need to let go of the fear that something will happen to our kids. It will. That is just life.
Letting go of giving advice – It’s all about accepting their choices. Clearly, they won’t always be the same as the ones that we would have made.
Letting go of guilt-tripping – We need to find a way to accept the fact that our kids have their own lives. We shouldn’t guilt-tripping ourselves for their choices either.
Letting Go of Worry
Letting go of worry is the hardest of these 3 challenges, for me. As parents, we are wired to protect our kids from the day they were born. David, my youngest son, turned blue in the first half-hour of his life. They sent him in an ambulance across the bridge from Oakland to San Francisco to check out his heart. They would not take me along, so I just had to sit in my hospital bed and wait. I spent a few terrified hours waiting. Luckily, his heart turned out to be fine – and now, he’s 28.
Even now, when the phone rings at an odd hour, my heart goes into my throat. Like the other day, my son called after I was already in bed. My husband picked it up and I heard him say “oh no.” My insides turned to jelly. It turned out that his transmission had gone out. “Whew.” Although, I hate to admit it, I was relieved. It could have been something really terrible.
I have no silver bullet for letting go of worry. In my case, just being aware of my tendency has helped.
Letting Go of Giving Advice
This is something I have had to learn over and over. I can’t seem to help myself. When I get into judgmental advice mode, the response of my kids is to instantly remind me when advice is not welcome. Here are a few things I have learned never give advice about:
Breaking up – I learned this lesson a long time ago. If they complain about a girlfriend, husband, or partner, I jump in and say a bunch of stuff in agreement – “yeah, she really is a jerk.” They might just get back together and then be mad at me.
What to eat or not eat – This is a big one. Nobody likes someone to be constantly “weighing in” on everything they put into their mouth, especially their mother. It never works.
Telling them not to quit a job before getting a new one – This is so tempting. At the end of the day, it’s not worth it and they wouldn’t listen anyway.
Also, I make sure to just listen and NEVER defend their “horrible boss.” This goes double for saying “I told you so,” even if they have to foreclose on a home they bought with no money down.
Letting Go of Guilt-Tripping
This brings me to the last point, “guilt-tripping.” Guilt-tripping can go either way. We can guilt-trip our kids or guilt-trip ourselves. Neither one is useful.
Guilt-tripping our adult children about how much they call or visit does not make them want to be with us. We need to give them the space to live their lives. So, we should not mind if they like to do some activities with their friends or without us. We have our own lives and they have theirs.
I love to spend time with my kids and their partners. I’m also glad that they like to come for family celebrations, Hanukkah – or, just to hang out. That said, I still recognize that they are now working long days, while I am enjoying semi-retirement.
Guilt-tripping leads to the “r” word when it comes to adult children, resentment. Just like worry and advice-giving, guilt-tripping leads to no good.
We can also guilt-trip ourselves. My goal is to not feel guilty and blame myself for anything my children do or don’t do. I can’t change their career choices, significant others or financial decisions. Life is not easy. It wasn’t easy for our generation and it isn’t easy for millennials. We are all just doing the best we can.
We come from the generation that didn’t want to “trust anyone over thirty.” We also blamed our problems on our parents. So, if anything, this is payback!
My children are much kinder to me than I was to my parents. I have come to appreciate my parents much more now that I am one. Accepting ourselves and our children is an act of compassion that flourishes and feels so much better when we do it without finding blame or guilt.
I have fond memories of each of my children as they grew up. They were as sweet as little Ezra, the baby I held last week. But, I also love this stage of our relationship. I love having them as adults, friends and confidants.
I enjoy sharing this part of my journey with my husband. I am also truly proud of each of my three children. I am grateful for each of them and their partners who are also, by extension, my children now: Melania and her wife, Roya, David and his fiancée, Patti, and Priscilla and her long-time girlfriend, Rina. When it comes to parenting, the wise counsel is to “let go and let live.”
This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause 100 veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally to take a step without feet. – Rumi
Which of the parenting adult children challenges mentioned in this article do you find most difficult and why? What advice would you give to the other parents of adult children in the Sixty and Me community? Please join the conversation.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D works as an independent consultant to schools and organizations with over 35 years as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in public education in California. She developed a standards-based bullying and intolerance prevention curriculum and has worked to create accepting and inclusive climates in over 150 schools and colleges across the US. With Dr. Dorothy Steele, she co-authored the book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Becki and her husband, Cohn-Vargas, are also working to develop an environmental research center on their private reserve in the Nicaraguan rain forest. They live in El Sobrante, California, and have three adult children living in the Bay Area.