Wait, so you can’t insist that your adult “child” do what he/she doesn’t want to do?
All joking aside, this question has been an ongoing life lesson for me – and also a much discussed topic among my friends who also have adult “kids” (italicized because while they are no longer little children, we are still their perennial parents.)
What can we do if we think our adult “kid” is about to fail?
It is our strongest instinct as parents to rescue our children. But we shouldn’t always do so, says author and teacher, Jessica Lahey in her recent, thoughtful book “The Gift of Failure”. Parents of growing children do them no favors by scooping them up on the playground of life to save them from every slip and fall. When our children are young, Lahey explains, they learn from failure so we must let them experience it, rather than always rushing in to protect them from its’ consequences.
(a concept I well knew in theory, but then again years ago when my high school son left his biology textbook in his locker at school that evening before a big exam…)
But what happens when our growing children are all grown up?
If our young child falls off of a playground slide, his scraped knee heals. If our teenager doesn’t get accepted into the college of his choice, likely he will do fine at another school.
But if we think our adult son is about to enter a disastrous marriage, our adult daughter is in a relationship harmful to her mental health or our son’s partying ways are spinning out of control, the stakes are much higher, aren’t they?
Lately my friends and I have been sharing our worries about our adult “kids.”
- My friend L.’s 30-year-old daughter struggles in a tumultuous relationship with an unkind man. Upset and crying, the daughter calls L. and says that despite how he acts, she really loves him and can’t part ways. Can’t she see, L. wonders, that she is hurting herself by staying with him?
- The 26-year-old son of my friend H. recently began his first post-grad school job at a big financial firm. He’s always been a model kid, dutiful, well-behaved but suddenly (?) has started to go out to bars with friends every night, partying till the wee hours and arriving late at work. He just received a warning notice from his boss. Can’t he see, H. thinks, that he is messing up at a critical time?
- C.’s 29-year-old son brought his girlfriend home to meet C. and her husband. The girlfriend’s strongly controlling manner upsets C., as does her son’s changed behavior. She thinks her son is about to announce his engagement. Should she tell her son she thinks that marriage to this woman would be a mistake?
Do parents of adult “kids” always know best?
Parents believe that we have clear (yet hardly objective) vision with our kids’ best interests in mind. That our kids are the ones with the big blind spots that prevent them from recognizing bad choices. Surely, if we point out to our adult “kids” what we know to be true – they will promptly turn to us and gratefully say, thanks, Mom and Dad – you are so right, I was so wrong. I will do exactly what you say and change my life!
If I ever tried that, my adult kids would dismiss me as intrusive, give me the silent treatment or get angry and the carefully nurtured bonds of Parent/Adult “Kid” communication would greatly fray.
Does the “let them learn from their failures” concept apply even when our adult “kid” is poised to make a major life mistake with possibly painful consequences?
My carefully thought out answer? And honestly, I am not waffling here. But both Yes and No.
Yes: While they are adults, we are their perennial parents, and with great delicacy and respect, we still can tell our adult kids how we feel.
No, we shouldn’t tell them what to do.
Telling them how we feel – versus – telling them what to do = a BIG difference.
I’m not writing an advice column here (but hey, wouldn’t that be a great job to have? Kind of like my lawyer job where I gave advice to clients for many years, but their questions were far less fun. Not that my clients weren’t fun. They were. But legal issues, not so much. I digress.)
My friend with the daughter in the struggling relationship could tell her the next time she calls:
“It makes me sad when you tell me Boyfriend says such nasty things to you.”
For the son whose job may be on the line:
“I worry about your health when you talk about going out and drinking every night during the work week.”
The controlling serious Girlfriend?
“Son, it made me very uncomfortable listening to how Girlfriend talks to you during your last visit home.”
Assuming we can limit our remarks to how we feel – a major assumption that – might our parental comments prod our adult kids to think things through and start on different paths?
As Jessica Lahey said, failure teaches a lesson. It breeds resiliency. Second chances. Growth.
Marriages don’t always work out. Young adults lose jobs. Mental health can worsen and then improve. Even when the stakes are so high, do we owe our adult “kids”, not just the littler ones, the right to make their own mistakes and learn from them?