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Parenting Adult Children

When my oldest daughter went off to college, she kept saying, “But Mom, I’m not dying,” because I was so sad about her leaving. She didn’t die, but something died when she left. That family of five children who were all under my care, for whom I was the ultimate last authority on almost everything — that unit died. It died overnight, really. She went away and when she came back, she wasn’t my child anymore. She was a grown up and she saw everything differently, and around her, the other children also saw me differently. I did not benefit from most of these different views of me, it turns out.

Over the next five years, I had to transition from a parent of children at home, minors under my care, to a parent of adult children who might sometimes need help, might ask for favors, but who were fully adults in their own rights and with whom I had to negotiate a fully adult relationship. You’d think that I’d have had the example of my own parents and my in-laws to guide me in the process of becoming a parent of adult children. But it felt like completely new territory. Sometimes I was very successful. Other times, I was a complete disaster.

Parenting adult children means always remembering that there are boundaries you are not to cross. These are adults now, and you must respect them as adults. To some degree, teenagers prepare parents for this by telling us that they don’t need us anymore, that they know everything better than we do, but adult children really don’t need us parents and they really do know many, many things better than we do. I often feel like my adult children understand the new world of technology on a level that I never will, and even more than I did when they were teens, I have to ask them for advice.

Do my adult children ask me for advice? Yes, they do. Not as often as they did as teens, but occasionally. And while I still am unsure that I really have anything to share with them because, after all, they are not me and their world is not my world, and even if that were not true, I am still not so confident in any of the decisions that I have made in my own life as to press them on other people. Nor am I so sure that what I did was wrong that I would tell my children not to do most of the things that I did. It is a joke in our house that I tend to tell stories instead of give advice because I don’t want them to think that I’m taking power over their decision-making capabilities, but sometimes there might be an instructive moment if they choose to see one.

The times I often find myself compelled to give advice are when I think my children are not being kind enough or fair to themselves. When they are anxious or demanding, unforgiving of themselves, I try to step in and be “Mom,” the one who always loves them and is always rooting for them. I try to give them the message that I believe in them, and yet at the same time tell them that they don’t have to succeed for my sake and that they will be beloved no matter how badly things turn out or how much it seems they have failed. This is one of the most difficult parts of parenting adult children for me because I feel like whatever I say, my children tend to hear me saying that I think they’re going to fail. I don’t know how to make them hear me say that I think the world is a difficult place to live in and that at some point, failure is inevitable because we are all broken and we’ll eventually find a situation that we can’t solve.

One of the lessons of parenting adult children I have learned is how important it is to have a good sense of humor about yourself. And by that I mean, if you can’t let your adult children rib you about dumb stuff you did when they were kids, you are going to be awfully unhappy. And sometimes it won’t be a joke, either, because they’re going to hit on some hard things that you didn’t know anything about and therefore couldn’t teach them, but are nonetheless things that somehow every parent should have known and taught their kids. I find myself apologizing a lot. Because I did some things badly and my children deserve my heartfelt admission of this.

I swear that my relationship with them gets better every time I do this. They need to hear that I acknowledge their pain. I love them more than I ever thought I could, and that was an infinity when I first looked into their eyes at birth. But yes, it is infinity time infinity now. I would do anything for them, and yet must hold myself back from doing things for them now.

What remains now is to remind them that I am human, that I was always human, not the perfect adult that their childhood selves wanted me to be. I did not know everything. I did not teach them all the things I should have. I am still learning those things. I believe firmly that this is the most important thing that a parent of an adult child can do, because at some point my children are going to become parents and then they will need to forgive themselves. They will need me to remind them that I was never perfect and that children (whatever the billboards say) don’t get perfect parents. They get the best you can manage at the time and we’re all going to have to forgive each other along this journey.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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