In Order To Keep Them…

As the eighty year old woman standing in front of me related the problems she had with her fifty-six year old daughter, I bet myself this woman didn’t think of herself as an interfering parent. The woman lamented her daughter’s two marriages and subsequent divorces, her dead-end (in her eyes) job and the daughter’s lack of regular communication with her.

“If she would just do what I tell her,” the woman complained, “I know she’d be a lot better off than she is. But she doesn’t even answer my calls.”

I looked at the woman and said, “In order to keep them, you have to let them go.”

“What? I don’t know what you mean.”

I repeated. “In order to keep them, you have to let them go.”

Even after delivering a lengthy explanation of what I meant, the woman refused to believe she was _ you guessed it _ an interfering parent. At eighty, still trying to tell a fifty-six year old how to live her life, one might think she is an aberration. But, frankly, she reminded me of my mother, who was still trying to parent me at eighty and thought I should still be parenting my then twenty-seven year old daughter.

As the mother of two adult daughters I came up with my saying of “in order to keep them, you have to let them go” in answer to my mother’s over reach as a parent. While I love my daughters, sometimes worry about my daughters and give advice if asked, I decided that once they were adults, I was letting them go. And, while I loved my mother, our relationship was strained and that was on the good days. When she died at ninety, she was still criticizing my adult decisions. I did not want that kind of relationship with my daughters.

It was, and still is, my experience that parents who insist on continuing to tell their offspring how to live their lives often ended up with a strained relationship. And, sometimes the well-meaning parent helped create the very mess of a life their offspring lives.

I remember one mother bragging warmly about how she spoiled her seventeen year old son, making him a sandwich while he continued to lay on the sofa watching sports. She did his laundry and picked up his room. She and her husband provided him with a nice allowance and a car even though he did no chores around the house or held a job. “We want him to enjoy being young,” she said. Six years later she couldn’t understand why he dropped out of college, made no effort to find a job and laid around on the sofa watching TV all day while bumming money off his parents to go out with his buddies at night. Protecting your child from life’s responsibilities and hard knocks does not prepare them for a life of independence.

Perhaps worse yet is the parent who continues treating their child like a child long after the child has successfully flown the nest. I’ve known many parents who decide their adult children are all going to be best friends throughout life, even expecting daughter or son-in-laws to all be on best friend terms. While I’ve heard of this happening, most families may continue to get along but the idea that your sons or daughters spouses are all going to mesh to the point of best friends forever, is a pressure few relationships can withstand. After all, we come from different family cultures with different life views. Your children’s spouses came with their own set of friends and family. Respecting that boundary will go a long way in nourishing a healthy relationship with your children, not to mention your in-laws.

I’ve watched as these same parents expect every holiday to be held at their house, totally dismissing the fact that their children’s spouses also have families. When I questioned one mother about the wisdom of this need on her part, she said, “I want all my children with me just like it was when they were kids.”

Well, they are no longer kids. Adults work out their own holiday schedule. This is about recognizing that your children now have boundaries like any other adult in your life. This is about respecting their boundaries. This is about treating them like adults instead of like children. This is about transitioning to an adult relationship.

My dear mother’s over reach with parenting left her bemoaning the fact that Martin and I were moving to South Carolina and not taking our twenty-seven year old with us. “How can you go and leave her behind?” She asked in an incredulous tone.

Your children do not belong to you like a piece of property. They’re not furniture or accessories. The idea of uprooting a mature woman with an independent life was absurd. But, my ever protective, ever shouldering any burden you may have mother always saw her over reach as just part of being a caring mother. She thought I was a derelict in that role. One of the reasons for our strained relationship, which brings me to another point. Foisting your beliefs about anything, parenting included, onto your adult children is nothing short of trying to continue to control their lives, albeit, perhaps, with good intentions.

I’m not a sociologist or psychologist so all the above is just my view from my experience over a lifetime _ way too many stories of mothers and fathers continuing to parent adult children. That said, I believe the best way to parent adult children is to let them fly the nest, set up their own shop and leave them to their own devices unless, of course, your opinion on their life decisions is asked. In order to keep them, you have to let them go.

14 comments on “In Order To Keep Them…

  1. You are a very wise lady! I can remember when I was a young girl in high school, the thought of staying home with my parents in the evenings was like torture. Then after they “let me go” and I went away to college, I couldn’t wait to get home to them! Funny how that works! I’ll bet your children are very successful in their own rights!

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  2. I agree with you that it’s not healthy for either adult children or parents to be overly enmeshed in each other’s lives. Our loving adult son and daughter-in-law recently asked if my husband and I would move across the country to live near them or even with them when they start a family. While I certainly want to be a part of any grandchildren’s lives, I don’t think either my husband or I would be happy leaving our home of 30 years……and what if they decide to move after we’ve moved out there? What if we decided we didn’t want to on call for babysitting. In other words, many possibilities for strained relations. Instead, I told them, I will fly out for extended stays to help out, but also come back home.

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  3. Oh my, how much this post reminds me of advice that my mother gave to me when our son was leaving Canada to attend university in Boston. I was in tears for a couple of days. My mother visited; she comforted me and said, “It’s you job now to let him go.”
    What great advice! I still missed him, worried about him, and, sometimes dished out advice. But I learned to hold my tongue and let him go — first to Boston, then to the UK, and, eventually, back to Canada. He now lives a couple of hundred miles from us with his wife and a child. We see them regularly. He sometimes comes to us for advice. We are careful to respect boundaries and stay out of his business unless asked. The result is a close, yet mature relationship with our son, daughter-in-law, and grand-daughter.
    Parenting is never easy. Parenting an adult child takes special skills. You’ve described it well in your post.

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  4. Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children” rings in my ears – Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
    I repeat this over and over and more now that my child is 39 yrs old. When do we quit being a parent?

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  5. This article is spot on. I have 5 siblings and I am pretty darn sure everyone of them would say the best gift our parents gave us was to bring us up to grow up and leave. They expected it and we appreciated it.

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  6. Kathy, This is such a succinct piece of wisdom. One of the things I loved about being a college professor was the opportunity to help young people redefine themselves as adults. My parents, like all parents, had blind spots and faults; but they were very good at letting go and respecting boundaries. I remember that when I was 20, my mother told me she disagreed with my decision to spend a weekend with my boyfriend in Washington, D.C. but that it was my decision to make — and then she drove me to the airport for my flight. I think one of the reasons she was good at letting go was that she had suffered from her mother’s criticism of her; she once told me that she didn’t feel truly free to be herself until after her mother died.

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  7. Great posting – thank you. Each one of us is living out our own story. Sometimes we decide to intertwine our stories with those of others; this is called love, when the people intertwining are autonomous adults. When one of them is not free to keep their story separate, it is called invasion. Not only is it interference, it is also bad modelling of how to be an adult if a parent loses interest in their own story, and compensates by trying to live through the stories of their children or grandchildren.

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  8. I totally agree with your perspective. Too many adults I know – far more than half – have no concept of “boundaries” where their adult children, spouses, or friends are concerned. My mother was just like yours – critical until the day she died, always second-guessing my choices. It’s a miracle we turned out as well as we did with so much interference! Thanks for your post.

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  9. I agree completely. I had a hard time getting used to having an empty nest even though we raised our girls to be independent and that was the very thing I really wanted! Now that David and I are used to being just the two of us, it has turned out to be real nice. J

    However, I never for even a second thought I could have the girls for all holidays once they got married. I knew I had to share them – seems so logical! How could a mother expect the other mother not to want her children home for holidays too? Crazy!!

    I Voxer with my girls every day and it works out quite nicely. Are you familiar with Voxer? You can just say a couple sentences or ask a question and then a couple hours later when Emily is awake, she can answer!

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  10. While it is important “to let your children go”; many of us are finding that they come back. Due to the economy many more young adults are living with their parents. In fact there are more young women are living with their parents at any time since the 1940’s. My daughters both have jobs, pay rent and contribute to the household. My husband and I are glad that we can help them and enjoy their company. My husband and I treat our daughters as adults and as parents we have to do a very intricate dance not to interfere and let them make their own decisions. It’s not always easy when you have four adults living together and are witness to the daily dramas.

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