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.