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Adult children need roots and wings

Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them. — Jonas Salk

 When my first child was born a friend gave me a framed print with an inscription based on the Salk quote: Give your children roots and wings. 

 Now three decades later, I realize that giving them roots was the easy part.  Letting go—giving them wings to fly away—seems considerably more difficult.  Many of us baby boomer parents find it hard to completely let go.  Indeed that was the inspiration for mothering 21.com: Parenting never ends but obviously you have to stop holding their hands at some point. Separation issues are nothing new; remember nursery school? Yet some of us still struggle with letting our adult children lead fully independent lives, without our constant advice, opinions and suggestions!

 Some insights were offered in a recent blog post with an academic title, “Parenting after the adolescent becomes adult.”  Dr. Carl Pickhardt, who wrote the post, has impressive credentials.  He is the author of 13  books on parenting and the father of four adult children.  Dr. Pickhardt’s advice on how parents can fully separate from their adult children is not sugar-coated: 

No matter how grown up, how much older they become, these adult offspring forever remain your children just as you forever remain their parent. And the relationship is always challenging because, like the rest of life, parenting demands constant change and accommodation.

 What makes this accommodation hard for parents are several adjustments they must make: to tolerance, to reversal, and to demotion.

Tolerance? Reversal? Demotion?  That felt like a slap in the face with the admonition: Snap out of it parent! What was Dr. Pickhardt thinking?  We phoned him in Austin, Texas where he has a private practice that includes adult children and their parents, and chatted for an hour.  He was empathetic and reassuring.  His message: Parents need to let their adult children assert their independence and to love and accept them as individuals, not as mini-me!

Letting go doesn’t mean that our adult children no longer need us. Parents need to remember their “primal role,” Dr. Pickhardt said.   Just as a little child wants to share every accomplishment, most adult children crave parental attention and approval.  As he wrote in his blog post:

So when parents continue their roles as emotional supporter, as rapt audience, and as tireless cheerleader, what they have to offer their adult children never goes out of style, never loses lasting value.

That makes the separation sound  less depressing.  Still, the words—tolerance, reversal, demotion—needed some explanation and Dr. Pickhardt kindly obliged with so many excellent insights that the post will be in two parts: this week and next.

Why tolerance, reversal and demotion?  Sounds like I just got downsized from my parenting job.

The hardest art of parenting is letting, especially when you worked so hard and invested so much.  Those adjustments of tolerance, reversal and demotion are the different ways parents have to let go to be able to embrace their adult child and accept their independence. 

Let’s start with tolerance.  You make a frightening analogy:  Just as we baby boomers must learn to be tolerant of our own aging parents, our adult children must become tolerant of us.  Are we really that difficult?

 Of course we never think that we can be difficult.  If something is the matter, we believe that we’re okay and the other person is not.  The adult child needs to accept the idea that “I am not going to change my parent and my parent is not going to change me.”  The parent needs to accept that too. For example, a parent may need to accept  that “My adult child has always argued with me, will continue to argue and will probably never not argue.”

 Accepting your child’s argumentative personality is one thing, but what about other choices: work, lifestyle, partner, religious differences, goals in life?

Parents need to let adult children makes their own decisions and accept those decisions. Tolerance means acceptance and the opposite of acceptance is rejection, and that does relationship between parent and adult child no favors. The goal is to learn to love the differences and to see you adult child as a whole person.  As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it:  “to see the other whole against the sky.”

To be continued next week…

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