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Part II: 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

Last week we ran part one of an interview with Dr. Carl Pickhardt about allowing our adult children to lead independent lives.  Dr. Pickhardt asserts that to adapt to their changing roles parents need to make attitude adjustments of  “tolerance, reversal, and demotion.”  Why is that so hard?  Why is it so difficult  to accept that our adult children may want to their own lives, not the scenario we plotted out?  

Many young adults have a much difference perspective on life than their parents at the same age: They take longer to start careers, they marry later, they have fewer children and at a later age, or maybe even no children.  Why do so many parents struggle with accepting these differences?

Parents believe the false equation that parent equals child.  They think that how well or poorly a child does in life equals how good or bad the parenting was. It’s hard for parents to accept that an adult child makes independent choices that don’t fulfill some of the parent’s expectations or dreams, particularly if the parent sacrificed and saved to fund that dream.

So junior becomes a professional surfer instead of a scholar.  That stings when parents get together with friends and start the “how are the kids doing?” discussion.

There’s a lot of competitive parenting that goes on in our culture. “How are the kids doing?” is performance question and parents feel that reflects on them.  The most important thing between a parent and adult child is that the bond of love grows and strengthens over time.  That has nothing to do with how the child is performing.  It has to do with power of that relationship, and the joy that comes from it.

Isn’t there also a sense from parents that if they gave the child “everything”—a good education, endless lessons, tutors, summer camps, vacations—that the least the child could do is become a neurosurgeon? 

You never make an investment without an expectation of a return. Many parents self sacrificed to provide their children with all the ingredients for success and now they expect a return on their investment. And they want one that reflects well on their parenting. Sometimes, especially with one child, it’s called vanity parenting.

If a parent can adapt and accept, the next step is reversal.  When children were growing up their lives centered on us. Now we have to reverse roles and to fit into their lives, and on their terms?

Our task as parents is to understand what they believe is important in their lives and to respect their agenda for what needs to happen in their lives.  Initially this can be easy if an adult child has successfully launched, and you enjoy spending time together, maybe even taking trips. You are finally reaping the rewards of all the hard work and then lo and behold the child takes off into other attachments.

So now child goes from one family to three: yours, her own and her partner’s family?

The adult child’s time is fractured into three different loyalties and suddenly parents are not as getting same amount of access and attention.  When the adult child and partner become parents, you become less important than this new child. Less important doesn’t mean less loved, only less of a priority.

So that’s the demotion too. How do your suggest parents adjust and accept that?

Realize that it’s no longer a matter of your adult child focusing on you and your world.  You really become a follower of their life. You have to take the initiative to stay connected with them, to express authentic interest in their lives, and to be involved with them in a way that doesn’t mean showing up on their door step everyday.

Let’s go back to that primal response you write about.  That’s a key way to stay involved and connected?

That primal response is huge.  That “watch me” never goes away as the adult child wants to be celebrated by their parents.  A parent who doesn’t do that denies a primal need. The denial saddens the adult child that the parent is not willing to be part of their life on their terms.

You mentioned that the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke beautifully expressed  the ideas we talked about. The quote?

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

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