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A Guide for the Parenting That Never Ends

A comedy writer and a therapist go on vacation (this is not a set-up for a joke) and spend hours talking about their grown kids.  So many issues! When they return home they decide to collaborate on a book about bringing up “baby”  to be independent.  Their definition of independence: “being creative, taking initiative, being open and flexible, having choices, showing respect and solving problems.”

Working with the theory that while “little kids have little problems, big kids have even bigger problems,” Gail Parent, an Emmy-award winning writer, and Susan Ende, a psychotherapist, have co-authored a witty, practical guide, “How to Raise Your Adult Children.”

For the book, they solicited questions from a network of personal and professional contacts. Questions are categorized: money, college, living home, work, dating, family rituals, marriage, in-laws, grandchildren, divorce, and aging and illness. The result is a cookbook of issues that can be browsed for the problem du jour.   Having trouble getting your kid to look for a job? Check out “work.”  Don’t like the way the grandkids are being raised? Thumb through the “grandchildren” section and find recipes for solutions.

Answers are doled out with a dose  of tongue-in-cheek humor by Ms. Parent and tough-love analysis by Ms. Ende, sometimes agreeing, sometimes at odds.  For example, “Mac” writes that his wife is pestering him to call in some favors and find a job for their  20-something slacker son. Ms. Parent recommends giving the kid a short deadline to find a job—any job—and moving out.  Then, she suggests, Mac should use his connections to help his son find a better job.  Ms. Ende counters that Dad should not help the kid get a better job, asking should he “be guaranteed a better job just for being responsible?”  Ms. Parents’ response: Yes! She believes in bribery as a way to get results with children.  Both have their points!

We chatted on the phone earlier this month with Ms. Ende in sunny southern California where they do not have mounds of snow as we do in New York.

Q. Many experts blame the economy for “boomerang” kids.  Adult children move home after college because they can’t get jobs and/or they don’t make enough money to live alone.  But you think there are other reasons for this trend.

A. Yes, this trend has been going on for quite awhile and the economy only made it worse. But the recession covered up another issue: Parents are having a hard time letting kids go.  Many are helicopter parents so involved that they never let children problem-solve their own lives. Now when the kids have a problem they call their parents to solve it. They were brought up this way so it’s natural that they never learned to solve own problems.

Q. You also believe that baby boomer parents “use” their adult children to avoid dealing with aging.

A. We have a generation of parents who don’t know how to face getting older. One of the ways they cope is to keep the kids needing them so they avoid dealing with aging. Our whole culture doesn’t deal with aging and death very well.  By focusing on adult kids it’s a way to avoid dealing with aging issues like health and retirement.

Q. Often parents think they are helping their adult children by offering support and money but you don’t agree.

A. Many parents believe that the more they do for their adult children the more they are showing love.  That’s not so. The more dependent an adult child is then the more anxious and unconsciously resentful they become. The message to give to kids is that “you can master your world and be successful.”

Q. Sometimes even when the children want to become more independent the parents still hold the reins tight.  Why is that?

A. Many parents want to keep the power structure.  A young man recently told me about a heated discussion he and his friends had with some parents about whether the parents should always pay when they go out to a restaurant. The grown children said they felt infantilized if they weren’t “allowed” to pay when they offered.  The parents said, “We don’t care. We want to pay.” Parents need to let the children be men and women and pay.

Q. You write that parents struggle with  feelings of loss as their children grow older.

A. Some parents feel the whole growing-up process is dealing with one loss after another: It’s a loss when a child goes from baby to toddler; when they turn 16 and start driving; when they  leave your house  to go to college;  when they marry it’s a loss of that old relationship. We need to recognize those feelings of  loss and deal with them otherwise we end up the interfering mother-in-law and the frustrated mother.

Q. So how do you suggest parents deal with that feeling of loss?

A. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and  acceptance.  A parent may have to go through those series of feelings and consciously accept the loss and plan a life that isn’t about children unless you want to cripple them and never let them leave.

Q. While Gail Parent writes humorous answers to questions, you are very straightforward and pull no punches.

A. Yes, not everyone likes to hear the tough answers.  I try to be sensible and give reasons for my advice.   Our role as parents from the beginning is to prepare children to get along in the big world without us:  how to manage money, how to make good choices in terms of friends, how to find a doctor, plumber, an accountant.  We need to treat children with respect and realize that they are not extensions of us.

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