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Say Nothing or Say Everything?

A 30-year-old son brings a 40-something woman to Sunday dinner at the family home. The next day he calls his mom, “So what do you think?” Mom answers, “She’s seems nice but not really your type.”   The son hangs up mad and the mom is puzzled: He asked her opinion; wasn’t she supposed to be honest?  

Say everything or say nothing to our adult children?  The topic doesn’t matter: love, money, careers, grandchildren. For some parents it’s their personality: they’re going to give their opinion whether asked or not. Other parents could have explosion go off in their midst and they wouldn’t say anything. 

 Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, often unsure whether to speak out or be quiet.  A friend complained, “I know I am supposed to bite my tongue. But I just can’t.  I just didn’t realize it would be so bloody.”

Columnist Tracey Barnes Priestley considered this dilemma in “Learning to Let Go, writing about her daughter’s decision to pursue a career with an international relief agency.  Ms. Priestley admits that part of her prefers to see her daughter in a safe office job. However, she considers that kind of  thinking both “selfish” and wrong for two reasons:

First, assuming that we parents know what is best for our adult children, and second, deluding ourselves into believing that we actually have some control over how they will live their lives.

Eventually, all parents and children need to cut that little old cord because adult children are responsible for their own life decisions, no matter what we parents may want — or need.

No parent expects their adult children to march lockstep to their advice. Indeed one of the hallmarks of adulthood is learning to accept responsibility for your own decisions.  But does that preclude parents from making suggestions, and even, horrors, giving an opinion, especially based on “been there, done that”?

Think about it.  You spent 21 years getting your kid launched (okay somewhat launched); you’ll probably spend another two decades or more with your adult child.  Are you suddenly supposed to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil?

Maybe it’s not so much what you say but how you say it.  So what should you say when  you son wants to join the Marines or your daughter decides to make pottery for a living or your son buys a car that he really can’t afford, or your daughter decides to go back to work and put the twins in daycare? Maybe it’s okay to give your opinion, suggestions, advice but to think before you speak, and to consider your child’s best interest, not as Ms. Priestly admits, our own sometimes-selfish motives.

Maybe it’s also learning how to accept–and even support–your child’s decision, whatever it is, after you spoken your piece. Perhaps we should apply the advice theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the Serenity Prayer not only to own lives but to those of our adult children:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Melinda Blau February 15, 2010, 8:43 am

    Years ago, a friend suggested that I write a book about dealing with adult children. I told her, “Sure, but it would have only two words: butt out!” Now that my two are 37 and 40 years old, I not only stand by my assessment, I’ve had to live it. Good idea about the Serenity Prayer! With adult children, most things are those that you cannot change!

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