Being a parent is one of the most challenging roles a person can ever assume in life. The compendium of responsibilities and complexities involved in parenting can be exhausting and is often overwhelming. As the old cliché goes, “They don’t send you home from the hospital with a ‘how-to’ manual along with your baby.” Of course, there are many books and seminars on parenting; but mostly, you learn as you go. Being a parent can provide enormous fulfillment; yet, it is meeting a daunting series of tasks and challenges that represents the real life-changer, once you bear or acquire a child.
There is little that compares with having children to make people grow and mature. For those who are callow and self-absorbed, the ever-pressing and constant needs and dependence of a child catalyze adult responsibility and the habit of putting someone else first. For those who are already responsible and prepared to care for an emerging human being, the process of raising a child will still inevitably provide many demanding “wake-up calls,” while it will also furnish a long list of satisfactions that are the fitting rewards for a lifetime devoted to patiently and compassionately nurturing, guiding, mentoring, and intimately relating to one’s progeny.
Gaining experience as a parent tends to make us wiser and also more humble. As the gray and white hair encroaches (or recedes), we gain competence in many areas. We learn how to do things that were done for us by our own parents and which we took for granted. We develop know-how and learn skills that we need to help our children. We refine beliefs and attitudes in the light of experience and emotional sentience. Psychologically, we strive to provide for our kids and to avoid the mistakes we believed our elders made in raising us. We endeavor to emulate our parents when they demonstrated wisdom in our upbringing, and we vow to be different and better parents where they exhibited flaws! We gradually learn how difficult it can be to provide for our children’s material comforts and their real and contrived necessities, and to deliver leadership and guidance in the face of life’s adversity and the inevitable naiveté and rebelliousness of youth. We experience the tenderness of furnishing our children with protection and compassion, while we also recognize the underlying reality of an ever-present vulnerability: their defenselessness, their omnipresent needs, and the relentless aging process that slowly but inexorably diminishes our once prior prowess in all matters and our once unassailable, legitimate authority over them.
Along with the many competencies that accompany parenting, we realize and endure the persistent sense of helplessness that is part of the job. It may seem odd to frame the role of parenting with a seemingly counter-intuitive reference to “helplessness.” Parents are supposed to be in charge. We are the ones who make things right, salve the wounds, and provide reassurance, solutions, and hope. Of course we do: we mean well and usually do it well—reaching levels of caring beyond which we ever thought we were capable of attaining. However, we cannot escape the reality that life is too big, too complex, and too overpowering to shield our families from the dangers and misfortunes that could and do occur. In our children’s eyes, we are all powerful (at least for awhile). But we are also helpless in being able to control all that we would prefer in order to guarantee our children’s protection, sanction the appropriateness of their decisions, and assure their success in life.
It is this ultimate helplessness that strikes chords of fear, loneliness, and sometimes sorrow in us, even as our hearts pour our compassion and aspirations as we look out for and toward our children. As we grow older, we realize our mistakes. If our parenting is lacking and we are not in denial, we will know it; our children will hold us accountable, and their difficulties with self-actualization may stand in stark testimony to our parenting failures. If our parenting is sound, we will take justifiable pride in their attainments in life, but we may still wrestle with the pangs of helplessness about the wisdom not completely shared and willingly accepted by our children. They, of course, have their own lives to live, and they will do it increasingly without us, according to nature’s plan. The more relentless we are in attempting to impose our will, the more surprised and disappointed we are likely to be about how limited we truly are in so doing. As parents, we have accumulated decades of wisdom, opinions, and perspectives about issues such as money, careers, friends and spouses, and other significant and complicated life habits and decisions. A parent’s attempts to advise teenagers or young adults about spending habits, work habits or choices regarding friends or partners are likely to be ignored. This rejection can be an alienating experience for parents and is also likely to reinforce a sense of helplessness. Though this rebuff might be disheartening, and can even be in some cases perilous, it’s par for the course, and parents must resign themselves to it. To persist and nag can also be hazardous. It could imperil all channels of parent-child communication. My advice: learn how to broach particularly risky issues with subtlety and with strategic finesse. Read the vibes that are produced by the interaction, learn to back off when appropriate, and never nag.
Some are without children. Although it may seem as though the parenting dynamics described above do not apply to this population, this is not the case. Those without offspring were themselves once children. Thus, the collective experience of growing up includes the visceral relationships of intergenerational dependence and childrearing. We are all recipients of parenting, whether or not we recapitulate that role individually.
Generations come and generations go, and the constant is the reproduction of children; most of these become parents and propagate our species. For millennia, parents have nurtured their children, weaned them, and ideally ushered them along the path that leads to their becoming independent young adults who have their own goals and aspirations. The milieu for this development is the nuclear family managed by parents who function as CEOs.
Whether you are childless or have a large brood, your upbringing was based on historical antecedents and genetic programming, and these roles largely transcend individual cultures and religions. Genetic predispositions notwithstanding, we retain observations and learn from our own childhood experiences about what the world is like and how the people in it are likely to treat us. These expectations are germinated early in life and then modified and reinforced according to our subsequent life experiences and developing character. Even if you don’t have your own children, you interact with other people’s kids and you serve as a role model. You bring your own notions of being a child and being a parent to your relationships with other parents and children. Parenting affects everyone.
In the contemporary practice of raising children in America these days, there is great effort among most parents to “do more.” It may be an instinctive desire on the part of many parents to want to provide “the best” for their kids, and this includes more material accoutrements, security, and opportunities than they themselves may have had growing up. Post-World War II parenting occurred in an age of unprecedented economic burgeoning, as well as the advent of new lifestyles, mobility, and freedoms advanced by technology and liberal values. Most parents have always worked hard. As our elders emerged from the stultifying Great Depression era following World War I (as some people are now still in the process of climbing out of the destitution that followed the recent Great Recession), meeting basic survival needs can give way to the luxury of having more time and energy available to devote to developing children’s skills, spending more time with them, providing supplemental opportunities for academic and recreational enrichment, and catering to their psychological needs.
There is peer pressure on parents to do more for their children. This is fostered by direct marketing campaigns (e.g., for tutoring, sports instruction, fashion modeling, etc.), by recommendations from child development “experts” about must-do personal development regimes, through comparative observation (the neighbors’ and friends’ kids are in swimming, martial arts, music lessons, foreign languages, yoga, Pilates, dance lessons, etc.), and by the ever-increasing pressure and rivalry to get into prestigious schools and gain a foothold in our excruciatingly competitive and discriminating economy.
It seems that parents today are increasingly taking their roles more seriously and engaging in more parent training programs and activities than ever before. From birthing classes to books, videos, Internet websites, and seminars to professional services—parents are awash in “help” and “how-to” pursuits that purportedly can assist them in handling the rigors of bringing up their kids correctly.
There are “tiger” moms, “helicopter” parents, and the cultural commentary of comedians who craft entertainment routines from the imbroglio of directives, cautions, and “wisdom” regarding proper childcare and development. Sadly, there is swelling wave of parents who are simply overwhelmed and burdened by too little time and money, and who are trying to keep their heads above water and abreast of the maelstrom of putative technological advances in the field of parenting. Even with good intentions, immersion in the fads and technologies of the day may eventually show no substantive educational or psychological value—or in a worst case scenario, might even prove to be injurious to children’s overall development.
As an example, I look unfavorably upon video gaming and internet addictions (yes, even Facebook preoccupation and compulsive texting) because, in my opinion, it degrades the development of social interaction skills and encourages long periods of isolation justified by virtual communications that can be poor substitutes for physical exercise, group dynamics, and the proprioceptive and olfactory aspects of relationships. (Remember, we are mammals, whose primal nervous systems need smell and proximity to fully apprehend and adjust to other beings.)
Raising children in today’s world brings unprecedented and unique challenges along with the traditional and unchanging tasks and milestones that await every child as he ideally grows toward independence. The trajectory toward adulthood has always been demarcated with the issues of adjusting to one’s developing body and nascent hormones, finding strengths and marketable skills, trying on social roles, and gradually emancipating from the security and control of family. Some children are saddled with handicaps, illnesses, or austere circumstances that make their developmental and social challenges much harder. In these situations, successful parenting would clearly require the acquisition of special skill sets, possible resources, and added emotional fortitude, compassion, patience, and determination.
Regardless of your circumstances and history and irrespective of the degree of your child’s “normalcy” or temperament, you strive, as a parent, to make his childhood and transition to adulthood as happy, successful, productive, and free from trauma as you possibly can. As previously discussed, you are mindful of (if not haunted by) the memories of what your parents did poorly or didn’t do at all—and you are as determined as ever to avoid their mistakes and improve upon their tenure as parents. Ideally, you consciously endeavor to apply any and all of the lessons learned from your own positive and negative experiences as a child—emphasizing and recapitulating the good and rejecting and not repeating the bad.
Yet, if you are like most parents, you sometimes find that being a parent is incredibly tricky, complicated, and frustrating. By necessity, you mature and learn the ropes at a brisk pace, propelled by a keen awareness of your responsibilities, instincts, and the magnetic attraction to the pleasures derived from successfully guiding and watching your child develop. You repeatedly reflect in wonderment about how your parents managed to dispatch their responsibilities and to cope with you, despite their limitations. In moments of candor, you may also acknowledge that it was your own quirks, embedded traits, and limitations as a child that made parenting you more difficult.
Despite similarities, you are not exactly like your parents, and your child is not just like you. People may recognize “chips off the old block” and attend to echoes of familiar gestures, likenesses, and habits. The generations bear traces of ballads or, perhaps, operatic recapitulations. The refrains of your memories are embellished with half-notes, improvisations, and reprises harkening to your parents’ wisdom; this may reverberate to the present themes that characterize the struggles, joys, and hurts that accompany your supervising, leading, and relating to your own offspring.
What does being a parent involve? What is required? What is enough? What is too much?
The answers should be simple and straightforward; but, indeed, they are not so clear. Seeking the better paths becomes complicated by circumstances, culture, history, economics, individual values and temperament, and the uniqueness of each child.
Starting with the rudiments, it is the parents’ responsibility to provide for basic needs and care: food, shelter, clothing, protection, and health needs. Given the economic strain, this is often not easily managed, yet most parents take these obligations upon themselves with sacrifice and effort.
Beyond providing for the basics (which given the realities of today’s economy can require financial obligations that could persist well into your offspring’s adulthood), you undoubtedly want to make available additional benefits to your child. You want to prepare him for the future and to do everything humanly possible to assure that he attains an independent life in a challenging and competitive world. You also want to enjoy his proud moments, his progressive accomplishments, and you want to revel in his victories. You similarly want and need to be there to offer comfort and support in times of failure and disillusionment. Your child needs the benefit of your life experience and your savvy about how to handle himself and the world. He needs your values and encouragement, as well as your love and affection. He needs discipline, supervision, mentoring, and coaching. At the same time, you must become increasingly skilled and intuitive about when to intervene and when to let your child learn from his mistakes.
Your child must develop the discipline and self-control necessary to function in the world, to get along with people, and to live comfortably and wholesomely with himself. All this and so much more are your responsibilities as a parent: from early childhood through the rigors of homework, puberty, adolescence, rebellion, coping with peers and temptation, driving, being away from home, and so forth. This comprises an enormous compendium of developmental tasks and processes that you must explore with your child and help him deal with effectively!
You must craft your own “parenting manual,” and it will need proofing, editing, and many revisions. You have signed on to assume responsibility for “launching” your child into his future, and you’ve taken on the obligation to provide the requisite nurturing and “programming” that will likely influence future outcomes.
Aye, there’s a rub! Just how much of the future outcomes fall under your watch, your jurisdiction, and your influence?
Traditional psychological theories tell us that we, as parents, are very powerful influences over our children’s behaviors, values, and ultimate successes and failures. If we believe the parenting mavens, we may overestimate our influence, burden ourselves and our children with too much control, and hold ourselves accountable for what, in reality, are actually the independent and self-willed choices our children make—in the pursuit and exercise of what we ironically say that we want for them all along: autonomy. And with autonomy come the very choices, consequences, and accountability to oneself that we paradoxically bemoan.
As a veteran psychologist with decades of experience observing and explaining child development, I have counseled and worked with many, many parents regarding these issues. I’ve worked in the trenches, helping parents of varying backgrounds and economic strata understand and modify their kids’ behaviors and set realistic expectations for their children’s compliance and performance. I’ve also helped parents adjust to and recover from debacles and traumas. I realize the impact of parenting and childhood experiences upon children’s subsequent character development and future behavior. However, I’m not convinced that parents’ actions in the raising of children exert deterministic or immutable influences over the eventual outcomes that transpire in children’s lives.
It may seem confusing that I’m reviewing the vital role and responsibility that parents play in children’s development, but that I’m also setting limits on the predictive validity of parenting’s effects upon children’s lives as they grow into adulthood. This potential confusion and possible dissonance with free will and flexibility has occupied center stage for me as I’ve struggled to reconcile traditional psychological and developmental theories with my own observations about children’s outcomes when they depart from the intended path that would seem to be foreordained by effective parenting practices and advantageous family circumstances. My outlook has become tempered by professional and personal observations of the reliability of predictors and their fidelity to the wisdom of experts. My conclusion is that the contributions of spiritual factors, propinquity, and individual choices must be factored into the life outcome prediction equation.
The vast majority of traditional psychologists would have us cower in light of the importance of early influences and the power that parents exert over their children’s futures. Though I do not dismiss or discount the weight these may have, I caution against overestimating the enduring and dominating influence of parents after the child is grown. There are many important influences and causative agents that factor into offspring outcomes. These are often synergistic with the role and behaviors of parents and the environment(s) in which the child is raised. As a strong believer in the genetic bases of health and behaviors, I suggest that the strongest influence that parents exert on their children occurs at the genetic level—played out, observed, and intermingled with parenting and other life experiences over decades. This is not to say that genetic influences are themselves deterministic or immutable, nor does it override or diminish the importance of free will and individual choice. It does argue, however, that there exist DNA templates upon which parents imprint, teach, and model, and through which offspring develop their strengths, weakness, vulnerabilities, tendencies, and preferences.
In sum, we as parents transmit our genetic codes; we nurture and provide for our young; we spend and sacrifice; we learn, review, practice, and modify. We change and try to roll with the already thrown punches. We savor the precious moments, and despair (a lot) when life impinges harmfully upon our children. We encourage and discipline, teach and model, provide guidance and security. We somehow expect that if we do most of the right things, then it will work out well for our children. Conversely, we may interpret (with fear, guilt, and shame) that if things do go awry, then it was (must be) our fault in ways unforgivable and unrelenting by acts of commission or sins of omission, whether or not we knew at the time the consequences of what we did or failed to do.
When we consider being a parent, many associations come to mind: responsibility, joy, authority, leadership, sacrifice, maturity, pride, satisfaction, frustration, etc. We don’t often encapsulate this role and involvement with a description of “helplessness.” Yet in discerning the overarching and transcending experiences of parenting across the decades spent raising and interacting with a child, the term “helplessness” is disconcertingly apt.
The joys and hurts of being a parent are plentiful. Despite regrets and misgivings, those of sound mind would not “trade” back the journey, even if that were possible. I’ll never forget something that happened several years before my first child was born: I went to the home of a man to seek his help with a computer problem. He lived in a ramshackle house with a cluttered yard and four children running around helter-skelter. He was disheveled, and his family seemed disorganized. Though I was there for computer help, the psychologist in me observed the environs and, admittedly, was inwardly curious and perhaps judgmental about how he managed as a parent. From my then childless perspective, I asked him what it was like to be a parent. His whole demeanor changed, he stopped what he was doing, turned to me and said radiantly, “Having kids is the best, most productive, most meaningful thing I ever did in my life.” Decades later, I can tell you that I concur, and his statement rings decidedly true for my experience as a parent, too.
Children do bring unparalleled joy; but they can also rip at your heart. They may do this through puerile selfishness and self-absorption, struggles growing up, character flaws, periodic rebellion, tragedy or trauma, developmental disabilities, or illness. They can be the fulcrum of conflict in marriage or divorce, or they can fail to live up to your expectations. They can decline applying themselves and realizing their potential; they can (and will) often go their own ways, despite your preconceived and wiser invocations and recommendations. And sadly—and devastatingly so in its extreme—they may resist interacting with you, not appreciating all that you’ve done and desire for them, and reject your love and benevolent oversight; they may saunter down their own road, oblivious to the fact that the path they’ve chosen could lead to underachievement, disappointment, alienation, and/or possible self-destruction.
Your job is not actualized without letting go of your child. This process, in its many possible permutations, epitomizes the helpless frustration that is often part and parcel of the role of a parent. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
Take heart! The helpless frustration that permeates raising children contains the seeds of liberation and empowerment. These seeds grow to fruition and blossom through the efforts, sacrifices, hopes, joys, disappointments, and the ups and downs of watching your child grow and participating in the progression. For, even as your child progresses, the added bonus is that you will have the opportunity to acquire greater maturity and greater insights about the issues of parental control and its limits. You will be able to confront your own expectations and fantasies, and you will marvel at a child’s development and be moved by the bittersweet ambivalence of your child’s increasing independence. You will have the chance to become wiser and more practical, and you will develop a deeper, more profound understanding of the vulnerabilities and enduring love that are integral in a parent-child relationship. This relationship is unique—it is a special entity unto itself. It also serves as a model (but not the only model) for subsequent relationships in your child’s life, and plays a significant role in the formation of his identity and self-concept, and what he values and cherishes. Although the trajectory of parenting can become empowering, it requires that you properly target that trajectory and engage strategic practices and attitudes that make empowerment a natural outcome for you and your child.
You must respect the influence you may have, and you must execute your responsibilities with diligence. However, you must also embed into your expectations and yearnings the realization that other forces will mightily influence your child’s future and result in consequences that contravene all that you taught your child and all the parenting strategies and tactics that you implemented.
The trajectory of parenting is a crucible; it tests and refines us, no matter what our preparedness, resources, or the ultimate conduct and fortunes of our children. An old mentor once said, “Only marriage really prepares and trains you for marriage.” I believe the same can be said of parenting: “Only becoming a parent really trains you for parenting.”
You may ask: “What is empowering about dealing with a disrespectful, irresponsible, rebellious child?” “How can I not be resentful about my child’s selfishness, lack of appreciation, and refusal to cooperate?” “How can I deal with my disappointment over my child’s failures and my envy of the achievement of other kids.” “My child’s life was tragic (or brief), filled with pain and trauma that affects me. How can I overcome this?
There are no simple formulas; but the short answer to these questions is this: Despite your tremendous love and influence, you are ultimately not responsible for how your child turns out. Though accountable for your acts and omissions, your job is to protect, teach, provide for, and raise your kid(s) as best you can with what you have (which includes what you have been blessed with and what your child has been blessed with). You brought a child into this world (or accepted the role of parent for a child) and have done your best to help that child thrive and become independent. Biological weaning is much shorter than the psychological, social, and economic weaning processes. Your fundamental job is to help your child survive; your tenure and involvement in that survival must gradually diminish. In helping a child survive, in teaching him to adapt and thrive the best you know how, you fulfill your role and do your job. No guarantees. So if you are going to feel guilty, make sure you examine what you did wrong in light of the evidence of what you did right and the reality that your efforts, victories, and mistakes provide no certainty regarding what is ultimately the result of your child’s choices and fate in accord with God’s plan for that person.
Surely, you have made mistakes—lots of them; maybe even some big ones that you rue. What about your child’s decisions and actions? Are you going to let his errors and misfortunes haunt you and reverberate in your emotional being? Accountability and forgiveness can co-exist. Acceptance and repentance can soften regret. You may recognize that your mistakes and flaws negatively affected your child. You may even be paying for them. You are not alone, regardless of your economic circumstances, cultural or ethnic background, or the cycles of repetition that can characterize generations who “buy into” the inevitability of dysfunctional transmission. Life has the potential for all kinds of damage. How and when are you going to integrate accepting responsibility with forgiveness and with letting go?
Empowerment means becoming imbued with the confidence that you did your best under the circumstances, that you chose to let go, and that you’ve come to peaceful terms with the outcomes. These are tall orders, indeed. In practical terms, this means that you’ve made the adaptations in response to your child’s needs and circumstances, that you’ve understood and taught your child about consequences, that you’ve provided guidance and support as best you could, and that you allowed your child to experience the natural consequences of his behavior.
Life seems to be not especially fair, nor is equality or happiness distributed as we might think they ought to be. Take heart that God is in control, and he is ever present in our lives—if only we would remember, recognize, take comfort, and develop our faith in that reality! A wise pastor said, “You reap what you sow, more than you sow, and later than you sow.” This applies not only to parenting, but also to the cumulative effects of your child’s choices and habits.
There are life events that transpire and interfere, bringing negative consequences despite a parent’s best efforts. You can become ill; your child may become ill, or unpredictable tragedies can occur. None of us can really know the measure of why or when. Often, tragic events that affect or befall our families seem senseless.
You can do all the “right” things, and yet your child can be afflicted with developmental difficulties, or can fall victim to nefarious peer or social influences, random violence, or being hit by a drunk driver, etc.
You can provide proper discipline and training, take all the logical precautionary measures, and teach your child what you believe are necessary coping and risk-management skills. Even so, your child’s character may emerge and deviate from what you expected and wished, despite years of painstaking effort and sacrifice on your part. There is no assurance that doing the “correct” things will result in your child’s success.
Whether in response to children’s disappointments and failures or in taking pride and joy in their accomplishments and progress, there are principles to follow that can enhance the likelihood of your being able to experience the rewards and empowerment for your parenting efforts and diligence, even as you weather the trials and must acknowledge your inherent helplessness in determining with certainty the outcome of your labors.
As a parent, you assume great responsibility for your child’s early programming and its effects on his future. At the very least, you must provide:
If you do not execute these obligations adequately, then your child is at increased risk for suffering negative consequences. However, as has been reiterated, adequate parenting provides no assurance that things will turn out well for your child. You must prepare yourself for any admixture of outcomes, and you must solemnly examine and value biblically referenced guidance for your parental obligations.
In sum, your job as a parent is large, complicated, demanding, intermittently rewarding, expensive, confusing, and humbling. It is a vitally important job, one without raises or promotions, and with infrequent acknowledgment. However, you can make parenting more wonderful than you imagined, as you accumulate the experience and wisdom that parenting abundantly affords. These fruits are not directly dependent on how easy or difficult your child is or on how much he achieves.
The despondency of helplessness that parenting undeniably entails can be transformed into a mindset of reassuring empowerment. For this to happen, you must consider, embrace, and practice:
Following are some summary principles and guidelines for turning helpless frustration into heartening empowerment as you carry out your given role as a parent. These principles are expounded in my book, Staying Madly in Love With Your Spouse: Guide to a Happier Marriage.
I have long maintained that it is the duty of all children to strive to provide their parents with the continual experience of being rewarded for parenting. This concept may be compared to honor and respect, but it is actually a bit different. While honor and respect are the ideals, being rewarded for parenting means that you find that the long-term course of parenting is fulfilling, regardless of your child’s accomplishments and misadventures and the mistakes that each of you makes. There is a traditional Jewish notion of nachas (which roughly translates as the joy derived from your children’s behavior and achievements). This is a sense of pride and reward when your children do well.
This reward is a two-way street. You must have that objective in mind as your right and expectation, and your child must be indoctrinated with this same expectation and responsibility. Raising a child is demanding and expensive, and the counterbalance is your well-deserved reward of fulfillment, to which you are still entitled, even if your parenting is imperfect and your child departs from expectations.
Parents are advised to let children learn from their mistakes throughout childhood, starting from an early age. The delicate balance between encouragement and the challenge of learning from failure evolves into a style of parenting shaped by your beliefs, knowledge, and skills. Younger children, of course, require more intervention, teaching, and monitoring. As children grow, they must be able to rebound from mishaps and disappointments and stand on their own feet. Lack of parental involvement (either actual or perceived) can lead to feelings of neglect or abandonment. Overprotection also carries its own downsides of potential helplessness and/or ineptitude.
By the time your child has grown up, the die is cast—not on his inevitable adult fate, but on the habits of indulgence you have practiced over decades. Many factors may contribute to your adult child’s situation and predilections (e.g. a pattern of parental lenience, a bitter divorce, peer influences, habitual laziness). Sometimes these habits work at cross purposes with sound family economics or acquiring the healthy independence and good judgment that should normally occur when a child reaches adulthood. Though your adult child may be ill-equipped to navigate or survive the complexities of adult living, your efforts should be oriented toward helping your child acquire sound judgment, decision-making skills, and a heightened awareness of cause-and-effect principles.
Occasionally, a bailout may be needed. However, rescuing your adult child from chronic mistakes usually results in repetition of the maladaptive behavior, as well as resentment that affects you and your child.
As a wise friend often says, “The hungry dog makes the best hunter.”
Authorities on parenting typically warn parents not to be “buddies” with their kids, because it obscures traditional parent-child boundaries. This separation of identity is crucial. As your child is growing up, he will transition through many stages. The desire for a parent to be “hip” or “with it” must be tempered by the overriding obligations to provide and model leadership, adult authority, guidance, responsibility, and, ideally, wisdom. As parents, you must establish and maintain clear boundaries that provide your developing child with a hierarchical family structure and a sense of safety and security, however much you may want to be liked and to be your child’s pal.
Being a friend to your child operates on a different plane than being popular or informed and conversant with trends. What’s truly important is to develop a relationship of trust and respect, so that when your child reaches adulthood, he will feel comfortable coming to you for advice and to share confidences. Such intimacy and trust are profound blessings for you and your child. They will enable and empower your child to take the reasonable risks commensurate with successful independence. They will also provide a haven of pragmatic experience and judgment that your child can draw upon to evaluate and make adjustments in his modus operandi. At the same time, you are advised to avoid the extremes. The core relationship between you and your adult child cannot blossom from an authoritarian or harsh upbringing that was implemented during the formative years, nor can it flourish in an atmosphere of permissive avoidance of setting limits. The key is to create a reasonable and functional balance in the child-rearing process.
Your overall objective is to create a bond where your independent adult child will feel comfortable coming to you for advice and counsel when he is confronting a challenge or a conundrum that would benefit from a trusted sounding board. The seeds for this type of relationship are planted early in family life, and are nourished by deliberately providing opportunities for your child during the formative years to acquire problem-solving skills, an appreciation for the value of reasoned judgment and decision making, and an awareness of basic cause-and-effect principles.
In their quest for autonomy, which can often manifest in stubborn rebellion, children may not be predisposed to listen or heed. Successful child rearing requires parental vigilance and appropriate course correction and sanctions when needed. The result of this process will eventually be the development of a relationship with your children in which there are open lines of communication that will eventually lead to their requests for guidance, even when they are old enough to act on their own.
Examples of adult children’s solicitations for advice might include issues such as making investments, purchasing insurance, deciding upon car or home repairs, or asking for suggestions about how best to handle a specific issue relating to your grandchildren. Interactions such as these can enhance intergenerational bonding, provide invaluable insights, and tap into a pool of wisdom derived from a wealth of life experience.
It’s natural for parents to want their children to have a “good life.” To most parents, this means achievement that matches or exceeds their own achievements, financial sufficiency and stability, and the perpetuation of cherished family and religious values. Many parents unwittingly succumb to living vicariously through their children’s accomplishments. This can take the form of penetrating involvement in a child’s sports or extracurricular activities or through an intense pressure to achieve high grades and gain admission to the best colleges or universities. Though such involvement can motivate children and play a vital role in their development and lifelong values, parents need to recognize when to back away. When parental involvement continues inappropriately, it becomes a substitute for the parent’s own lack of satisfaction and/or the stunted ability to let their children go.
Effective parenting requires good modeling. Therefore, parents should have their own relationships and activities that provide involvement, rewards, satisfaction, and pleasure apart from raising and mentoring their children and reveling in their achievements. Not only is this good for the child to observe during his development, it makes the transition of letting go easier on both parent and child. Being at differing stages of life differentiates the interests and activities of parents and grown children. This is as it should be. Parents should guard against falling into the trap of resenting their adult children for being involved in and preoccupied with their own lives. Calling, e-mailing, and periodically visiting may be sufficient, especially if parents are actively engaged in pursuing their own interests.
Whether your adult child is succeeding in the world in an age-appropriate, socially acceptable manner or is seemingly wasting his time playing video games in your spare room, sending text messages and tweets, surfing the net, or demonstrating a preoccupation with Facebook or other social media, your relationship with your child will inevitably change as he matures and transitions to adulthood. Presumably, you have ultimately done your job and nurtured your child. You have provided a sense of security and a value system. You have done your best to mentor, educate, inculcate, impart life skills, and you have ideally furnished a solid foundation of opportunities and experiences that your child requires to be able to function independently. The result, however, is not guaranteed. On an emotional and spiritual level, you owe it to your child, yourself, and the rest of your family to evolve with the grace and wisdom that aging brings—letting go of regrets and not brooding over past mistakes and what might have been.
There is an old saying: “The only love that should grow asunder is that between parent and child.” The saying means that the normal and expected bonds between parent and child naturally transform as the child makes his way.
You will always love your child, whether or not he elicits admiration or bouts of dissatisfaction. Your child will most likely outlive you and, in many cases, take care of you as you age. Difficult to think about, isn’t it? Yet this is the reality that soberly guides us to appreciate the big picture. In this broad view, your child will always be your child, however old he grows. And you will, during this life, always be older and steps ahead in experience. God made it so.