When your kids were young, you fed them, pulled them out of stuck spots and kept them from running into the street. You changed their pants, talked to their teachers and gave them curfews that they tended to ignore.
In the beginning of children’s lives, parenting is a verb. It involves lots of sometimes exhausting effort. You were the center of their lives. As they get older, however, the word “parent” changes.
When my daughter was sixteen and was employed at Six Flags, she worked her tushie off. But she also made mistakes, even calling in sick once–unbeknownst to me–when she was on a lark with friends. She got caught by her boss and when she came home with her tail between her legs, her dad and I sent her straight back to work to deal with the mess she’d made.
That was active parenting.
This same child of mine defended her dissertation today. She’s grown up past the age of maturity and is in a psychology doctoral program. Defending a dissertation proposal is a fourth-year, near-the-end hurdle. Not passing the defense would mean a year delay in getting to the next step. Her father and I have both been through the hell of defending a proposal. Although professors are generally nice people, they don’t make this at all easy.
This afternoon, her father and I sat at our desks, worrying and praying for her. Particularly since one of her committee members threw her a loop hours before the defense.
This is the Noun part of parenting. She’s an adult. She no longer needs us to be active in directing her life. She doesn’t need us pointing out her mistakes or telling her what she should do. She’s not a young child, even though she’s our child.
It’s no longer okay for me to ask her where she’s going, to tell her when she needs to get in, when she’s at our house, or tell her what she ought to do. This phase of parenting is about being supportive and loving; not directive.
The transition from verb to noun can be difficult for both parents and children, but it’s hugely important. We love our kids and yet we still forget to believe in them. Even though they screw up–which we all do lots of when we’re young–they still have what it takes to make their way in this world.
The worst, most crippling thing that the parent of an adult can do is to rescue them from their own bad choices. Yes, I know it’s very difficult to watch them suffer. Incredibly, incredibly difficult. But they deserve to have the learning that comes from cleaning up their own mistakes.
Don’t give in to the urge to pull an adult child out of the fire.
I realize this is very difficult when we parents have been “helping” our kids all their lives. The shift from active supporter to cheering bystander is very difficult, but you need to convey to your children by your behavior that you know they can meet whatever challenge comes their way.
Find the balance–some parents can offer money toward the purchase of a home; some supported their kids through college. You can support your kids, but don’t, however, do what they can do for themselves.