I have often said that being the parent of adult kids is an art, and not always so easy to achieve. But I am beginning to think that being the adult children of one’s parents is not so easy either, and also an art.
I recently laughed with a friend about how I used to feel still 10 years old when I visited my father, as an adult, and often did and said things that I couldn’t believe I’d just done. Who said that? Sometimes I couldn’t believe it was me. They treated me like a child, and sometimes in spite of myself, and being all grown up, I acted like a child around my parents. Ugh. The friend I was talking to about it had recently had the same experience with his parents, who had treated him like a five year old on a visit home, although he is very grown up, and a responsible, intelligent adult. Sometimes, our parents bring out the worst in us, even after we’re grown up. They expect us to fail, be irresponsible, or act out, especially if we were less than perfect, a lot less than perfect, when we were young!!! And some parents remind us constantly of our failings when we were young. Doing that seems like a bad idea to me, and brings out the worst in all of us. “Remember when you….” followed by some hideously embarrassing story that makes us look like fools. Ugh.
I think the basis for a great relationship between adult kids and parents is respect. Another important factor is not expecting your adult kids to be you. (And by adult, I mean even ‘kids’ in their early 20’s, or pretty much anyone who has left home, no matter how young or old they are). I am very opinionated and have very definite ideas and opinions, about how life should work and people should behave. (I hate people being unkind to others, and wanton nastiness that hurts others’ feelings). And I have been blessed with great kids, who are all loving, decent responsible people. But no matter how wonderful they are, they are individuals with their own ideas, and they are not me. Maybe we all secretly expect our children to grow up to be just like us, and they’re not. They follow different careers, have friends we don’t always like, date and marry people that suit them, but not always us. I am speaking generally, and not specifically of my kids. But how simple it would be if they all lived exactly the way we do, like little carbon copies of us—-WITHOUT all the hideous glaring mistakes we made. Yeah, remember those?? I sure made my share of terrible mistakes when I was young. My kids have made much wiser choices than I did, so far. But I also didn’t have the kind of family support they do. In fact, I had absolutely none; I was totally on my own. But whether it’s the food they eat, the people they hang out with, the way they wear their hair (whatever they pierce or tattoo), or the careers they choose, the cities they live in, or the neighborhoods they love, or even the number of children they have, the way they dress them, or the religions they embrace (or none at all, no matter how they were brought up, or what Sunday school we sent them to), adult kids have the right to make those decisions and be who they are. They are not leading our lives, they are leading their own. And sometimes you just have to swallow it, and respect who they are, and not even comment on the strange pets they have, or the way they bring up their kids. It’s great if their ideas are similar to ours—–but what if they’re not? That’s where the art, and the challenge, come in. You have to respect them, as well as love them, and the choices they make. As a parent, it can be a challenge, and sometimes we are just surprised, or maybe even frightened by a choice that seems dangerous to us (of a mate, a sport, a neighborhood, or a kind of job). Our children are their own people, they are not us. We have a right to worry about them, but we really have to try and trust them to know what they’re doing, and to make the choices that work for them. I think we will have much better relationships with our adult children if we trust them, and respect who they are, no matter how different or similar they are to us. it has always been one of my goals to respect my adult kids, and so far mine are easy to respect—-but even as responsible people, they are still very different from me, and once in a while I want to scream, “you did WHAT?????”, and then I remind myself again that they are not me. And their choices are different from mine and have a right to be.
BUT —-guess what??? That kind of respect is not a one way street, it is a two sided coin. If we are expected not to comment, or even flinch, at the fabulous new tattoo running up one arm, the fact that their children go to bed later than ours did, follow no routine, or have a nearly Hitlerian routine, that they get vaccinations, or don’t, that they have now become Buddhists instead of Episcopalian, want to join the circus, or go sky diving in their free time, bought a house they cant afford, or live in what we consider a hovel——whatever it is they’re doing that may shock you, or surprise you, if you are trying to adjust to it and be fair, and respect the choices they’ve made—–GUESS WHAT???? They owe you exactly the same respect about whatever it is you do. Or at least that’s how I see it, as a two way street, NOT a one way street that benefits only them.
The age I hated most was when my daughters were 14 and 15. I couldn’t do anything right when they were that age. You’re wearing THAT?? (Them to me). Kids that age have total contempt for their parents, particularly their mothers, and don’t hesitate to criticize their parents night and day. And guess what, kids? It really hurts. Parents have feelings too. And kids that age hurt their parents’ feelings a lot. Fortunately, all of mine are past that age. But nonetheless, although I am prepared to visit them in their homes and not comment on whatever is different from what I’m used to (when I visit one daughter, I recognize nothing in the fridge. It’s all bio health food that looks like a science project to me. But she loves it and insists it’s healthy. I don’t say “yerghk, where are the Hostess Twinkies, and can we send out for a Big Mac?” I discreetly take a bar of chocolate out of my purse, which will tide me over til the next recognizable meal. But what I do find is that sometimes adult kids forget that we have a right to be different and independent too. And I find that many adult kids are far more vocal about being critical of their parents. If you’re still living in the same way in the same place, your adult kids are likely to tell you that your house looks beaten up, the curtains are tattered and the rug is worn to a nub. They may tell you that your clothes are out of date, and you look ridiculous still wearing your hair that way. My girls work l8 hour days in the fashion industry in 8 inch heels, and they don’t love it when I wear flats in the day time. They think stilettos are running shoes. Me, I’m willing to wear a high heel at night, but if I’m going to run around all day, I wear flats. Adult kids are liable to tell you that your clothes look out of date, or that you’re too old to wear whatever you have on. my kids tell me that my hair is too long (it’s down to the middle of my back, it’s me, and I love it that way), but do I tell them how to wear their hair? I try not to. I think criticism is a bad habit we all get into, parents as well as adult kids. It’s a right we think we have, to tell people we’re close to what’s wrong with how they look, how they dress, who they date, what they eat, and how they live. But the truth is, no one likes to be criticized, not even by those they love. Maybe especially not by those they love, whom they want to please and impress, and whose praise they really want. Our adult kids want us to tell them that they are doing great, and in most cases they are——-but so do we. We want to be told that we look good, that we’re doing a good job, and we’re not totally over the hill. So I think the basis for a good relationship between adult kids and parents is mutual respect. Maybe parents of adults have decided to learn a new language (why on earth would you want to learn Chinese, mom? Why not?), or a skill, or taken a job they’ve always wanted and can indulge now, or go back to school (law school at your age? Yeah. Maybe so). Parents can have pets their kids don’t approve of, boyfriends or girlfriends who may not be their kids’ cup of tea but are good for them, employees their kids don’t like, they may have changed the curtains in the living room, or painted their house a weird color the kids don’t like. But life is about moving ahead, doing new things, even trying new things, and sometimes clinging to habits or people that give us comfort.
I think what adult kids and parents need is tolerance of each other, compassion, understanding, respect, and a sense of humor about the things we don’t always like. But if our kids want us to respect them and their occasionally wonky choices (blue hair, sweetheart?? really???), then they have to respect ours as well. Life is an experiment. We really do need to be tolerant of each other. And NONE of us want to hear about what we’re doing wrong all the time. Even if it’s wrong for someone else, it may be right for us, no matter how strange it seems.
So I would like to cast a vote here for mutual respect and tolerance. I think if both parents and adult kids make an effort in that direction, we’ll all have a better time together, and a lot more fun. It will keep life surprising and interesting, and keep our minds open. They don’t want to be us—-and we don’t want to be them. And just as they have a right to be who they are, so do we. Someone said that being an adult is when you accept your parents for who they are. That would be very, very nice. And just as we need to salute our kids for their independence, and respect their freedom to be who they are, no matter how different from us———they need to do exactly the same for us!!! It’s a two way street, and a great exchange!!!