When To Be A Hands Off Parent With Adult Kids

We came across this great blog from a mother of adult children who discusses her thoughts on when to stop being a hands on parent and instead watch from the sidelines.

This article was originally published on Better After 50.

By Felice Shapiro

It turns out that my very odd upbringing ironically may have prepared me for the next phase of parenting — parenting adult children.

I walked a mile to school — I’m not kidding, and I wasn’t even from a farming family. I lived in downtown Boston and went to school in the suburbs. Actually, it was way more than 1 mile — I walked 10 minutes from my lovely home in Back Bay (so don’t feel sorry for me) — took the Green Line (rattily old trolley — the “T”) 45 minutes from Copley Square and THEN, after I dropped my little sister at her school, I walked a mile from her school to mine.

No surprise I started hitch hiking at an early age, until a creep with a riding crop on the dashboard picked me up and stared at my exposed legs for the mile ride. Freaky, scary and stupid. When my sister was old enough to travel on her own, I got a 10-speed bike for my birthday and rode from Back Bay to Chestnut Hill with books on my back — no helmet of course — down the commuter clogged Beacon Street — about 8 miles. I loved my newfound freedom.

I don’t remember my parents being particularly concerned about me riding in traffic. I don’t remember my parents being worried about anything I did. Actually the only time they got concerned was when I worried about stuff and got stomachaches. They would tell me there was nothing to worry about anyway — so I ultimately, never told them about my worries.

I didn’t tell my parents too much of anything. They were not on the front line of my life and our relationship was one of “checking-in.”

Parenting happened at dinnertime. I deflected the questions about grades and focused on my sports stuff. But to be honest, I was not the center of the dinner table talk — I was lucky to escape the veal sauce experiments, slipping the food into my napkin. My dad usually shared his take-aways on some article he’d read in The New Republic or Commentary and invited our OPINIONS, of which there were many. Mom was focused on whether the veal experiment would work for her next dinner party. Four girls sat around that table plus mom, for a few years until my two older sibs got smart and went away to school. Shortly after I left for college, my parents divorced, after 20ish years of marriage.

So basically, what I learned as a kid I taught myself — or my sisters taught me. Did they even have self-help books in the 60s? I could have used them. It turns out as a child of hands-off parenting, I relied on the wisdom and focused guidance of 1. my Nana who was around a lot in those early years, 2. Eugenia, our live-in help, who was truly my best friend and cheerleader, and 3. my two closest high school friends.

Not surprisingly, when it was my turn to parent, I was hell bent on being hands-on. I wanted to be on the front line of my kids’ lives, and the rewards were staggering. My husband and I purposely chose a community to raise our boys where they could walk to school, their friends were walking distance from our home and our work was nearby. We could, and did, show up at everything.

When just a short 17 to 18 years later the kids left the nest for college, we believed we were no longer on the front line as parents. But, in fact we were. The question, remained, how much of an impact would we have once they were outside the nest?

Despite their new grown up playing field of college (or not), of work disappointments and challenges, and the nuances of dating and relationships — which all happen outside of our homes — some of us are not letting go of our parenting front row seats as they move through their life’s performances — even though a shift is occurring.

At what point do we shift from shapers in our kids’ lives to observers and guides and become way more hands-off?

I don’t know too many parents who can resist helping their kids as they explore their new independent lives. But, when are we supposed to stop helping them negotiate daily life, i.e., make their own dentist appointments, take them off the family cell phone plan, stop booking their travel stuff because they don’t have time, or resist going into their apartments and tidying up… etc. When does this line in the sand get drawn?

When do we move off our kids’ stage, into the orchestra and ultimately the bleachers? When is it enough to say our parenting roles are limited to watching quietly as they stumble, fall and get up again without fixing or trying to? At what point do we zip-it and trust that they will figure it out?

As my eldest finishes up graduate school and heads to another part of the country to work and my youngest develops his music career — I know we are no longer on the front line. The process has been evolutionary, and surprisingly quite liberating. It does not feel like the loss I had imagined, as I am no longer “on-call” on a daily basis.

One of my most favorite parts of being post-50 is indeed this shifting role as a parent. Despite some frustration about sitting in the bleachers of our kids lives and dealing with obstructed views — my  husband and I are loving our independence.

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