Every few years a new label is devised to describe yet more behaviors parents should avoid. This year’s addition is “snowplow parents,” parents who push their emerging adult kids by intervening in their college and work lives. The only purpose these epithets serve is to discredit well-meaning parents and increase their anxiety and self-doubt. In truth, parenting is a job that has no one-size-fits-all right answers, and there is a fine line between guiding and pushing children.
So stop with the name calling . . . helicopter parents, snowplow parents and don’t forget the ethnic slurs, Tiger Mom, Jewish Mom. There is no need to denigrate parental caring. Far more constructive would be to understand why parents are so involved with their emerging adult children.
Parents make enormous sacrifices for the kids in terms of time, money, worry and sleep. It is not only difficult, but perhaps unwise, to disconnect from children as they emerge into adulthood. America and Britain are the only countries which kick their children out of the nest before age 20. Most of the world acquires their post high school experiences while living at home. The American model is not the only blueprint to adulthood. No one knows when childhood ends and adulthood begins and most of us are perplexed about when it is appropriate to intervene and when it is not.
For parents, it’s tough to go from giving their children 100 percent to withdrawing in the space of a summer and a trip to the university. For the kids, it’s hard to see their parents drive away, leaving them to manage alone one of the most difficult transitions of their lives. As they navigate the tricky shoals of the world beyond their family, the greatest gift parents can give their children is attention. However, as I write in my book “Don’t Bite Your Tongue,” finding the “right” combination of nurturing and autonomy for each child and parent is not easy and changes frequently, often in unpredictable ways. Caring for daily needs and assuring safety were the staples of the parental job with dependent children; with independent children, the job changes to one of safety net, a person to brainstorm with and a shoulder to cry on.
The age of independence matters as little as the month in which a child becomes toilet trained. The goal in both cases is to become self-motivated and self-reliant. Different emerging adults, like different toddlers, come to adulthood on their own time schedule.
The goal is foster interdependence by transforming old bonds, not breaking them.
How can parents and emerging adults choreograph the interactive dance of their relationship? Parents can share the fears they faced as they approached adulthood. They can share their own misgivings and ideas, but they can’t write their children’s papers or make their children’s mistakes any more than they could walk for their children. The children too have some responsibility here. As adults, they must consider the feelings of their parents who still are concerned about their safety. If they don’t want their parents to constantly phone them, they should send a text reassuring their parents that they are fine, just as they should, for safety’s sake, alert their roommates when they’re expected home.
The task of parents and children is not to let go, but to figure out how to be available, without being controlling. Together parents and emerging adults need to find a balance between losing touch and smothering each other.
So let’s not demonize parents as they try to find the right degree of separation and connection. Habits take time and practice to change. Just as no one hits home-runs every time at bat, parents won’t succeed every time they talk intergenerationally. We would all do well to be forgiving as parents search for the correct balance between involvement and independence.
This post was previously published on December 20, 2013.