Stop parenting, start relating

Kids don’t remain kids forever. The sooner you get this, the better your relationship will be

Father son relationship

Here’s a little story: A couple had three children, all boys. The parents were facing problems with their children. When they came to visit me, the man said, “I explain things to my boys all the time, and they never do what they are told.

None of the boys is living up to his potential. They all have dead-end jobs, no relationships, live in the basement, and yell at their mother and me.”

When I asked him for his intent in ‘explaining,’ I got, “I just want them to be happy and get ahead in life.” This begs the question, “According to whom and to what standard?”

I asked again. “I just want them to ’get it.’ I want them to grow up and be considerate.” In other words, he wanted them to be good little boys and behave ‘properly.’ I pressed onward, and asked again. Exasperation.

“I want them to know how tough it is to be their father. They aren’t grateful enough for all I do for them.” One more push.

“I want them to behave exactly as I think they should behave, check with me before they do anything, defer to my wishes, apologise profusely when I criticise them and to be adoringly grateful for all my sacrifices.” [He later added: “My responsibility is to teach them how to be men, according to what I believe.”] Let me add: the ’boys‘ are 25, 28 and 32.

Raising adults or feeding parental ego?

As parents, one of the most important questions to ask is, “Who do I want my adult kid [MAK] to be when s/he hits the age of majority?” The two choices are: self-fulfilled, productive adults, or helpless, dependent, dumb, needy kids.

The dad, in the above illustration, clearly favours the latter. For over three decades, he parented by proving his sons wrong, refuting their every choice, and demanding that they defer to his wishes and beliefs.

Now, this makes sense when dealing with children—a six-year-old has to hold daddy’s hands when crossing a busy street. When the kid is 15 or 20 or 28, having to hold daddy’s hand is ridiculous.

So, what’s going on here? The problem is with the dad, not the adult kids. He has much invested in being right, powerful, and in command. The problem is, he no longer is dealing with children. There is no question that attempting to parent adults is a mark of intense insecurity.

Firstly, the dad is looking at the behaviour and choices of his adult kids, and thinking, “I wouldn’t live my life that way. So, they must be wrong [as opposed to different and independent].” He immediately moves to, “What will others think of me?” as if his identity as a person is somehow forever tied to the life-choices of his children.

Secondly, the dad needs a life. Another mark of his insecurity is his relentless involvement in the lives of his grown children. He assumes they can’t make it without him, despite the fact that they have. He also is devious, in that he keeps them close by bribing them to live at home.

Exploring your intentions

I think it’s important to be clear about one’s intention for parenting, which requires digging in until you get to the ‘real’ intention. I help my clients with this exercise by repeatedly asking them for their intention.

Most of us don’t think very deeply about this. We spout off some drivel about raising adults, but this doesn’t match our behaviour—we actually play games in order to cling to the parental role. “I’m the dad, you’re the kid, and it will ever be so.”

Often, it is left to the adult kid to divorce his/her parents. The psycho-babble for this is “differentiation from the Family of Origin”—which means that I separate my self-definition from my role as child, and establish my own adult identity [this ought to happen around age 18].

It’s preferable for parents to take the lead with this transition, by ceding more and more control to their child. This means that the parent lets the child make age-appropriate decisions, and also lets the child deal with the consequences of the choices.

I distinctly remember how things were in my case. I went to university at 17, and was 500 miles from home. Up until then, my parents hadn’t been great at letting me fail. Mom especially would intervene if I was about to botch something up. That changed [fortunately] when I left home.

I vividly remember being on my own in Chicago, messing something up, and looking around, desperately, for rescue. It got so bad I called home.

My parents said, “Umm… Too bad about that—give us a call to tell us how you sorted that out.” I sniffled a bit, and worked my way out of the mess. I didn’t like it, but I figured it out. And how was it for mom and dad? Years later, we talked about it, and both said, “That was the hardest thing we ever did. But we chose to let you fail. You learned to be an adult that day.”

How parents can raise adults

Your intention and actions must align: “I want MAKs to be self-sufficient, of benefit to society, and to be who they really are.” Everything you do encourages your children to stand up, to stand forth, and to know themselves.

Parents help their children to do this in only one way: by demonstrating it as they relate to their parents, spouse, children, and society. They teach independence of thought and action, self-responsibility, and clarity of thought, word and deed.

The most elegant relationship in the world is when the role of parent and child is dropped, and real friendship develops. It’s rare, but life-changing.

To teach your ‘kids’ to...

Stand up [shorthand for being self-responsible]. Teach your children to say: “I accept that everything going on inside of me [thoughts and feelings] is caused or chosen by me—for example, no one makes me angry—I choose anger in response to how I perceive life.

I accept that I am totally responsible for my choice of behaviour. And I accept total responsibility for the consequences of my actions, repeating actions, which work, and changing those that don’t.”

Stand forth [shorthand for making a difference in the world by being who I am]. Encourage thought patterns such as the following in your children: “I am exactly who I am, not who others want me to be, not the politically correct version, but me, in all my uniqueness and realised potential.”

Know yourself [shorthand for the only job any of us have—to figure out who and how we are, and to act from there]. Encourage them to be on their own and not lean on you. They need to say: “I am not focused on who my parents, spouse or society wants me to be. I am discovering, through meditation, dialogue, and intention, who I am, at my core.”

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

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Wayne Allen
A retired psychotherapist, and the author of 5 books, Wayne's approach to writing, life, and living comes from his love of Zen. He teaches living in the now, and taking full responsibility for "how everything goes." Wayne emphasizes wholeness, peace, and clarity of thought. His books, resources and other writings are available at phoenixcentrepress.com

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