My wife and I talk to our son Scott about every two weeks. Actually he’s been more chatty about his life over the phone from 800 miles away than from behind the closed door of his room during his senior year of high school! It was surprisingly sad when he first went off to college. We visited his empty room frequently. Sitting on the bed, we wondered how all those years went by so quickly when there were times we thought we wouldn’t make it through the day!
No one seems to talk about the quiet but significant fact that we parent our adult children much longer than those “developmental years” that hundreds of books focus on. Try standing in front of the child-care section in one of the giant book stores and look for help with the challenges that start with college and continue on for decades. There’s not much there.
Yet the issues we start to deal with suddenly make those early concerns seem almost trivial. Questions about relationships and career and their own families — questions that have such incredible impact on how they are REALLY going to live out their lives — not just the imaginary ones we had in our minds when we thought we were shaping their destinies at 5, 10 or even 15 years of age.
Okay, this phone call may not really be destiny-shaping but it certainly got our attention. “Mom, is it OK if Jennifer comes home with me during the break?” Jennifer has been his girlfriend since November. We’ve heard a lot about her and immediately felt pleased that Scott wanted us to meet her.
“Sure Scott, that sounds great.” We looked forward to a very new experience. Then, while preparing the guest room, it hit me. We suspected they had been sexually active. Despite attempts to talk more openly about sex in the past, we still found it difficult to do more than occasionally remind him about the importance of safe sex. Were Scott and Jennifer planning on having sex in our home?
My immediate reaction was “Absolutely not!” Then we began to struggle with a number of issues.
We didn’t and couldn’t prevent their sexual relationship at school. Is it hypocritical to insist on no sex while they are here? What if they want to share a room? What if they simply sneak off together each night regardless of having Jennifer in the guest room? Then we started remembering our own days at college. Ouch. We did some things we’ve never told the kids about. What rules?! Didn’t we turn out OK? Do we expect something different from our children? I thought we’d gotten past the tough part.
Baby Boomers parenting adult children. On the one hand, we have an advantage. There is less of a gap between our youth and our children’s lives than we experienced with our own parents. At least it can be an advantage. It depends on how you feel about what happened and whether it allowed you to build a closer relationship along the way. But, it can work against you if you assume too much (that is, if you think you know what your child needs and wants simply based on your own memories instead of really listening).
Scott’s college life has not been a reincarnation of the late ’60s-early ’70s. College’s have reinvented themselves again, increasingly establishing more rules after a few decades of constantly increasing student freedom. But, not all was lost – sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are still woven into the fabric of college life.
Basic parenting skills still apply. What worked during the adolescent years at home? Getting issues out on the table and learning good negotiation skills. Not being afraid to discuss tough topics but showing a respect for the ideas of your budding adult child. Striving for win-win solutions, instead of being overly authoritarian or easily intimidated. Well, surprise, surprise, the same principles still apply. The key change is learning to treat your adult child with a little more emphasis on the “adult” side and seeing yourself increasingly as a guide rather than a controller. Nevertheless, there are still times when a firm reply is needed.
It is our home and we do have a responsibility for what happens here. We called Scott and broached the issue because we didn’t want the kids to arrive with erroneous expectations and have Jennifer caught in an uncomfortable family conflict on her first visit. Scott surprised us by saying he didn’t expect we would allow them to share a bedroom. Relief! But we avoided any further discussion of what might happen between the two of them. That was wrong. It’s still so hard to discuss sex. We hoped the kids would be discreet and if not, then we would say something.
We were also surprised to realize our post-modern thinking quickly went down the drain. Double-standards live. This was a young woman coming to our house as a guest and we wanted to talk to her parents about the visit. We felt a sense of responsibility for having someone’s daughter staying in our home. We doubted if we would have done the same if it were a male guest of our daughter.
Scott resisted strongly at first because Jennifer’s parents were divorced and we were likely to get caught in some of the continued tensions between her parents. In fact, that was part of why she wanted to come here for the week, to escape from those tensions. Since Scott had shared Jennifer’s concerns about this, we asked to talk with her directly and that helped immensely. She explained a little about the problems at home and seemed reassured that we were sensitive and understanding. It was decided that we would only talk to her mother since Jennifer primarily lived with her and they had a good relationship.
Jennifer’s mom was very pleased that we called. We said we wanted to “meet” since her daughter would be staying at our house. We never actually raised the question of sleeping arrangements or rules about sex.
Jennifer’s mother had met Scott on a visit to the college and told us she thought he was such a “nice young man” that we had to be good parents. So she was very comfortable with Jennifer coming to visit us, even though she would miss not having her home for the vacation. The positive mood of our conversation left us much more relaxed about the situation.
We were fortunate not to encounter a parent who was expressing concerns about her daughter’s welfare. That might have left us uncertain about how to handle the visit. This way we just set up the guest room for Jennifer and treated the children like young adults. Scott’s willingness to support our wish to talk to Jennifer and her mother made it easier to do that. If he had fought us on that issue, we might have ended up not agreeing to the visit.
Some final thoughts. Naturally, it’s easier to work out these new challenges if the groundwork has been laid during the years at home. But it is important, especially when those years might have had more conflict than most, to realize that when your child goes off to college, significant changes can begin to take place. As a parent, you must always be adapting to the different stages of your child’s life. Allow room for change, always try to listen first and respond second, and keep practicing good negotiation skills.
For Further Reading…
Get Out of My Life But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?, by A. Wolf, The Noonday Press, 1991.
Getting To Yes, by R. Fisher, W. Ury, and B. Patton, Penguin Books, 1991, 2nd Ed.
The Six Stages of Parenthood, by Ellen Galinsky, Addison-Wesley, 1987.