Resolutions for Parents of Grown Children

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So the New Year is here, and my email is full of messages offering help with keeping resolutions, or advice about what to do about resolutions already broken. But while detoxing, stress reduction, going to the gym and getting enough sleep are understandable life priorities (judging by the offers of advice coming my way), I find myself thinking a little bit about another kind of resolution — intrinsically more ambiguous, and intrinsically harder to track. I refer, of course, to the be-a-better-parent resolutions, which in my case have matured, along with my children, into be-a-better-parent-to-grown-up-children resolutions.

There is no wearable device out there (yet) which can track whether I am doing a decent job with the assignments that come with my own particular stage of life. I am, alas, no longer able to resolve to do a good job of being the daughter of my aging parents, because they’re gone, and I still find myself feeling unmoored, and occasionally even surprised, to be here without them.

But it’s also kind of surprising, though in a much happier spirit, to find myself the parent of grown children. Because general pediatrics tends to skew toward visits with younger children (there are a lot of checkups and immunizations in those first years of life), I am pretty regularly immersed in those issues of breast-feeding, infant sleep, toddler behavior, not to mention upper respiratory infections, diaper rashes and upset stomachs, which figured prominently in my personal life as well for all those years when my own children were young.

But as interesting and absorbing as young children and their issues always are (and to be a pediatrician, you have to enjoy revisiting all the most basic questions of eating and sleeping and peeing and pooping), it is also true that you spend a limited number of years as the parent of a young child, and then can look ahead to decades of life as the parent of a young and then not-so-young adult.

When I give pediatric advice to parents, there is always a certain sense of hypocrisy if it was advice that I myself was not consistently successful in following (couldn’t keep a regular schedule for love or money, never successfully put a child in time out, sneaked a borderline sick kid into day care every now and then — and those are just the ones I’m willing to admit to in public). But once your children are more or less grown up, you are by definition not asking the pediatrician for advice about them. You’re maybe asking your friends what to do — or quietly resolving not to do whatever your friends are doing.

So in that friendly spirit, I want to offer some resolutions for parents of grown children, which, like almost all resolutions for parents, will evaporate as soon as my children figure out new ways to test me. That’s the hard thing about family life: Everyone else is always changing the rules on you. Familial resolutions need to be made over and over again. That’s the great thing about family life: You get all those fresh starts.

And the special quality of be-a-better-parent resolutions, at any age, is that each contains within it an equal and opposite resolution, in which you realize the limits of conducting family life by rules and resolves, and find yourself swinging back on the great pendulum of life.

Resolution No. 1: Be as polite and uncritical as you would be with comparative strangers. I’ve been working on this one for years; it’s the one that encompasses the need to keep quiet about a child’s choice of attire or music or crush object, the way you would about a colleague’s. We are almost all of us able to refrain from needling the people we work with, the people we meet at parties, the people who ask us for directions on the street. It might not seem like a high bar to show that same level of fairly bland and often insincere courtesy toward children, instead of letting them know where there’s room for improvement, but it takes a lot of reminding and a lot of resolving.

Equal and opposite: Go ahead and be yourself every now and then; we’re all family here.

Resolution No. 2: Give grown-up children credit for being grown-up. They are more competent than you think. They manage perfectly well when you aren’t around. They solve problems, they manage their lives. If you seize on some convenient (and amusing) example of non — grown-up behavior (brought dirty laundry home, left the dirty dishes piled up on the counter), you are probably missing a plethora of quiet examples of a young adult navigating the world without making a big fuss about it.

Equal and opposite: Relish the fact that sometimes the whole point of coming home for grown-up kids is to stop being grown-up for a while.

Resolution No. 3: Don’t try to keep up too much of a good front; they’re old enough to know that their parents are human. Part of helping our children navigate adult life is often admitting things to them which we might have kept quieter when they were young: jobs are difficult and sometimes frustrating, long-term relationships have their ups and downs, parents are vulnerable and fallible and often confused, just like everyone else. The truth is, of course, that our children come to know us very well as they grow up, and they are unlikely to be shocked, or even mildly surprised, by our faults — but acknowledging those faults with an increasing degree of rueful honesty is a way of acknowledging our children as equals.

Equal and opposite: Don’t tell them what they don’t want to know.

Resolution No. 4: Don’t track them too closely. This one plays out in so many ways, from the message-me-that-you-got-home-safe requests to the less than subtle ways that I have tried to extract details of not only my own children’s health and well-being, but also the health and well-being of their friends and roommates. I tell myself that my motives are good, whether parental or pediatric, but the truth is, I would have deeply resented any such intrusiveness on the part of my own parents. When your children grow up, you should track less and let them tell you what they want to tell you.

Equal and opposite: Just tell them: Message me that you got home safe. I’m your mother. I won’t be able to go to sleep myself till I know you’re O.K.