The problems and pitfalls of telling our adult children what to do

We do our best to keep our children from making mistakes but what happens when they are grown up?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 1:00pm

There’s a lot of talk recently about letting children fail so they can learn how to live. But what happens when you have adult “kids” and you’re a perennial parent like me?

It is our strongest instinct as parents to rescue our children. But we shouldn’t always do so, says author and teacher, Jessica Lahey in her recent, thoughtful book The Gift of Failure. Parents of growing children do them no favours by scooping them up from the playground of life to save them from every slip and fall. When our children are young, Lahey explains, they learn from failure so we must let them experience it rather than rush in to protect them from the consequences.

This is a concept I well knew in theory years ago when my son left his biology textbook in his locker at school one evening before a big exam.

But what happens when our growing children are grown?

If our young child falls off of a playground slide, his scraped knee heals. If our teenager doesn’t get accepted into the college of his choice, he’ll probably do well at another school.

But if we think our adult son is about to enter a disastrous marriage, our adult daughter is in a relationship harmful to her mental health or our son’s partying ways are spinning out of control, the stakes are much higher, aren’t they?

Lately my friends and I have been sharing our worries about our adult “kids.”

My friend’s 30-year-old daughter struggles in a tumultuous relationship with an unkind man. Upset and crying, the daughter calls my friend and says that despite how he acts, she really loves him and can’t part ways. Can’t she see, my friend wonders, that she is hurting herself by staying with him?

The 26-year-old son of another friend recently began his first post-graduate job at a big financial firm. He’s always been a model kid, dutiful and well-behaved, but suddenly has started to go out to bars with friends every night, partying till the wee hours and arriving late at work. He just received a warning notice from his boss. Can’t he see, she thinks, that he is messing up at a critical time?

And yet another friend’s 29-year-old son brought his girlfriend home to meet my friend and her husband. The girlfriend’s strongly controlling manner upsets my friend, as does her son’s changed behaviour. She thinks her son is about to announce his engagement. Should she tell her son she thinks that marriage to this woman would be a mistake?

Parents believe that we have clear (yet hardly objective) vision with our kids’ best interests in mind. That our kids are the ones with the big blind spots that prevent them from recognising bad choices. Surely if we point out to our adult “kids” what we know to be true, they will promptly turn to us and gratefully say, “Thanks, Mum and Dad, you are so right, I was so wrong. I will do exactly what you say and change my life!”

Not happening.

If I ever tried that, my adult kids would dismiss me as intrusive, give me the silent treatment or get angry and the carefully nurtured bonds of parent/adult “kid” communication would fray.

So does the “let them learn from their failures” concept apply even when our adult “kid” is poised to make a major life mistake with potentially painful consequences? Yes and no.

Yes: While they are adults, we are their perennial parents, and with great delicacy and respect, we still can tell our adult kids how we feel.

And no, we shouldn’t tell them what to do.

There’s a big difference between telling them what we feel and telling them what to do.

My friend with the daughter in the struggling relationship could tell her the next time she calls: “It makes me sad when you tell me your boyfriend says such nasty things to you.”

For the son whose job may be on the line: “I worry about your health when you talk about going out and drinking every night during the  week.”

Assuming we can limit our remarks to how we feel, might our parental comments prod our adult children to think things through and start on different paths?

As Jessica Lahey said, failure teaches a lesson. It breeds resiliency. Second chances. Growth.

Marriages don’t always work out. Young adults lose jobs. Mental health can improve or worsen and then improve again. Even when the stakes are so high, do we owe our adult “kids”– not just the littler ones – the right to make their own mistakes and learn from them?

Well, it’s complicated.