Getting Life: How do you parent young adults?

Published: Saturday, June 18 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Somewhere I got the idea that if I could just get my kids through high school and off to college (mission/work/marriage), the worst of my parenting challenges would be over. I don’t know where this ridiculous notion came from.

As hard as it is to parent through 2-year-olds’ tantrums, junior high awkwardness or adolescence with an attitude, the biggest parenting challenges may yet lie ahead: helping young adults negotiate the perils of deciding to go on a mission, coming home from a mission, getting married, getting unmarried, having kids, not having kids, finding jobs, not finding jobs, moving across the country or living back under your roof. While you’re at it, throw in a few spiritual doubts, perhaps some gender identity confusion, addictions and their treatment, financial woes, child-care needs, weird in-laws, mental breakdowns or loneliness.

And here’s the clincher: Your actual control seems to diminish in direct proportion to the number and severity of their challenges. These are adults who have a right to mess up their lives, mess up their children, fail at love, get fired or ruin their credit ratings if they so choose. Just like you did.

In the face of all of that, how much do you say? How much do you help? How much do you ignore? How much do you smile and confidently say, “You’ll figure it out,” while you secretly second-guess yourself (and less secretly second-guess your spouse)?

Sometimes it is tempting to just give up. After all, they are the only ones who can operate that whole TV-satellite-DVR-game console thing. They outstrip us in energy and physical stamina. They seamlessly maneuver car seats and strollers that look like they were designed by NASA. They are often astoundingly capable, faithful, resilient, resourceful, loving, wise, kind-hearted and strong, just when we feel particularly lacking in many such traits. What do we have to offer them? Maybe we should move to the Bahamas and let them figure out health care reform.

Even though I rely on my kids to manage my Facebook account and update my smartphone, I also know they still need and deserve my help navigating the world. Theirs will probably be the first generation in U.S. history not to outstrip their parents economically. Research suggests that if they follow current trends of marrying later and having fewer children, they will actually have a harder time making career and educational choices and will be less likely to be satisfied with their choices.

Whether or not they marry, seven out of 10 recent college grads will move back in with mom and dad, and they and their parents may wonder why they need so much help with housing, child care, job leads or graduate school subsidies. And parents and grown children must renegotiate when dishes should be done, who pays for groceries or how to discipline the 2-year-old.

So what’s a parent to do? Here are a few tips I’ve picked up from parents I admire and research I’ve seen:

Invest in relationships with young adults. Other people’s young adult offspring will often be more interested in how you navigated your 20s and 30s than your own children are. If you are there for those young adults, hopefully someone else will be there for yours.

Instead of telling young adults how to get what you think they should want, ask about their goals and dreams and help them map a path to get there. Let their dreams, not your dreams for them, guide conversations.

Trust them and let them know it. This doesn’t mean trusting that they will always make perfect choices. It means trusting that they can be resilient, God can be forgiving and life can be deeply meaningful even when it is hard.

Praise them for their efforts, not their gifts. Telling people how smart or talented they are can backfire, making them more afraid to take risks that might expose their ignorance. Researchers who instead praised people for hard work saw them stick with tasks longer, take on more challenges and find more enjoyment in their work.

Give up on pride and shame. Pretend someone else raised your children, their DNA came exclusively from strangers and nothing about them reflects either your failings or your strengths. You’ll have a better chance of developing unselfish empathy with their struggles and unselfish delight in their strengths.

If you help them economically, make your expectations clear up front if you want the money repaid or used in a certain way. Then turn the stewardship to them to manage the funds and learn from mistakes.

When you want to beat yourself up for your children’s struggles or your own parenting mistakes, stop. Let your kids see from your life that mistakes come with the territory, apologies aren’t humiliating, and that humor and responsibility are good bedfellows.

Pray and listen lots.

How do you parent young adults? What did your parents do that helped you? I’d love to hear.

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times best-seller "The Why of Work."

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