by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
“Five … four … three … two … one … we have lift-off.” How else can we describe it?
You’ve got two suitcases under your arm and you’re struggling up the stairs in your daughter’s new dormitory. She’s already negotiated for the bottom bunk. Down the hallway, someone has cranked up their newly installed stereo. On the way in, you almost got beaned by an errant Frisbee. This will be home for the girl who used to sleep under your roof and eat in your kitchen.
Or maybe you’re under the sink in your son’s apartment. He has a new job and a place closer to work. It’s an old place, but the rent is cheap, and it doesn’t clash with his garage-sale couches, chairs and end tables. Lately, the sink has been backing up. The landlord’s out of town, so your son gave you a call and, of course, you stopped by.
Or you’re standing a little uncomfortably, decked out in a tuxedo for only the third time in your life. In the crook of your arm rests the hand of the sweetest girl God ever created. You wish her hand could stay there forever. But then you hear, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” and the words echo in your head for a few seconds. You breathe deeply and swallow hard. “Her mother and I do.”
And so you launch your children out into their own lives. It’s hard to let go, but you know it’s inevitable. You’ve worked toward this launching for eighteen, nineteen, or twenty-two years. This is where their first baby steps were taking them all along.
TRACK YOUR CHILD
Remember the first manned American space flight? NASA didn’t simply give Alan Sheppard, Jr. the keys to the Mercury Atlas rocket, wish him luck, and hope he’d send back some good pictures of the earth. Instead, they pro-actively launched him into space, tracked him carefully throughout his flight, and welcomed him after splash down. It was a team effort.
In the same way, our grown children are ready to launch. We have done our best to equip them with the skills of independent living. As they blast off to discover and conquer new, unexplored territory, we fathers have an active role in tracking their progress.
Like Mission Control, a father tracks his children’s development and knows about their world. You need to know when to step in and help, how not to cause embarrassment, what dangers they are susceptible to, and how to help them reach their goals and dreams. In particular, you track your child’s development. Is he moving successfully into adulthood? Does she have a healthy self-image? Is he adopting a sensible, moral lifestyle?
You look for progress in work: Is she identifying a career which will meet her needs and bring her satisfaction? Does her job have advancement opportunities? Has she acquired the skills she will need to accomplish her goals?
You look at relationships: Does he have a clear and wise picture of what he wants in a wife? Are he and his girlfriend growing in their commitment to one another? Is this young married couple developing good patterns of communication?
You look, as you have all along, at their progress in school: Are they doing well in classes? Have they developed good study habits? Have they settled on a major that will work for them?
But keep in mind that the purpose of tracking an adult child is not to look over his shoulder or exert control over his life. If you’re expecting to find out what time he got home on Saturday night, what she wore on her last date, whether he’s getting to work on time, or whether she’s changing the oil in her car every 3,000 miles, you’re going too far-and probably doing damage to the relationship. Keep asking yourself, What’s my motivation? Control? Fear? Ideally, your motivation should be to encourage your adult children in their pursuits, assist them when necessary, and build stronger relationships.
BE A SUPPLY & SUPPORT STATION
Every sensible pioneer-whether in outer space or on a mountain peak-maintains connections to his supply system. You want to continue supporting your child in tangible ways, and your child still needs it. But how much is appropriate and healthy to give? Give some thought to at least these three areas:
Vocational establishment. You can help your child with educational and career decisions, but vocational support could also mean taking a more active role. Historically, children learned marketable skills in the family business. Today, it’s more common for a father to use his business contacts to help his son or daughter find opportunities for a job. Landing and keeping the job is the child’s responsibility; gathering leads for one is certainly an area in which a father can offer help.
Marriage. Young adults typically have many questions as they start thinking about finding the right person to marry. Remember that talk you had long ago about the birds and bees? This time it’s cows and chickens-domestic animals. Give your child a realistic picture of marriage and the everyday, non-romanticized qualities he can look for in a spouse that will make their lifetime commitment work. You can help prepare him to make wise decisions in this area.
After he is married, encourage that young couple every way you can. Be available if he asks for your advice, but make sure he knows that his primary loyalty and responsibility is to his spouse now, not to you. Tell him you’ll always support and love him, but you’ll also respect the importance of his marriage relationship and not poke your nose where it doesn’t belong.
Financial support. This is often the most difficult area. A college student has tuition to pay. Do you help? If so, how much? Your son’s car needs repairs so he can get to work. Do you help? If so, how much? There are union fees, a down payment on a car or home, utility bills, a chance to go to graduate school in Rome, an engagement ring. How much is right and healthy?
Instead of talking about specific amounts, we need to keep before us the ultimate goal of our supply and support-to help our young adult children more fully establish their independence.
Will a capital investment now encourage more independence later? If so, then your support makes for a wise investment. But there are other questions to ask: Is my financial support excusing my child from the consequences of his own bad decisions? Am I shielding her from the tough facts-and the necessary lessons-of the adult world? Am I creating a dependence which could hinder her from making it on her own?
If your child becomes more and more dependent on your gifts rather than more independent as a result of your gifts, then you need to reconsider your approach. You don’t necessarily need to cut it off, you simply need to make wiser investments which will yield the return you want: a functioning, independent adult child.
WHEN ADULT CHILDREN STRUGGLE
No matter how well you’ve raised your children, there are no guarantees that they’ll make wise choices. They may marry unwisely; they may divorce; they may walk out on commitments; they may move back in with you and sit around the house all day; he may use drugs; she may become a single mother; he may lead a promiscuous lifestyle; she may float from job to job; he may enroll in college and then skip his classes or quit altogether.
Your first thought may be, “What did I do wrong?” It’s a valid question. It may be necessary to ask your child’s forgiveness for something you’ve done as a father, and allow him to express his frustration or anger toward you. Those exchanges will often result in a stronger relationship.
But beating yourself up over your child’s mistakes is usually counterproductive. You are not ultimately responsible for his actions. It isn’t your role to save him from difficulty and pain, but rather to love him through the hard times. Your child needs to know that, no matter how bad things get, you’ll always be his biggest cheerleader, and your door will always be open.
If he has just gone through a divorce, dropped out of school or lost a job, help him set goals that will re-establish his independence. If he needs help from you, make sure he understands the limits of that help and his own responsibilities. For example, if he wants to come back and live at home, you might have him pay for his room and board. If he needs a loan, agree on a plan for repayment.
Through it all, be flexible. Plans fall through; relationships change. He may quickly straighten things out or keep struggling with bad choices. Be willing to adjust and re-evaluate the situation if he changes his mind, he can’t live up to the goals he has set, or other factors complicate things even more.
Your adult child still needs-and will always need-a regular diet of acceptance and affirmation. But he also needs to know that your goal is not to make his life easy. That doesn’t mean you love him any less, but that your love means you’re doing what’s best for him.
- Engage your child in a discussion about something important to her. Set your mind to listening carefully and respecting her point of view, even if it goes against your approach.
- Take the initiative in getting together with your child. Call your daughter and invite her to lunch; call your son and offer to help with a project he’s working on.
- Look for one of your son’s interests that you might like to share: jazz music, mountain biking, etc.
- Be discerning about when your child would want you around and when he might not.
- Tell your child, “I love you,” even if you haven’t in a long time.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of regular letters and phone calls.
- Plan visits to coincide with significant events or transitions: award ceremonies, promotions, performances, local festivals, Mother’s Day, etc.
- Make it known that your house is always open to your child for a meal, laundry, or just hanging out.
- Be willing to help your child out of a tough situation without lecturing her.